The rebirth of Café culture

Simon Jeffes, founder of the Penguin Café Orchestra, died in 1997, but in a posthumous album his music lives again
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The Independent Culture

From a punkish perspective, the case against Simon Jeffes, founder and leader of the Penguin Café Orchestra, who died aged 48 of a brain tumour in December 1997, would be easy to make. He conceived of the group in 1972 - in a two-part vision brought on by a bout of food-poisoning in the South of France. In a state of delirium, he had a vision of a dehumanised, mechanised world, with people wearing earphones in a grey tower block. The following morning, recuperating on a beach, the antidote to the nightmare came in the form a voice announcing that, through fear, we frequently suppress the random, chance element of life that leads to creativity. "Come to the Penguin Café," the peroration concluded, "where things just aren't like that!"

From a punkish perspective, the case against Simon Jeffes, founder and leader of the Penguin Café Orchestra, who died aged 48 of a brain tumour in December 1997, would be easy to make. He conceived of the group in 1972 - in a two-part vision brought on by a bout of food-poisoning in the South of France. In a state of delirium, he had a vision of a dehumanised, mechanised world, with people wearing earphones in a grey tower block. The following morning, recuperating on a beach, the antidote to the nightmare came in the form a voice announcing that, through fear, we frequently suppress the random, chance element of life that leads to creativity. "Come to the Penguin Café," the peroration concluded, "where things just aren't like that!"

The hippyish cadence in that sentence is clearly recognisable. Indeed, the whole episode evokes the sort of spaced-out whimsy associated with Neil of The Young Ones. Jeffes also had a habit of calling the core musicians of the PCO, "The four musicians in green clothes", for no good reason at all.

But this trippy stuff is forgiven by those who've heard the hypnotic music of the PCO, and will be forgiven by those who hear Piano Music, a record that amounts in effect to a posthumous solo album by Jeffes. The tracks on this are more plangent and introspective than most PCO music, but they share the Penguin characteristic of all seeming to feature addictive, elemental melodies that you can't believe weren't written ages ago.

"Above all," says Neil Rennie, an English lecturer who provided moral support, ideas, and occasional bursts of ukelele for Penguin Café Orchestra, "Jeffes liked tunes. I mean, in pop music he liked the Beatles; he liked Abba." But he also liked African and Japanese music, avant-garde classical, and Erik Satie, whose limpid spirit is very evident on Piano Music, and who is commended by Rennie as being "One of those classical composers who doesn't put all those off-putting booming noises in."

Jeffes' rhythms and instrumentation were frequently exotic, reflecting his wide-ranging tastes. Brian Eno, on whose Obscure label the first PCO album appeared in 1976, says that Jeffes "wandered through the border regions of the whole united nations of music, fascinated, and apparently always smiling". He was, in fact, so eclectic that he grew to hate the word. But the essence of PCO music - which is almost all instrumental - is English folk: pastoral and pretty but also mesmerising and strange. "It's so frustrating trying to invoke Simon," says the cellist Helen Liebmann, who was Jeffes partner, both musically and otherwise, "but he was just very... he was very English."

Jeffes was the son of a professor of Metallurgy at Imperial College, London. After schools in Devon and Canada, he studied music at Chiswick Poly, the relative modesty of which establishment comes as rather a surprise, because Jeffes, with his owlish specs, old-fashioned, earnest face and floppy hair, looked like an Oxford don, and had a great musical facility. "He could play anything," says Liebmann simply.

He preferred the country to the town, and moved to Somerset with Liebmann in his last years, but for a long time he'd lived in Notting Hill, with furniture inherited from his grandmother. So he passed the Alan Clark test of poshness, and he was launched in music with the help of a private income. He was very much the sort of person who could afford to have visions on a beach in France. He was very good with people. The Penguin Café seems to have been a remarkably happy ship, its calm progress - nine LPs from 1976 to 1996 - seemingly uninterrupted by battles over money or musical differences. Jeffes seldom showed anger. "He hated all forms of heavy-osity," says Liebmann. But he was no wimp, describing himself as the proprietor of the Penguin Café. The other musicians supplied ideas but essentially did what they were told. "Simon wasn't motivated by money," says Liebmann, adding with a grin, "but he always said that if you did what you wanted you could make it."

Just as his private income was running out, Jeffes began to make money, developing a taste for Paul Smith suits. The PCO were always big in Japan, where Jeffes went to live for a while immediately after his French beach vision. Here, in a Kyoto suburb, he found a harmonium in the road. On this he wrote "Music For a Found Harmonium", which was this newspaper's signature tune in its early television ads. More recently, IBM employed the Penguin track, "Perpetuum Mobile", in its adverts, and the current BT theme is an embellishment of another Jeffes tune, "Telephone and Rubber Band", which achieves a weird kind of stasis through repetition of a sound that combines a ringing and an engaged tone.

Jeffes also began to be in demand as a producer and arranger. He did the amusingly saggy strings for Sid Vicious's version of "My Way", and tutored Adam Ant in burundi drumming. He worked with Baaba Maal and Ryuichi Sakamoto. In 1988, Jeffes orchestrated eight PCO pieces for the ballet Still Life at the Penguin Café, first performed by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden.

It's unlikely, however, that Jeffes would ever have become some world- music plutocrat. He would let corporations use his tunes, but they had to be recorded first, to keep the boundary between art and commerce. His approach was fundamentally moral. He was, according to Neil Rennie, "A Christian in bits... There was always the spiritual thing going on. When he was in Japan, he did some time in a Zen monastery, and became a Zen apprentice at a very low level. It was real - it was just in him. And it made him very good at things like being in a car with heavy lorries bearing down on you."

Everyone attests to the dignity with which Jeffes handled his illness. Rennie didn't even really know about it until very late, and when it became obvious, there was no maudlin stuff: "He just wanted to play music really." At this point, Jeffes played Rennie some of the things that would be on Piano Music, but they weren't necessarily written late: the majority, in fact, were composed in the Seventies, and were tunes that Liebmann would hear Jeffes doodling during rehearsal downtime.

The album has been assembled by his friends from disparate recordings. The titles of three of the tracks were written by Jeffes on the blackboard of his Somerset studio, and were still up there on the day that he died. It is, of course, hard to ask Liebmann about those final days. Much better, I think, to let the music do the talking.

'Piano Music' by Simon Jeffes is out now on Zopf Records

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