How prog are Penguin Cafe Orchestra?
The musical collective praised randomness, caught the attention of Brian Eno and were self-described as “modern semi-acoustic chamber music”, amongst other things. But just how prog were they?
In 1972, Simon Jeffes was on holiday in the South of France when he contracted food poisoning from fish. During a high fever, he experienced a series of hallucinations, including a dystopian vision of the future. He recalled the incident in 1988.
“The next day, when I felt better, I was on the beach sunbathing and suddenly a poem popped into my head. 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. And if you suppress that to have a nice orderly life, you kill off what’s most important. Whereas in the Penguin Cafe, your unconscious can just be.”
And so the idea for the Penguin Cafe Orchestra was born. This strangest of group concepts defined a mental space, which Jeffes could fill with musical ideas. While leading the instrumental ensemble, with its shifting cast of over 30 musicians, he produced some of the most singular music of the 70s and 80s, until his death in 1997, aged 49.
Jeffes started out performing in a classical guitar group, but by the late 70s he was disenchanted with both classical repertoire and rock’n’roll. His former partner Emily Young is now one of the UK’s foremost sculptors. As a teen, she had been to some of Pink Floyd’s earliest London shows. She knew Syd Barrett – “Just in passing” – and is thought to be the inspiration for the song See Emily Play. This was the milieu in which she met Jeffes.
“It was the 60s when he started being who he was in terms of a musician and composer, and leaping out of the rather dismal past,” says Young. “And in that kind of optimism, it’s similar to what Syd Barrett was doing: it’s quite English.”
So much of Jeffes’ music is hard to pin down, mercurial in nature, and full of contradictions. For example, Young is right that with its strong melodies, whimsicality, wit and generally unassuming nature, it carries a distinct feeling of Englishness. But then it’s also pervaded by the rhythms and melodic figures of Africa and South America.