267. Peter Sarstedt – Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? (1969)

March 1969 was often cold and wet. Two days in, Concorde completed its 27-minute maiden flight. 4 March saw Ronnie and Reggie Kray both found guilty of murder (Ronnie of George Cornell, Reggie of Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie). The next day, they were sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommended minimum of 30 years. The notorious twins’ gangland reign of London was over.

On 7 March the Queen opened the Victoria line on the London Underground. Running between Brixton and Walthamstow Central, it was the first entirely new line for 50 years.

One of the worst lifeboat disasters in British history occurred on 17 March when the Longhope from Orkney was lost, killing all eight crew members. Two days later the 385-metre-tall Emley Moor television mast collapsed due to icing.

Ruling the charts from the end of February and for most of March was singer-songwriter Peter Sarstedt, younger brother of Richard, better known as Eden Kane, who had a number 1 in 1961 with Well I Ask You.

Sarstedt was born in Delhi, India in December 1941. One of his younger brothers, Clive (stage name Robin) also enjoyed chart action in 1976. The Sarstedt’s musicality stemmed from their parents, both of whom were classically-trained. Following his father’s death in 1954, the family moved to South London.

The three Sarstedts, all guitarists, became part of a skiffle group called the Fabulous Five. They performed at church halls and coffee bars around Croydon before becoming a beat group known as the Saints, with Richard becoming the singer. Peter switched to bass when Richard became Eden Kane, and played in his backing group until 1965, when Kane moved to Australia.

And so Peter Sarstedt briefly emigrated to Copenhagen, changed his stage name to Peter Lincoln and began writing folk songs. He quickly reverted to his real name, and in 1968 he signed a deal with United Artists.

His first single I Am a Cathedral was a failure, and his label didn’t expect the follow-up to fare any better when presented with Where Do You Go To (My Lovely?). They complained it was too long (the album version is even longer), had only three instruments (one of which was an accordion), and no drums. It’s likely Sarstedt had no intention of this becoming a hit single, to be fair. He was performing in folk clubs, and needed some lengthier material.

How did this waltz-time ballad, filled with references to Gallic culture, make it to number 1 and remain there for a month? I’m scratching my head and can only think it’s exactly those references that did it. Holidays abroad were still a luxury in 1969, and perhaps, like Albatross, the idea of heading off to sunnier climes appealed to a cold, rain-sodden British public. And maybe owners of this record felt smug and sophisticated?

John Peel hated this song, calling it ‘self-satisfied’, ‘terrible’ and ‘hideous’, and he certainly wasn’t the only detractor there’s been. But I can actually enjoy it. I can definitely take his points on board, but I feel it’s so smug, it’s actually enjoyable.

Sarstedt tells the story of Marie-Claire, who grew up in poverty in Naples, and her friend (future lover?), the person singing the song, is basically winding her up about the fact that she can be a beautiful socialite now she’s in her twenties, she can wear expensive jewellery and clothes, she can take expensive holidays, she can have the Aga Khan buy her racehorses, etc, but she can’t escape her past, because he knows how fucked up she is when she’s alone in her bed. Pretty mean-spirited really.

Perhaps she’s left him behind and he feels hard done by, perhaps she fucked him over, perhaps she’s become a horrible, arrogant posh girl… but we’re not told any of this, so the narrator comes across as a pretty nasty piece of work

But like I said, I do enjoy Where Do You Go To (My Lovely?). Me and one of my housemates at university used to listen to a compilation of 60s number 1s, and when this came on, we used to sing little insults at the end of each verse, as though Sartedt’s resentment became a little, let’s say, more basic as his frustration grew, for example: ‘Your clothes are all made by Balmain/And there’s diamonds and pearls in your hair, yes there are/You fucking twat’. Try it! Once you do, there’s no going back, though. Perhaps if John Peel had done similar, he could have learned to appreciate it.

