Obituary: Simon Jeffes
Thursday 18 December 1997
Played repeatedly, the use of a specific track on a television commercial can destroy any enjoyment the casual listener might have originally derived from the music. The work of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, founded by Simon Jeffes, was one of the few exceptions to that rule. Their soothing and enticing tracks benefited from being heard over and over again and contributed greatly to the impact of the adverts they were featured in.
The beautiful "Music for a Found Harmonium" was thus wonderfully effective in the 1987 television campaign which followed a few months after the launch of the Independent. Jeffes's compositions backed the advertisements for Hobnobs biscuits, the Eurostar service ("Perpetuum Mobile") and IBM computers; currently, "Telephone and Rubber Band", with its puzzling symphony of tones, forms a part of the puzzle of the Mercury One-2-One campaign.
But there was a lot more to Simon Jeffes's talent than backing tracks for television commercials. At the helm of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, he transcended musical genres and broadened the listening perspectives of many people. Yet this classically trained musician was also a catalyst in some of punk's more unlikely developments of the late Seventies.
Jeffes was born in Sussex in 1949. He spent a few years of his childhood in Canada before returning to England with his family and attending school in Devon. At the end of the Sixties, he studied classical guitar at the Royal Academy with Julian Byzantine and Gilbert Biberian and occasionally played in avant-garde ensembles like the Omega Players.
He was already dabbling in experimental composition, but his musical outlook completely changed within a couple of years. In 1972, Jeffes travelled to Japan and was much taken by the minimalist style of the local players. On his return, he went on holiday in the south of France and suffered from a bout of food poisoning. As the story goes, he lay down on the beach to rest and a poem came to him as he drifted in and out of his daydreaming state. "I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe. I will tell you things at random," was what Jeffes had scribbled. The idea of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra began to germinate in his head.
Further seeds were added the following year by a friend who gave Jeffes a tape of African recordings. Fifteen years before Andy Kershaw, Charlie Gillett and Paul Simon championed the cause of world music, Jeffes found himself "responding more to an mbira player from Zimbabwe than to avant-garde figures like Stockhausen.
"I want to make music for people capable of enjoying Wilson Pickett, Beethoven, the Rolling Stones, choral music from West Africa, Bach, Stravinsky, Irish bagpipe music and even Abba on the odd occasion," he said.
In the mid-Seventies, Brian Eno was formulating his ambient music theories and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra's first album (simply entitled Music from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra) emerged on Eno's Obscure label in 1976. However, like Eno (who went on to greater success with David Bowie and U2), Jeffes was ahead of his time.
To supplement his income, he supervised early recordings by the 101ers, Joe Strummer's pub-rock band before the Clash. This brought him to the attention of the Sex Pistols Svengali Malcolm McLaren who called upon Jeffes to create the string arrangement for Sid Vicious's cod-punk version of "My Way". Sid swaggering down the stairs of the Paris Olympia and shooting the impresario Eddie Barclay (the owner of the Pistols' French label) was one of the few worthy scenes in The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, the 1978 film directed by Julien Temple which turned out to be the last nail in the coffin of the New Wave movement.
As the punk sell-out continued, Jeffes taught Adam and the Ants the delights of Burundi drumming: the improvement in style and content was noticeable between the band's cheesy "Young Parisians" and the more muscular "Kick", "Zerox" and "Dog Eat Dog". When Adam Ant's backing band departed to form the nucleus of Bow Wow Wow in 1980, Dave Barbarossa's tribal drumming and Jeffes's influence as musical director were still at the core of hits like "Go Wild in the Country" and "I Want Candy".
By the mid-Eighties, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra had released two more albums (Penguin Cafe Orchestra in 1981 and Broadcasting From Home, featuring the original recording of "Music for a Found Harmonium", in 1984) and evolved from a loose ensemble to a fully fledged outfit featuring musicians such as the violinist Geoffrey Richardson, formerly of the progressive rock outfit Caravan. Jeffes's lovely compositions ran the whole gamut from pastoral to whimsical via minimal and he wasn't averse to designing his own instruments to obtain the sound he wanted (indeed, he conceived the electric Aeolian harp with the help of Richardson and Mike Lesser).
In concert, with the often extended line-up of the orchestra stretching across the stage, the breadth and variety of styles was a wonder to behold and listen to. In 1987, Melvyn Bragg devoted an edition of The South Bank Show to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and the Signs of Life album drew many plaudits (the Sunday Times critic Robert Sandall described it as sounding "roughly like a string quartet letting its hair down at some mysterious located barn dance of the future").
The following year, Jeffes's classical training stood him in good stead when he wrote full orchestral arrangements to eight of his compositions which the Royal Ballet used to stage Still Life at the Penguin Cafe. Choreographed by David Bintley, the production proved a great success and further enhanced Jeffes's status in the art world. The Penguin Cafe Orchestra grew in popularity around Europe and the 1988 live album (recorded at the Festival Hall in London) was ironically called When In Rome.
Jeffes then went back to some of his unusual roots and worked with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Baaba Maal. The 1993 album Union Call saw him draft in the violinist Nigel Kennedy, with Kathryn Tickell on the Northumbrian small pipes, in jokey reworkings of some traditional American melodies on Discover America.
Having re-recorded some of his favourite tracks on Concert Program (1995), Jeffes moved to Somerset. With his partner Helen Liebman, he built a new studio and began working on new material. Even when he realised a year ago that he had a brain tumour, and when his speech and sight were affected, he carried on developing new ideas. Preludes, Airs and Yodels - A Penguin Cafe Primer, a fine collection released last year, put the Penguin Cafe Orchestra's pervasive influence on ambient, new age and trip-hop into perspective. With the Orb's Alex Patterson at the mixing desk, "Music for a Found Harmonium" became the trippy "Pandaharmonium" while, in the dextrous hands of the Irish folk musician Patrick Street, the same track took on a completely different flavour.
Simon Jeffes, that most internationalist and eclectic of English composers, liked it just that way.
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