Echo Location: The Penguin Cafe Orchestra

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra along with Harold Budd, virtually created the Ambient Chamber Music genre. Their CDs have just been re-released. In this Echo Location we return to a 1988 interview with PCO founder, the late-Simon Jeffes.

You can hear an audio version of this blog with music here.

When Malcolm McLaren decided that Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious should cover the Frank Sinatra hit, “My Way,” he got Simon Jeffes to write the string arrangements.

Simon Jeffes: His singing was grotesque, but at the same time there was something moving about it. And it wasn’t a send up when I did the arrangement. I actually got quite touched by it. Because although it sounded totally moronic in a way, it was full of kind of anger and despair and yet life, there was really life
in the piece.

“My Way” might be Simon Jeffes’ most notorious work, but it’s not the music for which he’s best known. That would be the quirky chamber music group, The Penguin Café Orchestra. They were an ad hoc assemblage of musicians headed up by Jeffes from 1973 until his untimely death 24 years later. They recorded their first album for rock and new music auteur Brian Eno‘s label called Obscure Records. The roster included John Adams, Harold Budd and Michael Nyman, but even more than those genre- bending composers, the Penguin Café Orchestra was unclassifiable.

You’ve heard the Penguin Café Orchestra on NPR shows, IBM commercials and even the Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack. They were an influence on modern chamber rock and Trey Anastasio, guitarist from the jam band, Phish, was looking to the Penguin Café Orchestra when he composed his instrumental album, Seis De Mayo.

Trey Anastasio: If there was a sound that was in my head, interestingly, it was probably the Penguin Café Orchestra. I don’t know how many albums they had but I had one of them, and I use to always play that album while I was cooking. So when I sequenced and mixed this album I literally sequenced it in the kitchen while cooking, and I use to think I want to have an album that you can cook to, like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

I think Simon Jeffe’s would’ve appreciated the music for cooking scenario.

Simon Jeffes: It was whole idea of an orchestra playing Beethoven in a smokey atmosphere, I think was very exciting. People with a sparkle in their eye and sort of maybe a cigarette in the corner of their mouth.

Several albums from the Penguin Café Orchestra have just been re-released.

You can hear a longer version of this interview, Tonight, July 23, on Echoes. You can also here an audio version of this Echo Location with music.

It’s hard to pick out on Penguin Café Orchestra album. Signature songs are scattered across their 4 studio recordings.

My personal favorite is Signs of Life. Besides key tracks like “Southern Jukebox Music,” it has a few songs of unalloyed and quaint beauty including “Rosasolis” and “Perpetuum Mobile.”

Music from the Penguin Café, their debut, is still a standout. Playing ukeleles and quatros, with earnest string arrangements, this album was so unhip that it was ultrahip. “The Penguin Café Single” stands out here.

Penguin Cafe Orchestra The self-titled album, Penguin Café Orchestra contains “Telephone and Rubber Band,” the closest they came to pure novelty, although they always flirted with that. (Note that the CD cover links to the original CD issue. The remastered version wasn’t on Amazon at this writing.)

Broadcasting from Home has some signature tracks, including “Music for a Found Harmonium.”

When In Rome is a live album and contains faithful renditions of most of PCO’s best-loved tracks.

John Diliberto (((echoes)))

  2 comments for “Echo Location: The Penguin Cafe Orchestra

  1. Very interesting. I’m glad you dropped by my blog. I’m really digging PCO’s self titled album, and I’m on the hunt for more! I’d love to find them on vinyl, but I’m glad they’ve had this CD remastering done. It’s a shame to find out that Jeffes is now deceased, I would have loved to see the band live.

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