Penguin Cafe Orchestra

The Sound Of Someone You Love Who
Is Going Away And It Doesn't Matter
Music From The Penguin Cafe
The Ecstasy Of Dancing FleasPenguin Cafe Orchestra
Telephone And Rubber BandPenguin Cafe Orchestra
HeartwindBroadcasting From Home
Isle Of View (Music For Helicopter Pilots)Broadcasting From Home
Perpetuum MobileSigns Of Life
Oscar TangoSigns Of Life
Scherzo And TrioUnion Cafe
Lifeboat (Lover's Rock)Union Cafe
Giles Farnaby's DreamConcert Program



Contributor: Rob Morgan

It is 1972. The Rolling Stones are abandoning the squalor of Nellcote in southern France for a debauched tour of America. John and Yoko are in New York hanging out with John Sinclair and Jerry Rubin, waiting for a revolution that will never happen. Bob Dylan is hiding, preparing to appear in Sam Peckinpah’s violent western. Motown is being shaken by the music created by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and The Temptations under the leadership of Norman Whitfield, pushing black music into new places it would never have dreamt of five years previously. And meanwhile somewhere in Southern France, Simon Jeffes is suffering from a severe bout of food poisoning which will change his life and create a minor revolution of its own. He became delirious and had a vision of an ark-like building full of people in rooms, staring at mirrors, playing instruments with no sound, being self interested, being kept safe and harmless; it was a joyless vision. A few days later once recovered, a poem popped into Jeffes’ mind, it began, “I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe, I will tell you things at random …” The Penguin Cafe became a concept of freedom from worry, a place to celebrate randomness, spontaneity, irrationality, being human. It was an idea that mulled away in his mind while he carried on his career in the background of the music industry.

Jeffes was exposed to a huge variety of music through his early life, traveling around Europe and North America and this music soaked into him. While at boarding school he encountered a friend playing an acoustic guitar and had a revelation of his future. He enrolled in music college to study music theory and classical guitar, played in rock bands and avant garde jazz groups. In the early 70s he began working as a freelance producer for Caravan, Rod Argent, Yvonne Elliman and even Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band, The 101ers. But during a trip to Japan he became obsessed with African music, hearing a freedom and freshness there which chimed with his vision of music for the Penguin Cafe. By 1974, he had formed the first incarnation – called the Penguin Cafe Quartet – which had Jeffes on guitar, Steve Nye on electric piano, Helen Leibmann on cello and Gavyn Wright on violin. They recorded some music in Jeffes’ conservatory which was different to almost anything else around. Brian Eno heard the tapes and offered Jeffes the chance to issue an album on his new label Obscure Records. With the addition of some new material featuring clear voiced vocals from Jeffes’ partner Emily Young (the subject of Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play’, you know), the debut album, Music From The Penguin Cafe, was issued alongside Gavin Bryars The Sinking Of The Titanic and Brian Eno’s Discreet Music in 1976. It is very much an album of its time, Nye’s electric piano tinkling, the use of ring modulators and the slightly experimental and jazzy nature of the music date it to the mid 70s. This isn’t a problem anyway. The shorter tracks make their melodic statements then disappear, such as the peculiar ukelele, harpsichord and funkish guitar stabs of From The Colonies. The longer tracks are more interesting. The opener, Penguin Cafe Single, is a light-hearted romp built on piano and guitar and a jaunty violin, then at two minutes goes quiet and odd, spooked dischords and sounds, before returning to the jaunty opening melody again. Chartered Flight begins with cellos mimicking hovering planes before diving into a lovely round of arpeggioed guitars and sparkling electric piano. The Sound Of Someone You Love Who Is Going Away And It Doesn’t Matter (best song title ever?) starts with a slightly melancholy guitar phrase, then, over a few minutes, electric piano, cello and violin add to the piece, the chords repeat over and over, the instruments start to get more restless around the melody, then at seven minutes they all burst into what can only be described as an argument in sound – violin grating, piano sharp, guitar harsh, then returning to the original melodic phrases, but with a strange tension in the background, knowing it could all fall apart at any moment. It is a quite remarkable piece of music, and unlike anything else in their catalogue. Another stand-out song is Giles Farnaby’s Dream. Farnaby was a 16th century composer of many a madigral and fantasia, and Jeffes was struck how one of Farnaby’s pieces basically turns into La Bamba, so arranged the piece to highlight this curious similarity. The album was relatively well received at the time, and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra was born to support it, playing their first mainstream gig as support for Kraftwerk at the Roundhouse in London. (My word, that would be a good gig. Can someone invent a time machine so I can go back there please?).

