The Penguin Cafe Orchestra (PCO) was an avant-pop band led by English guitarist Simon Jeffes. Co-founded with cellist Helen Liebmann, it toured extensively during the 1980s and 1990s. The band’s sound is not easily categorized, but has elements of exuberant folk music and a minimalist aesthetic occasionally reminiscent of composers such as Philip Glass.
The group recorded and performed for 24 years until Jeffes died of an inoperable brain tumour in 1997. Several members of the original group reunited for three concerts in 2007. Since then, five original members have continued to play concerts of PCO’s music, first as The Anteaters, then as The Orchestra That Fell to Earth. In 2009, Jeffes’ son Arthur founded a distinct successor band simply called Penguin Cafe. Although it includes no original PCO members, it features many PCO pieces in its live repertoire, and records and performs new music written by Arthur.
After becoming disillusioned with the rigid structures of classical music and the limitations of rock, in which he also dabbled, Simon Jeffes became interested in the relative freedom in ethnic music and decided to imbue his work with the same immediacy and spirit.
Describing how the idea of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra came to him, Jeffes said:
“ In 1972 I was in the south of France. I had eaten some bad fish and was in consequence rather ill. As I lay in bed I had a strange recurring vision, there, before me, was a concrete building like a hotel or council block. I could see into the rooms, each of which was continually scanned by an electronic eye. In the rooms were people, everyone of them preoccupied. In one room a person was looking into a mirror and in another a couple were making love but lovelessly, in a third a composer was listening to music through earphones. Around him there were banks of electronic equipment. But all was silence. Like everyone in his place he had been neutralized, made grey and anonymous. The scene was for me one of ordered desolation. It was as if I were looking into a place which had no heart. Next day when I felt better, I was on the beach sunbathing and suddenly a poem popped into my head. It started out ‘I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe, I will tell you things at random’ and it went on about how the quality of randomness, spontaneity, surprise, unexpectedness and irrationality in our lives is a very precious thing. And if you suppress that to have a nice orderly life, you kill off what’s most important. Whereas in the Penguin Cafe your unconscious can just be. It’s acceptable there, and that’s how everybody is. There is an acceptance there that has to do with living the present with no fear in ourselves. ”
The group’s debut album, Music from the Penguin Cafe, recorded from 1974–76, was released in 1976 on Brian Eno’s experimental Obscure Records label, an offshoot of the EG label. It was followed in 1981 by Penguin Cafe Orchestra, after which the band settled into a more regular release schedule.
The band gave its first major concert on 10 October 1976, supporting Kraftwerk at The Roundhouse. They went on to tour the world and play at a variety of music festivals as well as residencies on the South Bank in London. From 1976–1996 they played in the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, and throughout Europe and the UK. In March 1987, they were the subject of an episode of the ITV arts series The South Bank Show, where they performed “Air”, “Bean Fields”, “Dirt” and “Giles Farnaby’s Dream”.
Simon Jeffes experimented with various configurations live and in the studio, including an occasional ‘dance orchestra’ and a quintet of strings, oboe, trombone and himself on piano. On the studio albums, he sometimes played several instruments, and brought in other musicians according to the needs of each piece.
After Jeffes’ death in 1997, the band’s members continued to meet occasionally, but there were no new recordings or public appearances for over ten years. The band briefly reformed in 2007, with the lineup as featured on Concert Program (minus Julio Segovia), with Jennifer Maidman now handling Simon’s guitar parts. The original members, joined onstage by Simon Jeffes’s son Arthur on percussion and additional keyboards, played three sold-out shows at the Union Chapel in London.
After those concerts, Arthur Jeffes wanted to form a new group without any of the original PCO members. He called it “Music from the Penguin Cafe”, later shortened to simply Penguin Cafe. The all-new ensemble, sometimes inaccurately billed as The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, played at a number of festivals in 2009, combining Penguin Cafe numbers with new pieces. In 2010 they appeared at the BBC Proms (with Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell).
With the Penguin Cafe name now being used by Arthur, the original PCO members who wanted to continue playing their music needed an alternative name. Four of them, multiinstrumentalists Geoffrey Richardson and Jennifer Maidman, trombonist Annie Whitehead, and pianist Steve Fletcher, have since played some festivals as The Anteaters. They have been joined by percussionist Liam Genockey, well known as a member of Steeleye Span, and who played live with the Penguins in Italy in the 1980s. The name ‘Anteaters’ came from an incident on the 1983 PCO tour of Japan when Simon Jeffes discovered there was a craze for penguins in the country. He joked that, if the fashion changed, the orchestra would have to change its name to ‘The Anteater Cafe Orchestra’. In October 2011, the same lineup appeared at the Canterbury Festival in Kent, UK, performing two hours of original PCO music as The Orchestra That Fell To Earth. They have continued to perform under that name.
Penguin Cafe Orchestra was the second album by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and was recorded at the Penguin Cafe between 1977 and 1980. By this time the line-up for the band had expanded greatly, with contribution including Simon Jeffes, Helen Leibmann, Steve Nye, Gavyn Wright of the original quartet, as well as Geoff Richardson, Peter Veitch, Braco, Giles Leamna, Julio Segovia and Neil Rennie. All pieces were composed by Simon Jeffes except for “Paul’s Dance” (Jeffes and Nye), “Cutting Branches” (traditional), and “Walk Don’t Run” (by Johnny Smith).
“Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter” is based on the traditional Zimbabwean song “Nhemamusasa”, a field recording of which can be heard played on mbira on the Nonesuch Records album The Soul of the Mbira.
The cover painting is by Emily Young. (by wikipedia)
The sophomore album from Simon Jeffes’ homegrown band took over three years to record, but the signs are here that it was a labor of love. While drawing compositional and textural inspiration from both English folk and chamber music, it manages to sound like neither and a wondrous hybrid of both. “Walk Don’t Run,” a cover of the Ventures’ classic, turns from a surf tune into a merry jig of sorts, with the violins and cellos playing the melody backed by drums, bongos, and shakers. “Telephone and Rubber Band” turns a busy signal into something full of beauty and joy. Unfailingly romantic, sunny music and an album that set the tone of all further PCO releases. (by Ted Mills)
Braco (drums, percussion)
Simon Jeffes (guitar, bass, Cuatro, drums, keyboards, harmonium, penny whistle, percussion, ukulele, violin, vocals)
Giles Leaman (oboe, wind)
Helen Liebmann (cello)
Steve Nye (drums, percussion keyboards, cuatro)
Neil Rennie (ukulele)
Geoffrey Richardson (percussion, guitar, ukulele, viola)
Julio Segovia (percussion)
Peter Veitch (accordion, violin)
Gavyn Wright (violin)
01. Air à Danser (Jeffes) 4.33
02. Yodel 1 (Jeffes) 4.10
03. Telephone And Rubber Band (Jeffes) 2.30
04. Cutting Branches For A Temporary Shelter (Traditional) 3.10
05. Pythagoras’s Trousers (Jeffes) 3.22
06. Numbers 1-4 (Jeffes) 6.59
07. Yodel 2 (Jeffes) 4.37
08. Salty Bean Fumble (Jeffes) 2.14
09. Paul’s Dance (Jeffes/Nye) 1.47
10. The Ecstasy Of Dancing Fleas (Jeffes) 4.01
11. Walk Don’t Run (Smith) 3.03
12. Flux (Jeffes) 1.49
13. Simon’s Dream (Jeffes) 1.49
14. Harmonic Necklace (Jeffes) 1.13
15. Steady State (Jeffes) 3.36
I got this beautiful album from the Greygoose … thanks a lot for supporting this blog !