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Penguin Cafe Orchestra

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra (PCO) was an avant-pop band led by English guitarist Simon Jeffes. Co-founded with cellist Helen Liebmann, the band toured extensively during the 1980s and 1990s. The orchestra's sound is not easily categorized, but has elements of exuberant folk music and a minimalist aesthetic occasionally reminiscent of composers such as Philip Glass.[2]

Penguin Cafe Orchestra
Years active1972–1997, 2007
LabelsObscure, E.G., Virgin/EMI
Associated actsThe Anteaters, The Orchestra That Fell to Earth, Penguin Cafe

The group recorded and performed for 24 years until Jeffes died of an inoperable brain tumour in 1997. Several remaining members of the original group reunited for three concerts in 2007. Since then, five original members have continued to play concerts of PCO's music, first as The Anteaters, then as The Orchestra That Fell to Earth. In 2009, Jeffes' son Arthur founded a distinct successor band simply called Penguin Cafe. Although it includes no original PCO members, it features many PCO pieces in its live repertoire, and records and performs new music written by Arthur.



After becoming disillusioned with the rigid structures of classical music and the limitations of rock, in which he also dabbled, Simon Jeffes became interested in the relative freedom in ethnic music and decided to imbue his work with the same sense of immediacy and spirit.[citation needed]

Describing how the idea of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra came to him, Jeffes said:

The group's debut album, Music from the Penguin Cafe, a collection of pieces recorded in 1974–76, was released in 1976 on Brian Eno's experimental Obscure Records label, an offshoot of the EG label. It was followed in 1981 by Penguin Cafe Orchestra, after which the band settled into a more regular release schedule.

The band played its first major concert on 10 October 1976, supporting Kraftwerk at The Roundhouse. They went on to tour the world and play at a variety of music festivals as well as residencies on the South Bank in London. From 1976 to 1996 they played in the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, and throughout Europe and the UK. In March, 1987 they were the subject of an episode of the ITV arts series The South Bank Show,[4] on which they performed "Air", "Bean Fields", "Dirt" and "Giles Farnaby's Dream".[5]


Simon Jeffes experimented with various configurations live and in the studio, including an occasional 'dance orchestra' and a quintet of strings, oboe, trombone and himself on piano. On the studio albums, he sometimes played several instruments himself, and brought in other musicians according to the needs of each piece.

There were a number of incarnations of the live band. Original members Gavyn Wright and Steve Nye left in 1984 and 1988 respectively. Bob Loveday replaced Gavyn Wright on violin. Gradually a regular line-up evolved around Simon Jeffes and Helen Liebman: Neil Rennie, who joined in 1975 on ukulele; Geoffrey Richardson, who had joined in 1976 and co-wrote three pieces on Broadcasting from Home (1984), played viola, cuatro, guitar, clarinet, mandolin and ukulele; Julio Segovia answered an advert in the Melody Maker and joined in 1978 on percussion; Paul Street joined in 1984 playing guitar, cuatro and ukulele, leaving in 1988; Jennifer Maidman joined in 1984 on percussion, bass, ukulele and cuatro; Steve Fletcher replaced Steve Nye in 1988 on piano and keyboards and Annie Whitehead, who had also appeared on Broadcasting from Home (1984), joined the live band in 1988 on trombone. Finally, Peter McGowan took over from Bob Loveday on violin and Barbara Bolte joined on oboe. Doug Beveridge also became a regular fixture at the live mixing desk. The album Concert Program (1995) is the definitive recording of this lineup, and includes many of the group's best-known pieces.

Later bandsEdit

After Simon Jeffes' death, members of the orchestra continued to meet occasionally to play together, but there were no new recordings or public appearances for over ten years. In 2007 the band briefly re-formed, with the lineup as featured on Concert Program (minus Julio Segovia), with Jennifer Maidman now handling Simon's guitar parts. The original members were joined onstage by Simon Jeffes's son Arthur on percussion and additional keyboards, and played three sold-out shows at the Union Chapel in London.

After those concerts, Arthur Jeffes wanted to form a new group without any of the original PCO members. He called it "Music from the Penguin Cafe", later shortened to simply "Penguin Cafe". This all-new ensemble, sometimes inaccurately billed as The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, played at a number of festivals in 2009, combining Penguin Cafe numbers with new pieces. In 2010 they appeared at the BBC Proms (with Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell).

