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It’s hard to catch up with the 60s generation. For a while I’ve had it in mind to post on Peter Sarstedt but his death in January of this year has overtaken me. So this review of his first two albums from 1969 becomes something of a tribute by default though not an uncritical one.
The two albums in question are Peter Sarstedt and As Though it Were a Movie both for United Artists and brought together on BGO’s 1995 CD re-issue [BGOCD274] – more on the CD release later.
A European flavour runs through both albums, at times recalling something of the romanticism of Nick Garrie-Hamilton’s The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that, like Nick, Peter travelled widely in Europe prior to his major success at the end of the 60s. But Sarstedt’s romanticism, whilst never jaded, is far more equivocal, more observational than Nick Garrie-Hamilton’s misty-eyed musings. Sarstedt is also some eight years older. A certain worldliness is offset by a literary, artistic sensibility – witness the wistful epiphany of I Am a Cathedral, also the most Garrie-like track here.
Talking of I am a Cathedral, Peter acknowledges he was looking for ‘something obscure and enigmatic’ and that seems key to an understanding of these albums. At once both wayward and mainstream in a way which only the late 60s can muster, we’re always aware of Sarstedt’s instincts to deliver a good, or at least reasonable, folkie melody but then he’ll throw something unsettling into the lyrical mix so that Sons of Cain are Abel begins by evoking days of wine and roses but its summery gaze is drug-fuelled and blank.
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Both albums are produced by Ray Singer and arranged by Ian Green and share a similar sonic sensibility. The latter, despite its top and tailing orchestral extravaganzas, is slightly drier, a little rootsier. On the debut album especially, the producer might have been Mike Hurst around the time of Neil McArthur’s She’s Not There.
The orchestration is by turns quasi-psychedelic, middle-of-the road, folkie, cinematic, clicky in an early Cat Stevens sort of way, featuring just an occasional brush with rock. For me, the instrumentation mainly enhances the surprisingly diverse styles on offer – country, calyspso, gospel – but I say that as a fan of 60s arrangements. I have only dipped into Peter Sarstedt’s later albums but singles like Beirut from 1978 and 1986’s Hemingway both suffer from unsympathetic backings. Peter’s 2006 album On Song (which I have heard through) opts for a reduced palette of acoustic guitar and I suspect this may be true of his later offerings; how I miss those arrangements!
Gentle but sardonic
Sarstedt comes across as someone who partakes of life but remains essentially an outsider. He as good as tells us this in Boulevard. He comments on his experiences, painting portraits of people he meets along the way though at times it’s not clear how these encounters affect him. He is like a traveller negotiating his way through the peace, love and drugs generation via the wheeler dealing of Blagged, the drug bust of No More Lollipops for You and the permissive apologia of I’m a Good Boy.
Sarstedt’s voice may be gentle but his tone can be surprisingly sardonic. He acknowledges Dylan’s influence. Only on Many Coloured Semi-Precious Plastic Easter Egg does the debt become overly onerous.
I find the overtly satirical pieces pall after a few listens – My Daddy is a Millionaire (the clue is in the title) the sly Take Off Your Clothes, the insistent I’m a Good Boy. Mary Jane (portrait of a dominatrix) gets by thanks to some fabulously blaring toxic swinging London horns – it feels like you’re in a Jaguar swinging round Piccadilly Circus (or Pigalle) in 1968. On the second album generally, Sarstedt seems more relaxed, less keen to impress: Letter to a Friend is welcome for its self-deprecatory honesty.
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It’s so hard to hear Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) just as ‘track 7’ when you know it was a massive international hit. The song dominates Peter Sarstedt by nature of its length, repetitive structure and comprehensive narrative but I wouldn’t say it completely overshadows its peers.
Follow-up, Frozen Orange Juice, although likeable enough in a jaunty kind of way, was a lost opportunity to showcase the best of Peter’s material, a view shared by its composer. It’s just too different from its predecessor, an infinitely inferior song with an unevocative title. Inevitably it made it to Number Ten.
At his best
As Though It Were a Movie is often cited as his best song and, on the basis of these two albums, I’d agree.
As Though It Were a Movie in full.
I’d also highlight Blagged with its clever, sometimes cynical power exchange, catchy melody and Day in the Life drums.
The double CD
It would have been nice had the double-CD included as bonus tracks Peter’s two pre-album singles: In the Day of My Youth b/w My Monkey is a Junkie (Major-Minor 1967 as Peter Lincoln, the B-side is Bonzoesque and quite irritating) and I Must Go On (Island 1968, the B-side Mary Jane features on Peter Sarstedt).
More pertinent is the omission of Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) B-side Morning Mountain. Having caught it on Youtube, it’s a minor piece but should have been included anyway.
Liner notes from Spencer Leigh of BBC Radio Merseyside provide just enough context together with reproductions of original album artwork and full lyrics for Peter Sarstedt.
This is an adequate but by no means deluxe re-release.
‘Life … God how it slips away’ – ‘Time, Love, Hope, Life’.
Peter Sarstedt: 10th December 1941 – 8th January 2017.
1. I am a Cathedral – 2.49
2. Sons of Cain ae Abel – 3.46
3. No More Lollipops – 2.12
4. Stay Within Myself – 2.56
5. You are My Life – 3.13
6. Sayonara – 2.36
7. Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) – 5.23
8. Blagged – 3.12
9. My Daddy is a Millionaire – 2.18
10. Once Upon an Everyday – 2.33
11. Mary Jane – 2.19
12. Time Was Leading Us Home – 4.27
13. Many-Coloured Semi-Precious Plastic Easter Egg – 2.51
14. Time, Life, Hope, Life – 3.52
As Though It were a Movie
1. Overture – 3.08
2. As Though It Were a Movie – 3.54
3. Open a Tin – 2.54
4. Step into the Candlelight – 3.06
5. Take off your Clothes – 3.55
6. Letter to a Friend & Intermission – 3.05
7. Overture – 0.30
8. Boulevard – 2.44
9. The Sunshine is Expensive – 3.17
10. The Artist – 2.52
11. The Friendship Song (Hey Nena) – 4.23
12. Juan – 1.37
13. I’m a Good Boy – 3.52
14. National Anthem & Doors Clsoe at 10.45pm – 1.28
15. Frozen Orange Juice – 3.10
16. Aretusa Loser – 3.43
Update June 2017: first two images substituted [original selections withdrawn by Gettyimages]