1969 . . . the cusp of a new Golden Age . . . the era of ‘free love’, the Flower children, and Where Do You Go To My Lovely.
By RAY CONNOLLY
Abridged by Lasha Darkmoon
(Includes one of the most unforgettable hit songs of the 1960s)
PETER SARSTEDT, defined by one classic song released in 1969; he died a few weeks ago at the age of 75.
Many popular songs catch the feeling of the time. That’s why they become popular. But few songs are able to freeze that moment to the extent that nearly half a century after we first heard it we can sing along to the lyrics.
That was what Peter Sarstedt, who died on 8 January, aged 75, achieved with his No 1 smash Where Do You Go To (My Lovely). And what a song! Sounding unlike anything else that was around in 1969, it topped the charts all over Europe and in Australia, and was a hit even in Japan.
Just to hear that opening French-sounding accordion, at the very height of the Sixties, should have condemned it to everlasting obscurity. But the very opposite happened. It touched an international nerve. Because Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) was more than a song. It was a story, and a mystery. Who was this beautiful woman that Sarstedt was singing about? Was she real?
Was she based on someone we all felt we knew, a film star such as Sophia Loren, perhaps, or Nina Van Pallandt from the singing duo Nina and Frederik? She wasn’t. Sarstedt never met either.
Or was she an ex-lover who had dumped him, and was the song a litany of clues about her? Surely it couldn’t simply be a total piece of musical fiction?
Sarstedt had come up with the idea busking in Copenhagen in 1966. And, while living in a student hostel, in just a few minutes he jotted the lyrics down to create a string of images of a beautiful fantasy girl. Except that she wasn’t a complete fantasy. His girlfriend at the time (and later his first wife) was a very beautiful, blonde Danish student called Anita Atke. And, with her Danish accent, she may well have sounded a little bit to him like Marlene Dietrich.
ANITA ATKE (pictured), the beautiful Danish blonde who inspired Peter Sarstedt to write his iconic 1969 classic song Where Do You Go To My Lovely. She became his first wife.
Anita looked the sort of girl to give any writer inspiration — although the legacy of Sarstedt’s triumph was far from the “passport to riches and stardom” most would imagine.
What is striking about the song is the stream of references to glamorous people and locations which infuse it with such a flavour of adventure and sophistication.
LD: It is indeed the evocative name-dropping that give Sarsted’s song its aura of magic—a magic inseparable from money, exotic locations, and the glittering high life of the Beautiful People. In the words of Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn, this song “has the ability of all great music to transport you back to a specific time and place.”
Whether Anita danced like French ballet dancer Zizi Jeanmaire—as the girl in the song does—is unlikely, but she probably did look pretty good on the dance floor.
What is even more unlikely is that her clothes were made by Parisian designer Pierre Balmain. But Sarstedt had met Anita in Paris when he’d been playing on the streets there, so the connection with Paris and her would have been firmly in his head.
Sticking with his image of Paris as the city of romance it’s unlikely, but not impossible, that Anita would have lived “in a fancy apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Michel”—for the Sorbonne, where the girl in the song got her “qualifications”, is nearby on Paris’s Left Bank. Was Anita doing a summer course there when they met, we might wonder.
And did she have Rolling Stones albums? Lots of other girl students in Paris would have had them, even if she hadn’t — the Stones always being somehow more chic to the French than the homelier Beatles. It was an inspired line, giving the girl a free-living, sexy allure that The Beatles never suggested.
If Danish Anita was the initial spark, by the time the song was finished, she had evolved into Marie-Claire, named after the French women’s magazine which then, as now, always had a beautiful girl on the cover.
No longer a student, she had become a rich jet-setter, with a career built on her beauty. A habituee of the gossip columns with perhaps a capricious nature, she steals a painting from Picasso, whom she probably knows from holidaying in Juan-les-Pins on the Riviera where the artist lived.
That, of course, would be where she wore her “carefully designed topless swimsuit”, showing once again what a free-spirit she was. Not every girl had the bravery to go without a bra on the beach in the Sixties.
A “friend of a friend” of French singing star Sacha Distel (who, incidentally, told Sarstedt he was thrilled to be mentioned in the song), she is also given a racehorse for Christmas by the super-rich Aga Khan—”for a laugh”.
To say this girl is well-connected would be something of an understatement. But there are always questions about her.
“Where do you go to my lovely, when you’re alone in your bed,” sang Sarstedt between the verses, relentlessly building the mystery about her. “Tell me the thoughts that surround you, I want to look inside your head.”
Who exactly is this girl, we now want to know. The reveal comes at the end of the song. The singer remembers her from before her fame and wealth when they were both “children begging in rags” on the back streets of Naples, both “touched with a burning ambition”, but scarred for life by their childhood poverty.
She spends her rich life trying to forget it. But he knows that “alone in her bed” she can’t, because he “can look inside” her head.
As a song it might have been mocked and parodied by some, but for me, Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) was a brilliant piece of songwriting by Sarstedt. To the writer, it wasn’t “special”. But its portrayal of a model who drinks Napoleon brandy but never gets her lips wet could have been based on any of a number of dazzling beauties then, the models who represented a new breed of international celebrity.
Peter Sarstedt—who was born in India and came to Britain with his family when he was 13—continued to perform his best-known song for decades, and referred to it as his pension plan. Indeed, there were reports of Sarstedt earning £60,000-a-year royalties from it.
However, the song did not enable him to live like a millionaire. As he explained, his then record company, EMI Music, owned the rights—while copyright is now with Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
He told one interviewer: “They decide whether it’s used or not. Actually they’re very jealous of it. It’s like their family silver which they keep on a shelf and will not let out—certainly not for advertising—and probably won’t until I’m dead, when the floodgates will open.”
Sarstedt was not part of the jet-set like Marie-Claire. He never became super-rich as a result of his song’s success, awarded the title of the Best Song of 1969. Nor did he ever write another song that gripped the public imagination.
“Marie-Claire was meant to be a generic European girl,” Sarsted said, “but if she was based on anybody, it was my Danish girlfriend. I’d been introduced to her in Paris in the summer of 1966 and it was love at first sight. She watched as I composed because I was in her room most of the time.
“We got married in 1969 and divorced in 1974. But I still see her. We have a daughter, Anna, and son, Daniel.” Anita went on to marry a surgeon, while she became a dentist and has now returned to live in Denmark. “She still claims the song is about her,” Sarstedt said. “And she could be right.”
Where Do You Go To My Lovely was more than a hit. It was a story and a song that captured the hearts of millions. Anyone who lived through the 1960s will live again when listening to these magical sounds of a lost golden age.