[Review] Penguin Cafe Orchestra: Music From The Penguin Cafe (1976)

After listening to this record, you’ll wish there was more classical music scored for ukulele.

Kronomyth 1.0: The only emperor is the emperor penguin of ice cream.

The early songs of Eno notwithstanding, this is some of the silliest music to be released under the serious E.G. imprint. Penguin Cafe Orchestra is the brainchild of Simon Jeffes, a sort of walking one-man band who conscripted a trio of Helen Liebmann (cello), Gavyn Wright (violin) and Steve Nye (electric piano, mixing) to make mostly instrumental music that sounded like a cross between Anthony Phillips, John Cale and The Residents.

The first album is at least partially grounded in the avant-garde, featuring a couple Nico-esque turns from Emily Young (“Coronation,” “Milk”). Yet the real revelation comes in the joyous music they make when all pretensions to art drop: “Penguin Cafe Single,” “From The Colonies,” “Giles Farnaby’s Dream.” These songs have a childlike mirth (really, that’s the best I can do, “childlike mirth?”) that quickly gets under your skin and builds up enough goodwill to make their excursions into avant-garde territory tolerable. The second album all but eschewed the latter in favor of the former (it was an almost palpable eschewiness, as I recall, which reminds me: buy a dictionary), while the third barfed up the serious bits it had been eschewing and swallowed them again (that sentence was bound to come to no good).

Recorded in 1974 and 1976, Music From The Penguin Cafe is a contemporary of Eno’s Another Green World; if that album felt like a studied work (and it did), Music could be viewed as its understudy: some ideas based on a simple melody and expanded, others picked up and quickly dropped, one or two polished and put into the pockets as a keepsake. For years, Music was a solitary curio, followed by a delightful and unexpected followup in 1981, after which the Orchestra became a regular gig for Simon Jeffes. I typically come back to the first when I’ve exhausted the second, then onward to the third and/or back into the arms of Cale, Eno, etc. It’s more fun than Anthony Phillips’ Private Parts and more accessible than The Residents (most things are, really), plus there are few things in life more pleasant than a well-timed ukelele part, so feel free to explore this Music (though the sequel is the better place to start).

Original elpee version

A1. Penguin Cafe Single (Simon Jeffes/Steve Nye/Gavyn Wright/Helen Liebmann) (6:15)
A2. ZOPF (Simon Jeffes)
A2a. From the Colonies (for N.R.) (1:38)
A2b. In a Sydney Motel (2:28)
A2c. Surface Tension (where the trees meet the sky) (2:22)
A2d. Milk (2:22)
A2e. Coronation (1:32)
A2f. Giles Farnaby’s Dream (Giles Farnaby/Simon Jeffes) (2:19)
A2g. Pigtail (2:44)
B1. The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away and It Doesn’t Matter (Simon Jeffes/Steve Nye/Gavyn Wright/Helen Liebmann) (11:46)
B2. Hugebaby (Simon Jeffes/Steve Nye/Gavyn Wright/Helen Liebmann) (4:48)
B3. Chartered Flight (Simon Jeffes/Steve Nye/Gavyn Wright/Helen Liebmann) (6:41)

Words by Neil Rennie except “Milk.”

The Players

Simon Jeffes (electric guitar, guitar, bass, ukulele, guatro, spinet, electric piano, mouth percussion, vocals, cello, cheng, ring modulator), Helen Liebmann (cello), Steve Nye (electric piano), Neil Rennie (lyrics, ukulele on A2), Gavyn Wright (violin, viola), Emily Young (vocals). Produced by Simon Jeffes and Steve Nye; engineered and mixed by Steve Nye; executive producer: Brian Eno.

The Pictures

Painting by Emily Young.

The Plastic

Released on elpee in 1976 in the UK (Obscure, OBS-7), France and Germany (Editions EG, 2311 041).

  1. Re-packaged with Penguin Cafe Orchestra on 2-for-1 cassette in 1981 in the US (Editions EG, EGDC-3).
  2. Re-issued on elpee in 1982 in France and Germany (Editions EG, 2311 041) and Japan (Editions EG/Obscure, 25MM-0138) with picture insert.
  3. Re-issued on elpee and compact disc in 1987 in the UK and the US (Editions EG, EGED/EEGCD 27).
  4. Re-issued on compact disc on September 26, 2008 in Japan (EMI, VJCP-68883).

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