I’m not sure when I first heard the Penguin Café Orchestra, but it was a long time ago. Founded back in the 70s by British composer/guitarist Simon Jeffes. He was sick with a very bad bout of food poisoning, and dreamed of a place down the road, the Penguin Café, where people were living separate from each other, but there was a café where they all went to connect. When he recovered, he decided to make a band that played the music for that café.
Most people have never heard of the band, but it is surprising how many of us know their music. It is experimental as Cage and Stockhausen, but unlike them it has a real heart. The first album was recorded with Brian Eno, and feels like old music, or perhaps just timeless. Instead of lyrics, there is a melody that drives the sound, and also unlike them, they had a lot of very popular hits and toured for years. Their album covers are very strange, but similarly quirky and appealing. There is something really quirky about the tunes and the titles, such as ode to a found harmonium which I think refers to Jeffes finding the instrument in a skip in Japan.
The songs are open, warm, whistleable and surprisingly well known. Their most famous piece is probably telephone with a rubber band, and has featured in many film soundtracks. Here’s Preludes and Yodels:
Simon Jeffes died in Arthur has formed the Penguin Café which has none of the original group, but they play a mixture of the PCO originals as well as some of their own. They have been involved in producing music for the Aurora project, involving scientists at NASA recording music to send to outer space to let the outer reaches of space know we are here. It might scare them off. Or not.