The birth of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra

It began nearly 30 years ago with Simon Jeffes' desire to create an 'imaginary folklore' from his own eclectic tastes. Today his unique music is familiar across the world. Robert Sandall tells the story of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra
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The Independent Culture

Some groups form in school or college, some grow out of teenage friendships and others from "musicians wanted" ads; nearly all of them are formed with the initial idea of sounding like somebody else. None of the above applies to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Nor, for that matter, do most other generalisations about how modern music is and should be made, or why. The PCO was the brainchild of the English composer and multi-instrumentalist Simon Jeffes (1949-1997). Because of his father's work, some of his childhood was spent in Canada before he returned to England, an experience that left him, he said, with "this culture of slightly dispossessed people who live in the modern West but haven't got one rooted home". While at boarding school, aged 12, Jeffes heard a guitar being played by a new boy. "It was like meeting your destiny," he said later. "This guitar was actually glowing... there were sort of angels coming out of it. It was absolutely riveting." He played in an R&B band at school and when he left, studied classical guitar and music theory at music college.

In 1972, he got on the Trans Siberian Railway and spent several weeks at the other end, in Japan. There, he became interested in ethnic music, particularly African, which he discovered on a cassette tape made up by a friend. "It just blew my mind!" he later told the journalist Andy Gill. "I didn't want to go to Africa, or learn African instruments or sound African. What I heard was straight from the source, why it is we play music, that gut level sound of humans being human. There was a joy to it, an ease and integrity straight from the stomach and the heart. It wasn't mediated by the mind at all."

And so began his plan to emulate the deep humanity of exotic folk music and merge it with his other, more westernised enthusiasms within a radical previously unenvisaged new ensemble. It was a mistake, he believed, to simply be a consumer of ethnic music, a goggle-eyed tourist at the world's great musical bazaar. "It's good to hear these things, but it shouldn't be the end. The end should be us making our own ethnic music."

A decade passed before this aspiration became a practical reality. For the rest of the 1970s, alongside his Penguin activities Jeffes carried on working as a freelance producer and arranger. His best known work from this period is probably the string arrangement he contributed to Sid Vicious's version of "My Way". "Through Malcolm McLaren, I became a sort of musical consultant to the New Wave. He later asked me to explain the principles of Burundi drumming to Adam Ant."

Simon Jeffes' musical taste was omnivorous, but his special favourites were, in no particular order: Beethoven, Bach, Erik Satie, John Cage, Abba, Wilson Pickett, Zimbabwean mbira, Cajun fiddle, Irish bagpipe, Venezuelan cuatro, West African choral, the Rolling Stones, Stravinsky. The PCO formed in the mind of Simon Jeffes as a result of a dream-like vision he experienced during a severe bout of food poisoning in the south of France during the summer of 1972. Simon retold the story often. Here was how he recalled it in 1988, just before the orchestra played their first gig in LA. "I was lying in bed delirious, hallucinating for about 24 hours. I had this one vision in my mind of a place that was like the ark of buildings, like a modern hotel, with all these rooms made of concrete. There was an electronic eye which scanned everything. In one room you had a couple that were making love, but lovelessly. It was cold sex with books and gadgets and what have you. In another room there was somebody just looking at himself in the mirror, just obsessed with himself. In another room there was a musician with a bank of synthesizers, wearing headphones, and there was no sound. This was a very terrible, bleak place. Everybody was taken up with self-interested activity which kept them looped in on themselves. It wasn't like they were prisoners, they were all active, but only within themselves. And that kept them from being a problem or a threat to the cold order represented by the eye.

"A couple of days later 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 music of the Penguin Cafe, Simon broadly regarded as "a very big yes to the survival of the heart in a time when the heart is under attack from the forces of coldness, darkness and repression". When forced to describe it more precisely, he called his music "imaginary folklore" and "modern, semi-acoustic chamber music".

Although he retained a core group of players throughout, Simon Jeffes always conceived his orchestra to be a fluctuating unit rather than a tightly cast group. Many instrumentalists of varying degrees of proficiency passed though the orchestra's ranks in its 24 years. It took four years to convert the original dystopian dream vision into the Penguins' utopian first album. In 1975 Jeffes met Brian Eno, who was just in the process of setting up his Obscure Records label and who invited him to contribute an album.

