To close out this presidential election in the twilight of the Fifth Republic, it seems appropriate to offer a French song. I'm partial to Charles Trenet ("La Mer", "Que reste-t-il de nos amours?" and not forgetting "Boum!", which turns up in the most surprising place in the Bond film Skyfall). And my book A Song For The Season includes perhaps the greatest French contribution to the American songbook, "Autumn Leaves", as well as "Roses Of Picardy", which is an English tune but has two entirely separate French lyrics. And if, on this particular election day, you're in the mood for something especially Gallicly elegaic, please see my thoughts on "(Ah, The Apple Trees) When The World Was Young".
Nevertheless, to inaugurate this most curious French presidency and in tribute to its author (who died a couple of months ago), I thought I'd go with a British song. It qualifies because (a) it has an accordion and (b) its lyrics are a virtual time capsule of an entire sensibility:
You talk like Marlene Dietrich
And you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire
Your clothes are all made by Balmain
And there's diamonds and pearls in your hair - yes, there are...
In 1969, it was the Number One hit in Britain and much of the rest of the world (apart from America) - a freak pop hit entirely at odds with anything else going on in the Hit Parade and insistently memorable right down to the strange forced laugh in the sixth verse. The Number One singles that preceded and succeeded it are in the vernacular of the day - "(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice" (Amen Corner) and "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" (Marvin Gaye) - pure Sixties pop for better or worse. And yet four-and-a-half decades later it's "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?", a wacky one-off Eurowaltz heavy on the accordion, that skewers with absolute precision the cultural moment: its references - from Dietrich, Jeanmaire and Balmain in that opening verse alone - are more or less an A-Z of the Eurozeitgeist. The fellow who wrote it had never written anything like it before, and never wrote anything like it again, but in one song he managed to conjure the spirit of the age.
Even the Americans caught up to it eventually. In 1969, it got to big hit sound Number 70 on the Billboard Hot 100. Four decades later, Wes Anderson made "Where Do You Go To?" a big part of his short film Hotel Chevalier, the prologue to The Darjeeling Limited, in which it also features. TourĂ©, the soi-disant hip music guy on public radio (if that's not a contradiction in terms), raved about it: "A more mellifluous and melancholic vision of friendship, loss and intimacy coveted I've never heard," he decreed. Those who've lived with the song for the previous 40 years will either agree - or regard it as one of the most irritating pains in the neck ever to come out of the British pop charts.
It was written in 1966 by Peter Sarstedt, one-third of the Sarstedt brothers. Who? Hey, don't laugh. The oldest, Richard Sarstedt, had a Number One hit in 1961 with "Well, I Ask You" under the name "Eden Kane". When the middle brother Peter took "Where Do You Go To?" to the top of the hit parade seven and a half years later, it was the first time a brace of siblings had ever had separate solo Number One records. Donny Osmond and Little Jimmy repeated the trick in the early Seventies. You might point to Paul McCartney of the Beatles and his brother Mike McGear of the Scaffold, who got to Number One with "Lily The Pink" just a few weeks before Peter Sarstedt. But the British chartologists Tim and Jo Rice and Paul Gambaccini insist that the Macca boys only got to the top as part of groups. The Sarstedt lads did it on their own, one under a pseudonym, the other under the family name. Another seven years passed, and the third Sarstedt combined his older brothers' strategies: Clive Sarstedt kept the family moniker but modified his first name, and as "Robin Sarstedt" had a pop smash with "My Resistance Is Low", a cover version of an early Fifties hit by Hoagy Carmichael (composer of our Song of the Week #35, "Ole Buttermilk Sky"). I say "cover version" but it was more like karaoke: Robin Sarstedt took the arrangement Gordon Jenkins made for Hoagy and reduplicated it in every particular. But it paid off big time.
The songwriting talent in the family was Peter. And one day in 1966 he sat down to write a biographical portrait set to a sidewalk-cafe waltz-time accompaniment. It was the story of a type - the chic Continentale who knows everybody and moves in all the right circles. What does she do? Does she act? Does she sing? Who cares? She just has to be. So she talks like Marlene Dietrich, the husky Teuton, and she dances like Zizi Jeanmaire, the great French ballerina, and her clothes are all made by Pierre Balmain, the Paris couturier. That'd be enough for most of us. But Peter Sarstedt's only warming up:
You live in a fancy apartment
Off the Boulevard Saint-Michel
Where you keep your Rolling Stones records
And a friend of Sacha Distel - yes, you do...