In a 2009 interview with The Daily Express, Sarstedt revealed Marie-Claire was not based on Sophia Loren, which was a popular misconception, but his ex-wife, who had become a dentist in Copenhagen. As writer Mark Steyn brilliantly put it, ‘Peter Sarstedt has spent 40 years singing about wanting to look inside her head. And for most of that time Anita has made a living by looking inside yours.’

Where Do You Go To (My Lovely?) enjoyed success throughout Europe, as well as Australia and Japan, but failed in the US. Sarstedt’s number 1 even shared the Ivor Novello award for best song of 1969 with David Bowie’s Space Oddity. However, apart from the follow-up Frozen Orange Juice and his eponymous debut LP, he had no further chart fame.

During the 70s he teamed up with his brothers again for the 1973 album Worlds Apart Together. He spent much of the 80s on the Solid Silver 60s nostalgia tour. In 1997 he released the album England’s Lane, which featured his brothers one last time, and it also included a sequel to Marie-Claire’s story, The Last of the Breed, which featured a more sympathetic chorus: ‘You keep your secrets inside Marie-Claire/What right have the paparazzi to pry?/No-one’s interested in knowing the truth/But they’ll always believe in a lie’.

There were more albums in the 21st century, including On Song in 2006. The following year, Where Do You Go To (My Lovely?) enjoyed a brief renaissance thanks to it featuring in the Wes Anderson movie The Darjeeling Limited.

2010 saw the singer-songwriter perform for the last time. In 2013 he released his final album, Restless Heart. He was working on the third and final part of his Marie-Claire trilogy when he fell ill that year and was misdiagnosed with dementia. Sarstedt went to live in a retirement home and was diagnosed correctly with progressive supranuclear palsy two years later. He died in 2017, aged 75.

Written by: Peter Sarstedt

Producer: Ray Singer

Weeks at number 1: 4 (26 February-25 March)

Births:

Super Furry Animals drummer Dafydd Ieuan – 1 March

Deaths:

Author John Wyndham – 11 March
Bandleader Billy Cotton – 25 March

234. Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)

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We’re now into the Summer of Love, and in the final, stormy week of June 1967 a landmark event happened, involving, erm, Reg Varney from On the Buses. The comedy actor became the first person to use a cash machine in the world, at Barclays Bank in Enfield. Trippy, man. Two days later Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was jailed for a year for possession of drugs, and Mick Jagger was sentenced to three months for the same offence.

July began with BBC Two transmitting the first colour TV broadcasts in Britain, during live coverage of the Wimbledon Championships.  It was the final year in which the competition was amateur, and Australian John Newcombe won the men’s tournament, with American Billie Jean King winning the women’s. During Wimbledon, on 7 July, Parliament decriminalised private acts of consensual adult male homosexuality in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act.

In the singles chart, after months of rather lightweight pop ruling the charts, Procul Harum went to number 1 with their woozy, hazy classic debut single A Whiter Shade of Pale, on 8 June – the same day the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band topped the album charts for the first time. For the counterculture, it must have felt like the future was theirs for the taking.

Procul Harum formed from the ashes of the Paramounts, a beat group from Southend-on-Sea in Essex. They had reached number 35 in 1964 with their cover of Lieber and Stoller’s Poison Ivy, but split in 1966. Their singer, Gary Brooker, formed his new group in April 1967, and the line-up featured Keith Reid, a poet who would write their lyrics, Matthew Fisher on Hammond organ, guitarist Ray Royer and bassist David Knights. Their manager, Guy Stevens (later to come up with Mott the Hoople’s name and co-produce the Clash’s album London Calling) said they should name themselves after producer Gus Dudgeon’s cat. Dudgeon produced classic work from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, David Bowie and Elton John. His Burmese pet’s ‘cat fancy’ name was Procul Harun, so they just switched the last letter.

A Whiter Shade of Pale originated at a party Brooker attended. He heard someone say to a woman’ you’ve turned a whiter shade of pale’, and the phrase stuck in his mind. Although the lyrics are full of Bob Dylan-style, mysterious imagery, it’s clear the song is about a man, a woman, and sex. Brooker admitted in the February 2008 issue of Uncut that it was a ‘girl-leaves-boy story’, wrapped up in evocative imagery. He also said that although he may have been smoking at the time, the song was inspired by books, not drugs. Reid must have also had a say in the words though, as he recieved co-credit at the time and didn’t play an instrument.

