To trace my history with this curious and engaging band, we’ll have to indulge in a little time travel, and head all the way back to Inverness. If you’ve been following the story closely, you’ll remember that I moved to Inverness in early 1986, and – inevitably – one of the first things I did on finding myself a more or less permanent place to live was to join the library.
I have a clear memory of picking up the first Penguin Café Orchestra album in the library there, but I am drawing a complete blank on where the library actually was. Unimaginably to the 1986 version of myself, I can just go and look it up now. I’d remembered it being near the railway station, which it is, but what I was actually remembering was that it was, and still is, tucked in behind the bus station in the centre of Inverness.
It's like scratching an itch, figuring that out, I can tell you.
Anyway, in spite of being the main public library in one of Scotland’s cities, at that time the record collection available for loan wasn’t quite as broad as I had been used to in Aberdeen, so after borrowing a couple of things I’d been meaning to get round to, I found myself perusing the cover of a frankly mysterious-looking album which I think had also been in the rack in Aberdeen, but which I’d never felt the need to investigate.
What did I know about Simon Jeffes and his oddly-named Orchestra? Precisely nothing at this point, I think. I may have come across the name somewhere in the murkier recesses of the review section of Sounds at some point, but the great thing about having a library card was that I could take a risk on something I knew nothing about and hand it back a week later whether I got on with it or not.
I took home my borrowed copy of the ten-year-old Music from the Penguin Café and probably listened to it straight away. I was living on my own in Inverness those first few months; I didn’t know anyone in town, and my weekends were fairly quiet and uneventful – I didn’t even, to my considerable surprise looking back, go to see a Highland League game, of which there was pretty much always one going on in town on a Saturday. I spent my time listening to music, reading books, wandering around on Culloden Moor – right along the road from where I was living – and presumably watching television, although I don’t remember that being a particularly large part of my life.
I do know I had a TV, though, as I watched a large chunk of the 1986 World Cup on it that summer.
So, if I can presume to reconstruct my Saturday afternoon, it likely was spent listening to, trying to figure out, and then deciding to tape, Penguin Café music. That first album has some obvious highlights – the opening track, Penguin Café Single, and the irresistibly catchy Giles Farnaby’s Dream, for example, and some other things which seemed inscrutable and minimalist, but worthy of further study. The thing was – and this was an important consideration – what could I put on the other side of the C90 tape? Flipping from this weird, string-driven, classical inflected folk music to pretty much anything else would have jarred. What I needed was a second PCO album to pair it with.
Fortunately, Inverness Public Library also had a copy of Broadcasting From Home, and the following weekend, I swapped one for the other, filled up the tape and then let this quietly seductive, slightly subversive music infiltrate my life.
The band remained unknowable, beyond the sparse details on the album sleeves, and as I had had access to those for a week each, any details I might have gleaned from them faded quickly. What I was left with was a tape of music, mostly unlike anything else I had in my collection, but which I kept coming back to, particularly on long, late-night trips (sales meetings which ended at 10pm in Perth when I lived in Inverness; I don’t know how we put up with it, to be honest). I can’t say I carefully studied this music which always seemed to uplift and cheer me, but it got under my skin.
Once we were living in Perth and embarking on a CD collection, I added to our minimalist collection one day with the live album When in Rome… which quickly became a firm favourite. This music, which had seemed to me perhaps a little cold and sterile in its studio renditions, came alive in a concert setting. For the first time I was aware that PCO music was not only mentally stimulating, but fun. I resolved to see them live.
One of the benefits of living in Perth and working in Glasgow for that year was that it allowed me to feel reconnected to the cultural world. During that short time, we (sometimes just me, sometimes both of us) found time and the money to start going to things again – Glenda Jackson in Mother Courage at the Citizen’s Theatre is a particularly fond memory – and while Glasgow’s arts festival, Mayfest, perhaps didn’t rival the more famous summer one next door, it did cram a lot of intriguing things into a few weeks in spring.
So in May 1990, I saw Simon Jeffes and his Orchestra at the City Halls in Glasgow. It was a venue I had previously been unaware of, and was perfectly suited to the PCO. The audience was as eclectic as the music – a whole class of music students here, a bunch of ageing hippies there, me still in my suit I wore to work – and the evening passed in a blur of joyful music-making. The live album hadn’t revealed the full effect of a performance – it cut out all the dry wit of Jeffes’ between-numbers chat, for instance, and seeing these remarkable musicians effortlessly switch between instruments as needed – often mid-song – gave the whole thing an extra dimension missing from the recorded version.
I was apparently now the kind of person who went to concerts in a suit and tie, who sat down during the whole thing, and nodded thoughtfully along to pieces I hadn’t heard before, and didn’t even register that there was no-one up front, singing.
The music of the Penguin Café Orchestra came with us to Tring; expanded our collection on the release of new albums (I bought Union Café pretty much on the day of release), and I did finally figure out how to know something more about them.
