The Penguin Cafe Orchestra
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Simon Jeffes

In 1979 he bought an old garage in a quiet terrace in North Kensington and proceeded to convert 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 ran riot.

One way of conveying the pungent flavour of the album called Penguin Café Orchestra is simply to list the instruments featured on it. The 10 members between them were found in charge of: Guitars (2), Cuatros (2) Ukeleles (3) Pianos (1 + 1 electric) Bass Guitars (2) Violins (3) Dulcitone (1), Harmonium (1) Accordion (1) Oboe (1) Cello (1) Viola (1) Electronic Organ (1) Drums, Shakers, Bongoes etc (2) Cymbals(1) Penny Whistle (1) Ring Modulator (1) Metal Frame (1) Rubber Band (1)

The 15 tracks rambled from a radical rearrangement of an old tune by The Shadows, Walk Don't Run, to a piece hung around a riff made of pure musique concrete: 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).

Each track had an idiosyncratic inspiration and, often enough, an intriguing, bizarrely specific title. Pythagoras's Trousers; Cutting Branches For A Temporary Shelter, The Ecstasy Of Dancing Fleas. Air A Danser was inspired by Madagascan zither music. Numbers 1-4 investigated the application of interlocking numerical patterns as a basis for composition. Simon's Dream by contrast was self-explanatory, but not verbally so. Words were banished from this album and voices only cropped up once, and then merely la la-ing. "I have a lot of trouble with meaning," Jeffes said. "Words I find very divisive. I'm very suspicious of them. I'm not a wordsmith, I'm not a literary man. I think the voice is a great instrument. But it is an instrument I have to earn my license to use."

Wordless as it was, Penguin Café 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 1980's."

Just after its release Marcus Beale, the architect and composer of liturgical music, joined the party playing violin.

With Penguin Café Orchestra, 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 which held a particular fascination for Simon Jeffes, not least because it was the home of Zen Buddhism, his religion of choice. 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." Over the next year or so the Japanese became the Penguins' most appreciative audience. Another tour and a mini album (largely recorded live in Tokyo) earned the Orchestra cult status in the land of abandoned harmoniums and set them up, back home, to finish recording their third set of original material.

The cast for Broadcasting From Home was even bigger than the one which played on Penguin Café Orchestra. The jazz trombonist Annie Whitehead added an occasional brassy swing to the proceedings, as did trumpeter Dave Defries. A certain amount of coming and going in the rhythm section saw three new drummers helping out - Fami, Trevor Morais and Mike Giles, formerly with King Crimson.

Overall, this album sounded a tad more restrained and reflective than its predecessor despite the inclusion of a couple of reggae-tinged grooves and the jigsome exuberance of Music For A Found Harmonium. But to those who thought that he might be jumping on the increasingly fashionable New Age bandwagon, Jeffes was robust. " I don't like the idea of music that is all tranquillity without that being balanced by struggle. Somehow that's a bit deceptive. It doesn't quite ring true.I feel that if you block out the heavier, more uncomfortable emotions, then at the same time you block out really joyful ones."

By now this message was definitely being picked up by the reviewers. David Hepworth at Q magazine called Broadcasting From Home a "marvellous record... as delightful as it is difficult to describe." CD Review later pronounced it to be "the third, most accomplished and consistently enjoyable of PCO albums."

From their somewhat reclusive beginnings, the Orchestra were, ten years later, becoming a live attraction with real international appeal. For the next decade, they would spend weeks or months every year on the road in Europe and North America. Ironically for an outfit which 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 3 years later having an entire South Bank show to themselves.

Though he originally regarded himself as an introverted, studio-bound performer, Simon Jeffes grew to enjoy the unpredictable buzz of playing live. "The music loves to be played," he said in 1988. "The irony is there's so much love of life in the original concept of the Penguin Café but it's taken this long for me to get to the point where I find that life actually in a live situation playing to an audience. What started out as fiction or fantasy has become real."


 
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