Matthew Fisher didn’t receive a credit for his integral organ contribution until 2009 in a court ruling. As interesting as the lyrics are, it’s fair to say the song wouldn’t be as famous as it was without his playing, inspired by Bach’s Air on the G string.

Procul Harum convened to record their first single at Olympic Sound Studios in London soon after formation. So soon, they hadn’t yet found a drummer, so session musician Bill Eyden took up the sticks. Produced by Denny Cordell, it was quickly wrapped up in two takes. A few days later they had a drummer, Bobby Harrison, and tried a new version, but opted to release one of their earlier takes in mono only. Cordell was worried about the single’s length and slightly muddy recording, until he sent an acetate to Radio London. John Peel was working for the station at the time, and fell immediately in love with it.

WIth its stately pace, dreamlike feel and surreal lyrics, A Whiter Shade of Pale is a perfect example of a song capturing the zeitgeist. It’s a great song, but it could only have been number 1 for six weeks at that moment in time. The fact it was there at the start of the Summer of Love has elevated its status, possibly making it a touch overrated, but it’s a very impressive debut and a great time capsule of flower power.

Much of British psychedelia harked back to an earlier time, to childhood memories, or even further back to Victorian and Edwardian styles. But the chorus of A Whiter Shade of Pale goes even further back, to Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale from the 14th century. Critics may complain the words are meaningless, but frankly, they need to get out more. It’s about the feeling they create, rather than a story being told. There’s some excellent acid-laced lines, including the introductory ‘We skipped the light fandango’ and ‘One of sixteen vestal virgins’. When performed live, the song sometimes featured a further two verses, which I’d be interested to hear.

Brooker’s vocal is also great, with his soulful, mournful tones adding to the elegiac tone. In fact, if you ignore the lyrics and just listen to the sound, there are some similarities to Percy Sledge’s beautiful When a Man Loves a Woman.

Procul Harum shot several promotional videos for the single, and if you click above you can see the first, which the band minus Harrison shot in the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire. Peter Clifton’s film was banned by Top of the Pops due to the splicing in of footage of the Vietnam war.

Following A Whiter Shade of Pale‘s immense success, Procul Harum were one of the bands of 1967. The single was loved by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with Lennon in particular becoming obsessed that summer. Their first gig saw them supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The line-up soon changed, with Harrison and Royer leaving to form Freedom. They were replaced by former Paramounts BJ Wilson and Robin Trower respectively. Follow-up single Homburg, released that September, reached number six, despite Peel preferring it to their previous 7-inch. They finished the year with their eponymous debut album in December.

It wasn’t until September 1968 that their second album came out. Shine On Brightly is considered one of the earliest examples of a progressive rock album, with the album closer, In Held ‘Twas in I, lasting over 17 minutes. 1969’s A Salty Dog went further down that route, and Fisher, who produced it, departed soon after. and was replaced by another former Paramount, Chris Copping.

In the 1970s, they fell into a pattern of further line-up changes and ever decreasing album sales, embarking on a full-on symphonic progressive rock sound. Their final top 20 hit was Pandora’s Box in 1975. They split up in 1977, but two months later they were performing at the BRIT Awards, when A Whiter Shade of Pale was named Best British Pop Single 1952-1977, along with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Procul Harum reformed in 1991, and have remained together ever since, with Brooker the only constant throughout. In 2017 they released their 13th album, Novum. While they were unable to continue with their initial popularity, A Whiter Shade of Pale is still considered one of the best songs of that heady summer, when music branched out and for a while it seemed as though anything was possible.

Written by: Gary Brooker, Keith Reid & Matthew Fisher

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (8 June-18 July) 

Births:

Darts player Kevin Painter -2 July
Television writer Paul Cornell – 18 July

Deaths:

Actress Vivien Leigh – 7 July
Cyclist Tom Simpson – 13 July