This song is about a young girl born in poverty in Naples, Italy, who grows up to become a member of the jet-set. Who is this woman Sarstedt was singing about? It's clearly a composite, as no one person fits the description, but the singer had taken up with a Danish dental student named Anita Atke, whom he later married. She may not have worn bespoke outfits by Balmain, but she probably owned some Rolling Stones records.
Sarstedt said the song was about "a generic European girl," but cited Atke as an influence.
Peter Sarstedt's elder brother Richard had already had a #1 hit in UK, "Well I Ask You" in 1961, when he sang under the name Eden Kane. When Peter Sarstedt reached #1 seven years later, it made them the first brothers to have solo #1s in Britain. In 1976 a third Sarstedt brother, Robin, reached #3 in the UK with his version of Hoagy Carmichael's "My Resistance Is Low," enabling the Sarstedt clan to become the only three brothers in British chart history to rack up separate solo hits.
Among the personalities this song references is Zizi Jeanmarie, who was a French ballerina who in the 1950s was reckoned to be the best dancer of her generation. It also refers to Aga Khan, a wealthy Islamic leader who married the English fashion model Sarah Croker-Poole in 1969. The names of Marlene Dietrich, Picasso, Sachel Distel and The Rolling Stones are also mentioned.
This 5-minute song was not originally intended to be a single. Peter comments in 1000 UK #1 Hits
by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh: "I wanted to write a long, extended piece because I was working in folk clubs and universities, and Al Stewart had something that was half an hour long and Bob Dylan's 'Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands
' took a whole side of an album. 'Where Do You Go To My Lovely' was my first attempt at writing something longer than my normal 3 minutes. It was amazingly easy to write, but I knew what I wanted to say. I wanted to say something about this particular person, although it wasn't about anyone specific."
Initially, his record company were not interested in releasing this as a single: Peter Sarstedt comments in the same publication "They said it has no drums, it is too long and there are only three instruments." The label relented and the song topped the UK charts for 6 weeks.
This won the 1969 Ivor Novello Award for Best Song, together with David Bowie's "Space Oddity
The glamorous international star Sophia Loren, who was bought up in the back streets of Naples, seemed a likely inspiration for this song, but Sarstedt said she wasn't, although "she's in the song in spirit."
In an NME interview, legendary BBC DJ John Peel named this record as his personal worst of all time.
The woman in this song is named Marie-Claire, which is the name of a French fashion magazine.
Sarstedt started writing this song in 1966 when he was busking in Copenhagen. He said that he came up with about 300 songs around this time, which he kept stored in his head.
Opening with an accordion in waltz time, this song was unlike anything else on the airwaves in 1969, which made it stand out and propelled it to #1 in the UK. American audiences had a harder time deciphering Sarstedt's accent (he was born in India and came to England at age 13), but the song still charted in the US, landing at #70. Sarstedt was baffled by the song's success. "It seems ridiculous that so many people are going out and buying it," he told Melody Maker at the time. "It baffles me."
The dense lyrics and barrage of images are reminiscent of Bob Dylan, who was Sarstedt's main influence. "After listening to him I thought this was really it but everything I wanted to say seemed similar to Dylan," he said in Melody Maker. "It was two years before I thought I wasn't copying him anymore."
"Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" was Sarstedt's first and biggest hit, but his follow-up single, "Frozen Orange Juice
," also did well, reaching #10 in the UK. He died in 2017 at age 75.
The album version of the song runs about 5:10; the single was edited down to 4:42.
This song appeared in the movies The Leading Man (1996), One More Kiss (1999) and The Wedding Tackle (2000). It had a bit of a revival when it appeared in the 2007 Wes Anderson film The Darjeeling Limited.