In the early 1990s, the internet (strictly speaking the World Wide Web part of the internet, but let’s not go there) started to permeate first my work life (I vividly remember my colleague Gianluca and I being the first people at Ferrero to get online, thanks to a cheap modem and one of those “free internet” disks which quickly became drinks coasters in IT departments around the world), and then my home life. The move from it being a curiosity to something we could use for work, to a way of finding things out at home – things like guitar tablature, and so on – to part of daily life seemed to happen at bewildering pace. One minute there was this slightly scary thing called Usenet with a bewildering array of bulletin boards, the next I was cheerfully saying “hang on; I’ll just look that up” – probably on proto-search engine Dogpile, my personal favourite.
One of the things I suddenly realised I could look up was the Penguin Café Orchestra. There was a domain – zopf.com, and upon it a suitably inscrutable early website, which began “I am the proprietor of the Penguin Café. I am asked to say something to explain”.
Naturally, not much of what followed was an explanation, but it was from the zopf.com website that I first heard the story of how the Orchestra had come into being thanks to a bout of food poisoning, and sparse details of the personnel on the albums. The air of mystery only cemented my love for the music – it did seem to exist slightly outside the usual constraints of publicity machines and press releases. It seemed to say: here’s our music; see what you think.
Simon Jeffes died in the autumn of 1997, which I discovered from the obituary pages of my newspaper of choice at the time, The Independent. The deaths of people in the public eye rarely affect me, but the idea that there would be no new PCO music was profoundly shocking to me; I imagined that I’d always have something new and strangely compelling to look forward to – this was a band unlikely to suffer from the usual travails of ageing rock stars, and would surely continue sporadically releasing slightly off-kilter chamber music well into their old age.
Alas, the PCO discography is complete, and short, although it’s not all bad news, as I’ll explain below.
Concert Program is, therefore, the final statement from a group of musicians who played in the space between classical minimalism and joyful folk music; recorded ‘as live’ but without an audience (or with a staggeringly well-behaved one who didn’t so much as cough throughout), it serves as an introduction, primer, and record of the live performance of a unique musical entity.
It is also over two hours long, and were I to attempt a track-by-track review, I think I’d suck all the joy out of it by trying to describe how the piano enters here, underscoring the cello part, while playing an odd metre which seems to give the track a limp. So, for once, I won’t be doing that. Instead, I’m going to try to convince you to go out and buy a copy of this album, unheard, by explaining some of the ways it just sooths and uplifts, probably without trying to.
Let’s start with Air a Danser, the opening track. Is it actually an air? Can you dance to it? Well, as far back as Bach it seems to have been agreed that an air doesn’t actually need words, or someone to sing them, and as for dancing; I defy you not to. It starts on a nylon string guitar, and seems about to break into flamenco, but when it does decide to let its hair down, it’s a piano and some unison strings which propel it along. Jaunty, I think, is the word I’m looking for.
The second track is a version of Cage Dead, which the sleeve notes of Union Café tell us was both a reaction to the passing of John Cage (who must bear some responsibility for the way this music sounds) and a technical exercise in trying to write music based on the letters of the title. The result is the very definition of ‘off-kilter’ and takes a while to process before its delights are revealed. Once you hear it, though; once you get what’s going on, it sounds like the most glorious melody, even though whistling it remains a challenge, and draws funny looks form passers-by.
Let’s skip ahead to Perpetuum Mobile. I don’t often delve too deeply into musical theory, being strictly an amateur enthusiast when it comes to time signatures, rhythm, metre and so on, but rarely can a piece of music have been so aptly named as this, as it continually seems to overshoot the end of the bar, giving it an irresistible forward momentum as no phrase ever quite seems to finish, kicking into the next one. 13/8, I think I read somewhere, but trying to count the beats seems futile as I’m always distracted by the parping trombone.
I skipped over Numbers 1-4, which pops up in strange places – I seem to keep hearing it as incidental music in podcasts, for example.
I once tried to write a short story based on how Nothing Really Blue made me feel. I gave up when it reached 100,000 words and hadn’t gone anywhere. It’s – the music, I mean, not the unfinished story – simultaneously melancholic and uplifting, with the minimalist backing underpinning a simple, elegiac piano melody which has enough tiny flourishes to make you think of someone breaking out of a long-term depression. I have likely maligned this beautiful piece of music, but that’s what it said to me.
One of the great things about being a fan of the PCO is that every now and then a piece of their music appears when you were busy doing something else and makes you yelp for joy. Telephone and Rubber Band did this to me the first (and perhaps only) time I saw Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio. Famously created from the kind of technological glitch which could only happen with analogue systems, it’s based around a recording of a mix of a ring tone and an engaged signal which happened to Simon Jeffes one day when he happened to have a tape recorder close at hand. Oh, and a rubber band, which he used to emphasise the accidental rhythm of the electronic bleeps. That original, second-generation analogue recording from a telephone handset now has a life of its own, featuring in hit records, advertising campaigns, and – yes – podcast soundtracks. It’s a handy metaphor for crossed wires and technological issues, but it also just sounds like a telephone having a cheery singalong.