The Boul'Mich is one totally cool address, the tree-lined Haussmann boulevard that divides the fifth from the sixth arrondissement. And this gal not only has hip records from England (this is early Rolling Stones, remember) but a friend of Sacha Distel, M Distel being not only the composer of "La belle vie" ("The Good Life", en anglais) but a bona fide Europop star (in Britain, it was Sacha who had the hit version of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head"). "Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?" is a very simple tune: in the verse "Where you keep your Rol-ling" is all the same note, and in the chorus "Where do you go to" is all the same note as "Where you keep your Rol-ling..." I sang the song myself in a somewhat spooky version a year or two back, and I found myself fighting the urge to put the title "Where" on a different note, just to liven things up. But what do I know? That would probably have killed the sales. And somehow the tune is just interesting enough to tell the story, and with one very memorable structural tic. To break up the even lines of the folk-song verse format, Sarstedt has a little tag at the end of every quatrain:
There's diamonds and pearls in your hair - yes, there are...
A friend of Sacha Distel - yes, you do...
It's a potentially very annoying hook, but it works very well, and helps make the song sound French - it's basically that seesawing "a-haugh-e-haugh" sound that the English do to mimic the French, but with words put to it. A-G-A: "Yes, there are", "Yes, you do." And, after all these bright specifics, Sarstedt gets to the point with a killer chorus:
Where Do You Go To, My Lovely
When you're alone in your bed?
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head - yes, I do...
What a nifty idea. Beautiful people appear fully formed. One minute, you're a nobody. The next, you're wearing Balmain and jetsetting to parties. But at evening's end where do you go to? As you're lying there, do images of your non-glittering past, the humble childhood and the first crummy jobs, come swimming up into your head unbidden? It's a nice thought - even if, from time to time, it reminds me of a line Jack Jones liked to use in his stage act: "Whenever this whole crazy phony showbusiness scene gets too much for me and I need to connect with my roots and get back to what's real, I return to the small town where I grew up - Hollywood." (Which is true: his dad was Alan Jones, from the Marx Brothers movies.)
In a way, the song is a kind of Continental inversion of "The Lady Is A Tramp". In the Rodgers & Hart song, the gal does everything wrong in smart-set terms ("she gets too hungry for dinner at eight"), whereas this one has an unerring instinct for the right thing in the right circles:
I've seen all your qualifications
You got from the Sorbonne
And the painting you stole from Picasso
Your loveliness goes on and on - yes, it does...
Isn't that a droll way of putting it? She's round at Pablo's place, and she's so elegant and beautiful she can get away with nicking some unframed doodle leaning against a table leg in his studio, and he's so charmed he pretends not to notice. Judging from his preference for singing "the" as "thee" - "thee Sorbonne", "thee jet set" - Peter Sarstedt is trying vaguely to sing as if English is his second language. But he's not yet ready to show his hand, and so he gives us a sense of the changing seasons in his subject's life:
When you go on your summer vacation
You go to Juan-les-Pins
With your carefully designed topless swimsuit
You get an even suntan on your back and on your legs
And when the snow falls you're found in Saint Moritz
With the others of the jet set
And you sip your Napoleon Brandy
But you never get your lips wet - no, you don't...
Sarstedt was a neophyte when he wrote this song, but he knew enough to start varying that little "yes, there are/yes, you do/yes, it does" tag before it becomes boring. I always liked the "on your back and on your legs" line, but the coup-de-grĂ˘ce is the next verse:
Your name is heard in high places
You know the Aga Khan
He sent you a racehorse for Christmas
And you keep it just for fun, for a laugh, a-ha-ha-ha...
If the song had had nothing else going for it, that would have been enough to make it unforgettable. I was on a BBC show in the Nineties with a comedy double act who were doing some topical routine about something or other. And the one guy does his little riff and ends it with the words "for a laugh", and the other guy just went "a-ha-ha-ha". And the room fell about: Everyone in the studio got it, loved it, roared their heads off.
And now, having painted the scene in very vivid colors, it's time for Sarstedt to take the story back to its monochrome origins:
I remember the back streets of Naples
Two children begging in rags
Both touched with a burning ambition
To shake off their lowly-born tags...