In the meantime Simon Jeffes continued his musical career, coming into contact with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren twice; first to arrange the strings on Sid Vicious’ version of My Way, then to tutor Adam and the Ants on the intricacies of Burundi drumming. Meanwhile, he built a studio in a garage in London and started to assemble more pieces for the next Penguin Cafe Orchestra album, which was issued in 1981 on the Editions EG label, the home to various art rock related projects such as Jon Hassell’s Fourth World Music, Robert Fripp’s LPs of Frippertronics, Phil Manzanera solo LPs, various Eno projects … You get the picture. Penguin Cafe Orchestra stood out amongst these releases for being fresh, spontaneous and refreshingly melodic. There were no more vocals now – Jeffes claimed he was never any good with words – and the electric piano had gone, and there was a larger number of musicians available for the Orchestra, including various stringed instruments, horns, pianos, percussion and kalimbas (that’s an African thumb piano). The opener, Air A Danser, sets the scene nicely, sounding like an acoustic jam session amongst a bunch of friends, you can hear the interaction between the musicians, the sheer joy of creating music. There’s a carefree attitude to music making that carries on through a version of the old Ventures hit Walk Don’t Run alongside originals like Salty Bean Fumble and The Ecstasy Of Dancing Fleas, a mix of African and European musics that sounds like little else. There are a few quieter pieces, like the gentle rolling kalimba and melodica of Cutting Branches For A Temporary Shelter and the simple yet evocative guitar exercise Harmonic Necklace. Then there’s the LP’s most famous song, Telephone And Rubber Band … One day, Jeffes rang someone and got a strange sound of an engaged tone and a dialling tone together, he quickly grabbed a tape to record it, looped the strangely rhythmic pattern and added the sound of a rubber band being twanged. Hence the name. Once more, instruments had been added, this short piece was hypnotic and endlessly fascinating. It is the kind of song that is heard once and never forgotten and it slowly wormed its way into the public consciousness through regular use in television advertising. The music created by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra was no longer jazzy or avant garde, it was accessible and easily digested, yet complex enough to reward repeated listenings. There was little like it in 1981, amongst the New Pop and synth pop and disco and whatever else was going on. And if you were wondering what happened to Emily Young, her distinctive paintings of people with penguin heads would become a partial trademark for all future Penguin Cafe Orchestra albums. The album slipped under the radar then.