With the 'Penguin Cafe' name now being used by Arthur, the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra members who wanted to continue playing their music needed an alternative title. Four of them, multi-instrumentalists Geoffrey Richardson and Jennifer Maidman, trombonist Annie Whitehead and pianist Steve Fletcher have since played some festivals under the name The Anteaters. They have been joined by percussionist Liam Genockey. Well known as a member of Steeleye Span, Liam had also played live with the Penguins in Italy in the 1980s. The name 'Anteaters' came from an incident on the 1983 PCO tour of Japan when Simon Jeffes discovered there was a craze for penguins in the country. Simon joked that, if the fashion changed, the orchestra would have to change its name to "The Anteater Cafe Orchestra". In October 2011 the same line-up also appeared at the Canterbury Festival in Kent, UK, performing two hours of original PCO music under another name "The Orchestra That Fell To Earth" and they have subsequently continued to perform under that name.

Notable piecesEdit

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra's most famous piece may be "Telephone and Rubber Band", which is based around a tape loop of a UK telephone ringing tone intersected with an engaged tone, accompanied by the twanging of a rubber band. The piece is featured on the soundtracks of Nadia Tass's film comedy Malcolm (1986) and Oliver Stone's film Talk Radio (1988), and in a long-running advertising campaign for the telecoms company One2One (now T-Mobile). The 1996 single "In The Meantime" by New York City-based English rockers Spacehog featured a tweaked and fine-tuned sample of "Telephone and Rubber Band". It was also the trademark song of the Argentinean show dedicated to artistic animation Caloi en su tinta. The tape loop was recorded when Jeffes was making a phone call, and discovered that he was hearing a combination of a ring tone and an engaged signal at the same time, due to a fault in the system. He recorded it on an answering machine.

Another famous tune featured in Malcolm (among other films) is "Music for a Found Harmonium", which Jeffes wrote on a harmonium that he had found dumped in a back street in Kyoto, where he was staying in the summer of 1982 after the ensemble's first tour of Japan. He wrote that after installing the found harmonium "in a friend's house in one of the most beautiful parts at the edge of the city," he "frequently visited this instrument during the next few months, and I remember the time fondly as one during which I was under a form of enchantment with the place and the time."[6] "Music for a Found Harmonium" was used for a trailer as well as over the end-credits of the 1988 John Hughes movie She's Having a Baby where many film actors and celebrities of the time invent their favourite name for an imagined child, although it was not placed on the soundtrack accompanying the movie.[6] The piece gained exposure when it was released on the first Café del Mar volume in 1994. Its rhythm, tempo and simple structure made it very suitable for adaptation into a reel, and it was subsequently recorded by many Irish traditional musicians, including Patrick Street, De Dannan, Kevin Burke and Sharon Shannon. An Irish traditional version was used on the soundtrack of the film Hear My Song, made in Ireland in the early 1990s. In 2004, Patrick Street's cover of "Music For A Found Harmonium" was featured in the film Napoleon Dynamite and the following year in the film It's All Gone Pete Tong. The Scottish folk rock band Rock Salt and Nails, from Shetland, also recorded a version for their debut album Waves in 1993.

Simon Jeffes composed music for the ballet Still Life at the Penguin Cafe, largely based on earlier compositions for the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. (Geoffrey Richardson co-wrote one of the pieces.[7]) The ballet was first performed by the Royal Ballet in 1988 and released as an album under Jeffes' name.

Another of the group's well-known pieces is "Perpetuum Mobile" from their 1987 album Signs of Life[8]. It has been used as theme music for several films, television and radio programmes, including the Australian stop motion animated film Mary and Max (2009) as the main theme, as well as the television adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale.[9] Swedish DJ Avicii sampled the main melody for his song "Fade into Darkness". The song is unusual in that it was written with a 15/8 time signature. The melody appears to end and repeat one beat ahead of when it should, giving the piece the feel of a perpetual motion device.

