How did Peter Sarstedt convince the British public that he wasn’t English? Listen out for the Sorbonne, the Aga Khan and the others of the jet set. Anything unusual?
Mr Sarstedt plays hide and seek with the usual English schwa sound of the. Sometimes he uses it, sometimes he doesn’t.
When Peter sings the as thee he knows it will attract his audience’s attention. It sounds ‘foreign’ to the ears of a native English speaker when a and the are pronounced without a schwa sound.
If English isn’t your native language, remember: if you always pronounce the as thee and a like the a in say, you sound foreign.
I say ‘always’ because sometimes pronouncing the as thee can be a positive choice for a singer:
The vowel at the beginning of end leads Jim Morrison to pronounce the end as thee end. That unusual the attracts his audience’s attention to the word end. Until they hear the word end (unless they know the song) they don’t know why Jim’s singing the as thee. So they listen harder. The power of the meaning is framed in that unusual pronunciation. The pronounced as thee will always attract attention. When you’re singing in English, you need to be in control of that attention.
Aside from his moustache, what else makes Mr Sarstedt seem exotic when he sings? It’s all carefully orchestrated:
- The accordion intro and the waltz rhythm set the scene as ‘somewhere in Europe, probably France.’
- The first lines: You talk like Marlene Dietrich and you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire, with the strongly accented pronunciation of the names, keep us in Europe.
- There’s enough un-English pronunciation of ‘foreign’ words like Juan- les-Pins or Boulevard Saint-Michel to make us believe, and hope, that Peter’s some kind of pan-European.
- Mill-y-on-aire is an unusual way to pronounce millionaire.
- The refrains: yes it does, yes there are, no you don’t add to the atmosphere – to a native English ear, they add a French rhythm to the speech pattern. The scene is set and Peter Sarstedt just needs to throw in the occasional or Juan-les-Pins to keep us believing that he’s French, or something very close to it.
We’re happy to believe that the marvelously mustachioed gentleman on the stage has stepped straight off the plane from somewhere wonderfully faraway. Just for us. In 1969 foreign holidays were rare, but Sacha Distel, Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel were everywhere.
The repetitive pattern of the waltz keeps us mesmerised. We don’t care that Peter pronounces Naples as an English word, even though he sings about growing up there. If Marie Claire also comes from Naples, why doesn’t he sing Napule or Napoli to her? Or pronounce Naples with a French accent? Especially when he’s so careful to give an authentic pronunciation to every French word. The truth is, by this point we don’t care. He’s convinced us of his exotic foreignness. We’ll forgive him anything.
If you listen to a 1969 Finnish version of the song by Hector here and a 1990’s Bengali version by Anjan Dutta here, it’s interesting to hear which elements of the song they choose to keep for the sake of its soul. Hector keeps the accordion and the refrains. He keeps Marlene Dietrich, Zizi Jeanmaire and Balmain, to set the scene, but then moves on to tell a slightly different story. Anjan Dutta keeps the accordion but avoids the 1960’s French names and the French sounding refrains. He name-drops Madhubala and Aparna Sen instead, to suit his Bengali audience’s modern sensibilities. A lot of people prefer the Bengali version, especially the guitar solo. What do you think?
If English isn’t your native language – this song can be a useful exercise in reverse engineering. Everything that Peter Sarstedt does to sound more ‘foreign,’ he does consciously, knowing the effect each sound will have. Be sure that you are not making the same ‘foreign English’ sounds by mistake. Unless you want to.
The things that make him sound exotic are within his control. He turns them on and off by choice. He usually pronounces the with its schwa. He chooses to add a touch of Frenchness, when it suits him, by pronouncing the as thee occasionally. Just to remind his audience that he’s not an ordinary Englishman. It’s a choice, not a mistake.
Remember thee is a word. It means this in English. Everyone knows it from wedding ceremonies – with this ring, I thee wed. If you always sing thee when you mean the you will confuse your audience.
Listening to Peter Sarstedt now, I’m impressed by the magic he worked on us back in 1969. He didn’t sing every word of Where do you go to, my lovely? in a fake French accent – that would have got him into trouble. He gave us just enough French sounding words for us to colour in the gaps between his moustache and the accordion. He dropped the schwa in a and the just enough to keep us on our toes. We got the hint. We so wanted him to be a romantic Pan European nomad and he didn’t disappoint us. It was all misdirection, smoke and mirrors. We loved it.
Every word you sing should be a conscious choice. If a British man can convince the world that he is extravagantly European by growing an extravagant moustache, correctly pronouncing some French words and dropping some schwas, imagine the magic that you can weave by using your words wisely. The world’s your oyster.
P.S. Peter Sarstedt isn’t the only man to say ‘exotic’ with a moustache. Watch Eugene Hutz using the well-known formula: rolling r + generous moustache = intriguing foreigner here.
© Sing Better English, 2014