Initially, so did their next album, Broadcasting From Home, issued in 1984. This was a more confident record, showing the fact that the Orchestra were now a working band who regularly played live, with devoted followings around the world, especially Japan. It was during an early 80s trip that an incident occurred which would inspire another of Simon Jeffes’ most well known songs. Walking around the back streets of Kyoto, he saw a harmonium abandoned on a pile of rubbish and asked permission to take the instrument once he had established it was still functioning. He composed the song on it; Music For A Found Harmonium punning on the trend for ‘found sounds’ and the fact the harmonium had been found itself. The song would become another piece used in advertising and is now an established folk standard! The album sounds less like a jam session in a garage but more like a professional band. There’s even a drum machine on Music By Numbers keeping the beat and making the song sound like a very distant cousin to Two Tribes. Isle Of View (Music For Helicopter Pilots) is a gorgeous song, building from a simple guitar chord change into something rich and haunting as hand drums, piano, strings and more guitars are layered on top, and then casually falling apart at the end. Broadcasting From Home would contain another song which would be used in a contemporary TV advert; the joyful romp Heartwind (that lovely electronic instrument creating sparkling arpeggios is a Suzuki Omnichord and one day I shall own one, yes I will …) becoming the soundtrack to sell McVitie’s Hobnobs biscuits. If truth be told this was probably my first exposure to the music of Penguin Cafe Orchestra though I was unaware of it at the time. However when I taped their appearance on Whistle Test in November 1984 performing three songs, I knew I had found music which was perfect for me. I eagerly snapped up their three albums and tried to convert my school friends to this unique music. I was fifteen at the time and as any music fan will tell you, finding a new band at that age gives you a zeal to attempt to convert all your friends to your new favourite band. And God bless them, at least two of my friends were converted!

Slowly the world was turning towards the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Note how, in the introduction to the Whistle Test performances, Mark Ellen uses the word “ambient”; by the mid 80s this music was moving slightly into the mainstream. The ideas of World Music and New Age music were being touted as a way forward for music. This was around the time that WH Smith (the leading newsagent in the UK) started selling albums on the New Age label Windham Hill in their record department. In 1987, a cheaply priced compilation by Editions EG, Angels In The Architecture, introduced people to the label’s output of New Age and ambient music including Eno, Harold Budd, Laraaji and two songs from Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

Their profile was rising on television too. In 1985, they appeared on Terry Wogan’s prime time chat show on BBC1 (see above clip) performing Music For A Found Harmonium and even Wogan himself felt compelled to explain the song title. That went on my VHS video. So did a South Bank Show hour long documentary on the band, and another hour long concert from 1987. This rise in televisual activity was due to the release of their fourth album, Signs Of Life, in Spring that year.

Signs Of Life could not have arrived at a better time. A new monthly music magazine, Q, had been launched at the end of 1986 to take a more serious look at music, which was now expanding in strange ways post Live Aid. They reviewed new and reissued albums as they were introduced to that new sparkling medium of Compact Disc. When Q reviewed Broadcasting From Home on CD they gave it the full five star treatment, implied World Music and New Age, and praised it to the hilt. They did a similar job on Signs Of Life too and it was well worthy of the praise. The album feels like a greatest hits collection, there’s so many well known songs on it. Don’t believe me? Have a listen to Perpetuum Mobile, Dirt, Southern Jukebox Music, Bean Fields … These are all well known pieces of music, used in films and commercials and background music for many years. At the time, Dirt received a lot of airplay on the radio… When it was issued I was in my final term in sixth form college before taking my A Level exams, and one of my lecturers was also a DJ for Radio Wales on Saturday mornings, and I would recommend him music to play. I kept telling him, “You need to play some Penguin Cafe Orchestra” and he finally played Dirt and dedicated it to me on my 18th birthday (which luckily was a Saturday). Perpetuum Mobile turned out to be the most influential song on the album, that distinctive tripping over itself piano introduction has been used countless times. A few years ago dance DJ Avicii sampled it for his underground hit Penguin, which itself was sampled for a Leona Lewis hit whose name escapes me because it was so frightfully dull. On the other hand, Oscar Tango is a kind of – er – tango, stately and melancholic, possibly my favourite PCO song. While most tracks on the album were full band (full orchestra?) performances, a number of songs were solo pieces by Simon Jeffes, the most interesting of which was Wild Life at the end of side two. At the time, this callow youth had no time for this eleven minute snooze, made up of tape loops of distant church bells, reverberated gongs and seemingly random guitar notes. Listening now it sounds like nothing less than The Orb Unplugged. That should make sense really. Alex Paterson – the head honcho of The Orb – had worked for Editions EG for most of the late 80s and when he started to DJ, pioneering the trend for chill out rooms, he would spin PCO tracks into his sets of what would become known as ambient house. See, it’s that word again.

