The Penguin Cafe Orchestra — Unique Music to Touch Your Heart

Composer Simon Jeffes formed the Penguin Cafe Orchestra in the early 70s in reaction to the rigidity of his classical training and a need to celebrate “randomness, spontaneity, surprise, and irrationality,” in his music. His vision was for a “modern semi-acoustic chamber group” that would serve as the house band for an imaginary cafe where “people’s spirits mingle and the music played touches the heart of the listener”.

Working to a tight budget for Brian Eno’s fledgling Obscure Records label much of the group’s debut release Music from the Penguin Cafe was recorded on a primitive tape machine “on location” with a core quartet of cellist, violinist, pianist, and Jeffes himself on guitar and “whatever instruments I have”. The result is a unique record of mostly instrumental music that combines elements of classical, folk, jazz, and minimalism.

Eccentric Simon Jeffes front with double bass and Cafe house band

Many of the tunes, like the opening Penguin Cafe Single, sound familiar like you’ve heard them before (and probably you have in a film or commercial) but they are littered with unexpected twists and turns that lend an edge to the music.

Following a trademark interlude of sawing violins and other avant-garde noises, bliss is restored as the haunting theme returns.

Sometimes instrumental music spawns somewhat random titles but The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away and It Doesn’t Matter describes the album’s brooding 12-minute masterpiece perfectly. A heartrending melody is lightly plucked on guitar before being gradually joined by strings and jazz lounge electric piano. Following a trademark interlude of sawing violins and other avant-garde noises, bliss is restored as the haunting theme returns. My favourite PCO track in their whole repertoire and worth the admission price alone.

The other substantial composition is the seven piece Zopf suite. The collection includes In a Sydney Motel which could have come from one of Eno’s own mid-70s pop albums. The beautiful Surface Tension is PCO at their economical best. Milk with its looped samples and insistent bass is reminiscent of German rock band Can and the ambient Pigtail is similarly unusual. From the Colonies and Giles Farnaby’s Dream are typical pieces of playful Penguin whimsy and Coronation is noteworthy for vocals by Emily Young, the eminent sculptor responsible for the surreal penguin headed figures that frequent the Penguin Cafe, and reportedly the inspiration behind Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play.

Sadly Jeffes passed away in 1997 and his cafe closed prematurely. Mercifully takeouts of course remain available in the form of the wonderful PCO recordings and more recently a couple of new Penguin Cafe collectives have emerged formed respectively by Jeffes’ son and various ex-members of the original band.