Uses by othersEdit



  • Penguin Cafe Orchestra music featured on the 1986 Australian cult film Malcolm, written by David Parker and directed by Nadia Tass. The film won the 1986 Australian Film Institute Award for Best Film. The opening theme is "Music for a Found Harmonium", and during the film features "Paul's Dance", "Yodel 1", "Yodel 2" and "Telephone and Rubber Band". The closing theme is "The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas".
  • The first trailer for the John Hughes movie She's Having a Baby consisted of edited-together, increasingly fast, dialogue-free clips from the movie with only this musical piece playing over them. [1]
  • "Telephone and Rubber Band" was used in the final sequence and at the start of the closing credits of Talk Radio (1988), directed by Oliver Stone.
  • "Perpetuum Mobile" was used the main theme for the documentary The Union: The Business Behind Getting High (2007), the animated Australian film Mary and Max (2009), the Swedish movie Slim Susie (2003) and the documentary Project Nim (2011).
  • "Music For a Found Harmonium" is featured in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), and the 2016 film The Founder[10]




Studio albumsEdit

Extended playEdit

Live albumsEdit


  • Preludes, Airs & Yodels (A Penguin Cafe Primer) (1996)
  • A Brief History (2001) CDV 2954
  • History (2001) Virgin Records LCO 3098
  • The Second Penguin Cafe Orchestra Sampler (2004)

Simon Jeffes albumsEdit

Related albumEdit

  • Arcane (1994), credited to 'Assorted Artists'

Arcane consists of recordings by diverse musicians brought together in August 1992 at the Real World studios in Wiltshire for a week of spontaneous collaborations and performances. No one musician appears on every track, but Jeffes is one of the more constant presences on this album. Amongst the many other collaborators are Billy Cobham, Andy Sheppard, Jane Siberry, Ayub Ogada, Nigel Kennedy, and Nana Vasconcelos.


  • Night Shift (1982) ("Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter")
  • Malcolm (1986)
  • She's Having A Baby Trailer (1988) ("Music For A Found Harmonium")
  • Oskar und Leni (1999) (Soundtrack was released on CD, containing 10 songs from Union Cafe and Concert Program)
  • Chuck and Buck (2000) ("Air a Danser," "Paul's Dance," "Prelude and Yodel," "Nothing Really Blue")
  • Slim Susie (2003) ("Perpetuum Mobile")
  • The Good Girl (2002) ("Air" and "Steady State")
  • The Princess and the Warrior Official Soundtrack (2000) ("Nothing Really Blue")
  • Napoleon Dynamite Official Soundtrack (2005) ("Music For A Found Harmonium")
  • It's All Gone Pete Tong Official soundtrack (2005) ("Music For A Found Harmonium")
  • Hewlett Packard - Advert (2006) ("Perpetuum Mobile")
  • 3 lbs - "Lost For Words" (2006) ("Perpetuum Mobile")
  • Year of the Dog (2007) ("Music for a Found Harmonium")
  • All the Little Animals Music written by Simon Jeffes, performed and recorded by PCO members Geoffrey Richardson, Jennifer Maidman and Steve Fletcher
  • Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) ("Music For A Found Harmonium")
  • Mary and Max (2009) ("Perpetuum Mobile"; "Prelude and Yodel")
  • Origin Energy 'Sustainability Drive' advert ("Perpetuum Mobile")
  • The Handmaid's Tale (2017) ("Perpetuum Mobile")


  1. ^ "Pop: Recommended". Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. 22 December 1984. p. 1. ISSN 0006-2510.
  2. ^ Lewis, John (2014-02-18). "Penguin Cafe – review". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-08-17.
  3. ^ "The Penguin Cafe Orchestra - Simon Jeffes". The Penguin Cafe Orchestra's official website. Archived from the original on 9 May 2008. Retrieved 3 August 2008.
  4. ^ - The South Bank Show
  5. ^ - The South Bank Show Archived 17 January 2016 at the Wayback Machine.
  6. ^ a b Preludes Airs and Yodels (A Penguin Cafe primer) Virgin Records Ltd 1996
  7. ^ Roche, Henry, Still Life at the Penguin Cafe: Arranged for Piano by Henry Roche, Edition Peters, 2002
  8. ^ Mills, Ted. "Signs of Life". Allmusic. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  9. ^ Chaney, Jen (2017-05-05). "The Handmaid's Tale's Closing Songs Are Slyly Genius". Vulture. Retrieved 2018-03-04.
  10. ^ Keaton, Michael; Offerman, Nick; Lynch, John Carroll; Cardellini, Linda (2017-01-20), The Founder, retrieved 2017-01-26
  11. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 422. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.

External linksEdit