Live, the sounds were played on a looped reel-to-reel tape, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it was the original recording.
Beanfields is what happens when the Penguins let themselves off the leash and see what happens – there was always something about beans in the titles of their songs which provokes everyone to get up and start leaping around. This far in to the concert, it serves as a joyful release of all the pent-up fun we’ve been having, and a palate-cleanser for the second half, which gets underway with the solemn, thoughtful and clam Vega, a piano piece given life by the string arrangement, and which wouldn’t sound out of place as the second movement of a piano concerto.
Music for a Found Harmonium is another of those PCO pieces which has a life of its own, having been co-opted by generations of Irish musicians as a modern reel, and remixed by The Orb in the 90s as Pandaharmonium. Both those treatments are as joyful as the original, but perhaps miss the point of the original which was written and played on – well, obviously - a found harmonium. The full story was on the old website.
Lifeboat really is played at a (Lover’s Rock) rhythm and tempo – well, most of it is; the cello seems to be serenely floating above it all, perhaps on the lifeboat…. It’s still one of my favourites of all of these for its gleeful loping beat and its effortless melody, and marks the point at which the concert begins to wind up to what was presumably an encore following the transition into the calm piano and strings of Steady State, which – I like to think ended the main program, leaving us stamping and shouting for more.
Yes, I know. It does sometimes sound like background music, but it really isn’t. Immersed in it, carried along by its spirit, and seeing it performed by a host of musicians having a lot of fun, you, too, would be on your feet at the end.
Like all good rock concerts, the encore is mainly reserved for the fan favourites we haven’t heard yet. Scherzo and Trio bounces in, allowing the brass to take centre stage, and those of the audience who listen to BBC Radio 4 (and let’s face it, that’s most of them) to suddenly exclaim “Oh, that’s the Round Britain Quiz music!
Which they all knew, anyway, but it still makes me smile every time, and I don’t really hear RBQ any more.
Then I’m catapulted back to that draughty single-bedroom cottage on Culloden Moor. The first time I heard Glies Farnaby’s Dream, I knew that, whatever else was on this album, this was my kind of music. It’s a kind of wheezy interpretation of an original piece from the early 17th century by a fairly obscure English composer of music for the virginal, that delicate precursor to the modern piano.
It starts almost in period costume, but almost immediately throws that off with a gleeful burst of cuatro and a yelp of joy. There are trombones and whistles going on all over the place – at times, it seems to be somewhere in the jungles of South America; at others its firmly in the English countryside which Farnaby would have recognised, but at no time does it let up in its relentless pursuit of a good time. By this point, the audience are up and dancing, and with good reason.
This version of Giles Farnaby wanders off into new, possibly improvised areas midway, and then brings us back to earth by putting its costume back on and ending back where we began in the early 1600s, a little dishevelled and out of breath, but grinning from ear to ear.
There’s a short pause for breath at the beginning of Salty Bean Fumble, but we’re very quickly back to full ‘dancing around like crazy people’ status. This version of the piece is superior to the studio version, and captures the energy and life I remember from the live versions I saw. It ends too soon, of course, but that’s mainly because I could happily bounce around listening to it for another 30 or 40 minutes..
Then, like all responsible orchestras do, we’re sent out into the chill night air with a short piece of calming music – Red Shorts performs its function admirably, but I’d have happily just have had more leaping around.
I hadn’t listened to Concert Program for some time before doing this post, but if it’s possible to be word-perfect on an album with no words, that’s what I was. Listening to it has brought the same feelings of joy and comfort I always had listening to any Penguin Café music. Almost as much as anything on this list, and more than most, this music has been the soundtrack to my life.
It’s nothing like anything else on here, but it’s like all of it – part of me in ways I can’t really explain.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
The obligatory ‘all of them’ really does apply here; they’re all terrific, but if I have to pick one Broadcasting From Home may be the best way in. But Union Café is probably the best of them. Ah, listen to it all; thank me later.
Compilations to consider?
Putting this one aside, I’d recommend Preludes, Airs and Yodels, as comprehensive a summary as you could wish for. It also features a couple of those Found Harmonium versions I referred to earlier.
Aside from this one, there’s the aforementioned When In Rome…, which is almost as good as this, and lived in my car for years.
A couple of things. The spirit of the Café lives on in Simon’s son Arthur, whose Penguin Café no longer has an Orchestra, but very much reflects his father’s way of doing things. There’s also the ballet – Still Life at the Penguin Café is a delight, and may still be available somewhere; I had my old VHS copy digitised some years ago, and while the picture quality isn’t great, the music still shines through.