Royal Academy of Music alumni and freelance pop music arranger Simon Jeffes had a varied client base. Everything from Caravan albums to Sid Vicious‘s My Way were to benefit from his scores. His inspiration for the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, though, came from a more oblique source . . .
The conceptual base for Penguin Cafe Orchestra revealed itself in a vision to Jeffes while he was recovering from food poisoning in the south of France in 1972.
“I was on the beach sunbathing, and suddenly a poem popped into my head,” he later recalled. “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”.
Sadly, Jeffes died of an inoperable brain tumour in 1997, though not before the surreal Penguin Cafe house band he had imagined skating across genres, wreathed in the spirit of the noble amateur, had sustained itself over six studio albums.
Whimsical chamber music, faux folk reels and advertising agency-friendly, proto-‘world music’ became the ensemble’s stock-in-trade, but their debut remains the most perfectly distilled expression of Jeffes’ magical conception.
Original Penguin Cafe Orchestra member and Roxy Music/Japan producer Steve Nye well remembers how Jeffes’ ethereal hallucination was gradually hardened into musical reality on the debut album, Music From The Penguin Cafe (1976).
“Simon had made some recordings, mostly at home on his trusty 2-track Revox A77, with one microphone, using the track-bouncing facility to build up layers,” he says.
“In addition, there were some recordings made at various studios involving other friends including Neil Rennie, a lecturer in English at London University, and Emily Young – who also painted the pictures used for the Penguin Cafe Orchestra album covers. I was able to use some downtime at Air Studios to help keep the non-existent ‘album budget’ to a minimum.”
Despite its disparate genesis, the album flows with meandering eloquence. Following the jaunty chamber pop opener Penguin Cafe Single, an eclectic suite of tracks unfurls under the portmanteau title Zopf (German for “pigtail” – and generic shorthand for ‘music of a light-hearted nature’). Here, madrigal merges into minimalist dirge and folky strumming segues into baroque laments.
An album combining gently caressed keyboards and guitar with the odd dreamy vocal passage, dissonant electronic meandering, Latin American influences and luscious strings might not raise eyebrows today, but it was an altogether more alien prospect back in 1976.
It took Brian Eno to recognise the album’s merits, and he signed it to his appropriately-named label, Obscure. The charts – needless to say – remained untroubled.
The album sold steadily and the band’s small nucleus of fans and admirers liked it. It was also very popular in Japan and gradually became something of a cult classic.
The band played its first major concert on 10 October 1976, supporting Kraftwerk at The Roundhouse in London. Jeffes experimented with various line-ups – both 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 played many of the instruments himself, and brought in the other musicians according to the needs of a particular piece.
There were a number of incarnations of the live band. Original members Gavyn Wright and Steve Nye left in 1984 and 1988 respectively. Bob Loveday replaced Gavyn Wright on violin, and gradually a regular line-up evolved around Simon Jeffes and Helen Liebman.
Neil Rennie joined in 1975 on the ukulele; Geoffrey Richardson joined in 1976 and co-wrote three pieces on Broadcasting from Home (1984). He played viola, cuatro, guitar, clarinet, mandolin and ukulele. Julio Segovia answered an advert in Melody Maker and joined in 1978 on percussion, while Jennifer Maidman joined in 1984 on percussion, bass, ukulele and cuatro.
Steve Fletcher replaced Steve Nye in 1988 on piano and keyboards and Annie Whitehead – who had also appeared on Broadcasting from Home (1984) – joined the live band in 1988 on trombone.
Finally, Peter McGowan took over from Bob Loveday on violin and Barbara Bolte joined on oboe. The album Concert Program (1995) is the definitive recording of this lineup and includes many of the Penguins’ best-known pieces.
In 2009 a new band called Penguin Cafe was formed by Arthur Jeffes, the son of Simon Jeffes and Emily Young. The new group appeared at the BBC Proms on 8 September 2010.
Guitar, ukulele, bass, keyboards, cello
Guitar, bass, viola
Percussion, bass, ukulele