The centrepiece of Music From The Penguin Cafe was a suite titled "Zopf", whose most vivid moment, "Giles Farnaby's Dream", mated an elegant Renaissance air (by Farnaby) with a Venezuelan folk shuffle to create a brilliant new folk-classical hybrid. While the Penguins touched on many styles, it was this timelessly effervescent and totally original piece of ethnically angled chamber-pop that connected most strongly with their audience. As the punk movement opened doors of possibility to a new generation of musicians and listeners, so an emboldened colony of Penguins ventured out of the studio. They played one of their first gigs supporting Kraftwerk at the Roundhouse and then visited the ICA and Acklam Hall with an expanded line up.

Now loosely heading a squad of 10, Jeffes took to referring to his group as the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. In 1979, he bought an old garage in a quiet terrace in North Kensington and converted it into a recording studio. It was here that in the following year the Penguins began recording an album which, for the first time, properly defined the breadth of Jeffes' musical ambitions. The lilting folk-classical groove sketched out in "Giles Farnaby's Dream" was taken to new places. Hybrid vigour ruled. One way of conveying the pungent flavour of the album, called Penguin Cafe Orchestra, is simply to list the instruments featured on it. The 10 members between them were found in charge of: guitars (two), cuatros (two), ukeleles (three), pianos (one, plus one electric), bass guitars (two), violins (three), dulcitone (one), harmonium (one), accordion (one), oboe (one), cello (one), viola (one), electronic organ (one), drums, shakers, bongs etc (two), cymbals (one), penny whistle (one), ring modulator (one), metal frame (one), rubber band (one).

The 15 tracks rambled from a radical rearrangement of an old tune by the Ventures, "Walk Don't Run", to a piece hung around a riff made of pure musique concrète: a recording of a telephone ring tone intersected by the engaged signal. (You used to hear that a lot in the days before BT, but only Jeffes heard it as a musical opportunity and looped it onto a tape. Endlessly adapted for commercials and films, "Telephone And Rubber Band" is probably now his most famous piece.) Penguin Cafe Orchestra was well received by the discerning few. The Washington Post later praised it as "a landmark predecessor of the world music craze and one of the most elegant pop albums of the 1980s".

With the album, word about the group began to spread and later that year they toured abroad for the first time, visiting Holland and Germany. In early 1982, they went to Japan, a country that held a particular fascination for Simon Jeffes, not least because it was the home of Zen Buddhism. After the tour ended he stayed on in Tokyo, working with the composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, then went to the ancient city of Kyoto, where serendipity intervened again to inspire one of his best-known pieces. "Walking one evening, I found a harmonium on top of other bits of scrap wood apparently discarded in the street. On contacting the owner, who was indifferent to its future, I took possession." "Music For a Found Harmonium" was the outcome a few weeks later, since which time the tune has taken on a life of its own. Now a firm favourite in Celtic folk circles, it remains the Penguins' most convincing example of "imaginary folklore."

From their somewhat reclusive beginnings, the orchestra, over the next 10 years, became a live attraction with real international appeal, spending weeks or months every year on the road in Europe and North America. Ironically, for an outfit that stubbornly resisted marketing categories, the PCO were welcomed just about everywhere on the live circuit. They turned up at jazz festivals, Womad, art events, classical avant-garde gatherings, alternative rock venues, as well as many of their own evenings at London's South Bank and elsewhere. They got used to TV cameras, appearing first on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1984 and three years later having an entire South Bank show to themselves.

In 1987, David Bintley, choreographer with the Royal Ballet and a major fan of the Penguins, had proposed a dance piece based on eight of the PCO's tunes. Intrigued by the idea, but daunted by the task of scoring his pieces for a full orchestra, Jeffes spent two months in a world of dotted quavers and minims. Despite his anxiety that a professional orchestra couldn't or wouldn't swing, Still Life At The Penguin Cafe was a popular hit with the ballet-going public and it went on to be performed all over Britain, in South Africa, Melbourne and Munich. The Times declared it to be "the most cheerful and amusing new ballet at Covent Garden in well over a decade".

Jeffes gradually began to hanker for a quieter life or, more accurately perhaps, a quieter way of making music. In 1996, he moved from London to Somerset and began to concentrate on composing solo piano works. Shortly afterwards, he fell ill with an inoperable brain tumour and in December 1997, he died. Sometimes, tragic events can only be spoken of in platitudes. But it is quite true, anyway, that Simon Jeffes lives on in his music. It is also true that the Penguin Cafe is an imaginary but necessary place which everybody with an ounce of spirit ought to invent for themselves.

'A History', a four-CD box set drawn from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra's entire output, has just been released by Virgin. This article is a shortened version of an accompanying essay. A single CD 'A Brief History' is also available