In the meantime Jeffes worked on a ballet based on Penguin Cafe Orchestra themes – this would become Still Life At The Penguin Cafe, a work which is still performed today and has even been added to the Dance GCSE syllabus. A fifth album of new material would not appear until 1993 on Jeffes’ own Zopf label (Editions EG having gone belly up and amalgamated into Virgin Records during the early 90s financial crisis) and Union Cafe would be slightly different from their other albums. For a start there was more emphasis on piano than on any previous record, a move which reflected Jeffes’ return to a form of classical music. There would still be the wild variety of styles – the gentle calypso swing of Lifeboat (Lovers’s Rock), the breezy opener Scherzo And Trio – but overall there was an air of melancholy which hung over the album’s later stages. I’m not saying that is a bad thing, if you have read any of my previous Toppermost entries you may notice a tendency towards melancholic music anyway. But somehow this album felt like a circle was being completed, there weren’t so many pieces that could end up in adverts, and a song like Cage Dead could only come from someone with a background in experimental music. It was written as a tribute to John Cage who passed away in 1992, when Simon Jeffes realised that the words ‘Cage’ and ‘Dead’ could both be played as musical notation, then generated patterns for different instruments to play the two four note melodies. Naturally, this all passed the general public by, seeing as by now Q and the other monthly music magazines that followed in its wake were more fussed on the brewing Britpop scene. On the other hand, Radio 3’s pioneering show “Mixing it” loved the album and invited the Orchestra to record for them, and it seemed like another circle was being completed; the Penguin Cafe Orchestra was back amongst the avant garde again.

In 1995, a double ‘live in the studio’ album, Concert Program, was issued, recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio in Wiltshire (of course the PCO and Gabriel were old friends, he had invited them to play at the first WOMAD festival in 1982) which showcased both the new material and the best of the older pieces. Highlights included a stomping Giles Farnaby’s Dream and a wonderful medley which ran through Surface Tension” (from the debut album) into Oscar Tango concluding with Music For A Found Harmonium. But Jeffes was feeling tired by the Orchestra, wanted to try new things, recorded some more piano based music on his own and then suddenly discovered he had an inoperable brain tumour, passing away in December 1997. There would be no more Penguin Cafe Orchestra, although in recent years Jeffes’ son Arthur has formed his own collective – named Penguin Cafe – who keep the music alive alongside Jeffes Jnr’s own fine music. Several of the original members of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra have also reunited to play PCO music, initially in 2007 as The Anteaters (after a comment by Simon Jeffes that their popularity in Japan was due to a craze for penguins, if the fashion changed they’d have to change their name to “The Anteater Cafe Orchestra”) then as The Orchestra Who Fell To Earth, a name they have used since 2011. So the music is still out there being performed and reaching new generations of fans.

There has never been a band like Penguin Cafe Orchestra, covering so many areas of music yet always sounding natural. Folk, avant garde, pop, jazz, calypso, African kora music, European classical music – it all merged into a stew that was uniquely their own. And for such diverse music to be so popular, to have seeped into everyday life in the way that songs like Telephone And Rubber Band, Perpetuum Mobile and Music For A Found Harmonium have – that is quietly revolutionary. Simon Jeffes may have only released five albums of his own material in his lifetime, but it is incredibly consistent in its quality, always melodic, always approachable. He once likened composing to “waiting for little fragments of gold to drop from the sky”. He caught quite a haul of gold in his career. Long may the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s music live on.


Penguin Cafe Orchestra official website

The Unofficial Penguin Cafe Orchestra Site

The Orchestra That Fell To Earth’s website

Penguin Cafe Orchestra biography (iTunes)

Rob Morgan writes about music and life and occasionally his parents’ record collection at A Goldfish Called Regret.

TopperPost #312

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