Two kids in a slum. She's one, and he's the other. And she's moved on, and he can never be part of her life again:
So look into my face, Marie-Claire
And remember just who you are
Then go and forget me forever...
As with Carly Simon's "You're So Vain (You prob'ly think this song is about you)", there was much speculation as to who "Marie-Claire" really was. It was said that the song was about Sophia Loren, who was abandoned as a child and grew up on "the back streets of Naples". Others said no, no, don't get hung up on the Neapolitan details, it's really about Nina van Pallandt (one half of the Danish duo Nina & Frederik). Only Peter Sarstedt knew the truth. Where did he go to with his lovely when he's alone? If you got to look inside his head, what would you see? Who exactly would his muse, the girl dressed by Balmain and sipping her Napoleon Brandy, turn out to be? Sarstedt supposedly wrote the song in Copenhagen in 1966, but was thinking of a girl he'd met in Vienna the previous year, and had fallen in love with. So where is she now? Ah, well. She'd apparently died in a fire in some hotel she was staying in. Or so the composer said for decades. Eight years ago, he finally came clean, to the gossip columnist of The Daily Express:
"It's funny how, if you tell a lie, these things come back to haunt you, " he said. "I started the rumor about the girl who died in a fire, but it's completely untrue. I made that up because I was under pressure to come up with an explanation. It isn't about Sophia Loren, although I would have thought about her because she was very famous and she's in the song in spirit.
"Nina van Pallandt has nothing to do with it. Marie-Claire was meant to be a generic European girl but if she was based on anybody it was my then girlfriend Anita Atke. I had been introduced by a fellow busker when Anita was studying in Paris in the summer of '66 and it was love at first sight. She watched as I composed because I was in her room most of the time, so she knows things about me then that others don't. We married in 1969 and divorced in 1974..."
Anita is now a dentist in Copenhagen. Peter Sarstedt spent half-a-century singing about wanting to look inside her head. And for most of that time Anita has made a living by looking inside yours.
He's right, though. It's about "a generic European girl" - maybe Danish, maybe Swedish, maybe French, maybe Italian. Doesn't really matter, not if you're busking in Paris in the summer of '66. In 1997, for his album England's Lane, Sarstedt wrote a sequel, "Last Of The Breed", catching up with Marie-Claire all these years later. He worked hard to come up with a similar array of cultural allusions: Instead of Marlene Dietrich, there's Isabella Rossellini. Instead of Zizi Jeanmaire, there's Nureyev and les Ballets Russes. Balmain's out, John Galliano's in. Bye bye St Moritz and Juan-les-Pins, hello Gstaad and Palm Beach. But lightning doesn't strike twice, and what came so effortlessly in 1966 seems very labored 30 years later. The moment passes: Balmain is bankrupt, Sacha Distel died, the Aga Khan got very boring. "Where Do You Go To?" is a snapshot of its time, and such a good one that it will endure a while. There are all kinds of weird cover versions by everyone from Right Said Fred to the Finnish rocker Hector. But I still like Peter Sarstedt's original and I felt a little pang upon hearing of his death at the beginning of the year.
To some, the jangle of the pseudo-Continental accordion will always signal the opening of a cheesy novelty number. For others, it evokes a long lost summer in a long lost France. It's such an unusual point of view for a pop song: the glamorous life viewed by a childhood friend left far behind. The pop culture allusions are deft and glib and hugely enjoyable. And the "yes, you do"/"a-ha-ha-ha" gives it the throwaway feel of a young man about Paris enjoying a cafĂ© au lait at a table on the sidewalk in the Latin Quarter and strumming his guitar. It's very artfully artless. And at the end, when the violin creeps under and we're back to the back streets of Naples, Sarstedt is actually pondering a rather profound question: What is the essence of identity, and does it survive?
I know where you go to, my lovely
When you're alone in your bed
I know the thoughts that surround you
'Cause I can look inside your head.
~There's more French music - "La Vie en rose" and "Sous le ciel de Paris" - elsewhere on Steyn's Song of the Week, this time performed live by the great Patsy Gallant. If you enjoy our live-music editions of Song of the Week, with great songs and Grammy-, Oscar- and Tony-winning guests, please consider supporting their ongoing production via membership in The Mark Steyn Club.