Folk, contemporary classical, pop and all manner of truly unusual instrumentation collided to produce the extraordinary music of the Penguin Café Orchestra. With remastered versions of the first five albums reaching stores this month, David Davies takes a journey through the PCO’s inimitable soundworld.
Playful. Spirited. Adventurous. These are just three of the adjectives that spring to mind when listening to the Penguin Café Orchestra, an act utterly without parallel in the history of popular (or indeed classical) music.
Of course, the term ‘act’ is rather misleading given that the PCO was essentially a fluid, ever-changing assembly of players gathered around the gifted pivots of classically-trained multi-instrumentalist/composer Simon Jeffes and co-founder/cellist Helen Leibmann. Cast off into a peculiar but inspiring dreamscape by a bout of food poisoning in 1972, Jeffes had the early glimmerings of an ensemble that – above all – would favour spontaneity, intuition and freedom.
While numerous talented musicians would eventually be drawn into Jeffes and Leibmann’s orbit (among them renowned session bassist Ian Maidman, violinist Nigel Kennedy and Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell), it took a team of just six players to create the first PCO album, Music From the Penguin Café (1976). Originally issued on Obscure Records – a subsidiary label of E.G. overseen by early champion Brian Eno – the LP emerged in total (and glorious) contrast to the dominant mainstream movements of glam- and prog-rock. Co-produced and mixed by long-term accomplice Steve Nye (who would go on to work with Japan and XTC), it also established a rich, fluid soundworld in which conventional notions of genre were rendered irrelevant.
For many, it is the eponymously-titled second album from 1981 that is the PCO’s high water mark. A delightful fusion of classical minimalism and roots music, the 15-track album contains many of the assembly’s most well-known pieces, including ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’ (altogether now: ‘dur dur dur-dur dur dur’) and poised closer ‘Steady State’. ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ – a cherished favourite of BBC documentary makers – is also here, although it’s actually one of only two pieces on the LP not originated by Jeffes or another PCO-er (it’s credited to one J. Smith).
By this point, the PCO method of working – in which Jeffes and Leibmann, aided and abetted as required by their considerable pool of accomplices, would collate an album’s worth of material over the course of several years – was well-established. Accordingly, a three-year interval preceded the release of Broadcasting From Home (1984), an even more eclectic collection that added brass instruments, the Omnichord and the harmonium to the PCO’s already substantial palette. This time, it was the opening track, ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’, that would define the album’s reception, with The Orb among several acts who would later give the song their own distinctive spin.
Characteristically, fourth studio album Signs of Life (1987) extended PCO’s reach again, with synthesizers integrated more fully alongside the traditional panoply of acoustic instruments. ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ – a perfect piece of piano-driven minimalism that prompted comparisons with the work of Michael Nyman – would prove to be the banker this time, as numerous TV and film producers found a use for the track during the ensuing 20-plus years. The current re-issue programme concludes with the following year’s When In Rome…, a 16-track live album which offers a pretty comprehensive snapshot of in-concert PCO.
It certainly wasn’t the end of Jeffes and co’s long, tangential history, however. In 1989, Jeffes was asked to orchestrate eight existing tunes for David Bintley’s ballet, ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café – an experience that would inform the next PCO album, Union Café (1993), whose blend of acoustic and electronic elements and textures arguably represents Jeffes’ most ambitious achievement. 1995’s Concert Program – an in-studio live album – sadly proved to be the last new PCO release.
Jeffes’ relatively low public profile meant that his death in 1997 from a brain tumour came as a bolt from the blue. It was an especially cruel turn of events for a musician and composer whose scope of creativity had broadened with every passing year and who, at the age of only 48, still had untold vistas to explore. This impression was reinforced by the 2001 release of Piano Music, a tantalising solo collection of pared-back performances drawn from every period of Jeffes’ career.
In addition to the current reissues, Virgin/EMI and Editions Penguin Café are also planning a new single-CD composition. Until then, the eponymous second album should be the first port of call for anyone eager to escape into the friendly and engaging soundworld of the PCO – one whose subtle, shifting textures are more alluring than ever in these most turbulent of times.
Music From the Penguin Café, Penguin Café Orchestra, Broadcasting From Home, Signs of Life and When In Rome… are available now on Virgin/Editions Penguin Café. For more information, visit .