A great place to chill

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that a band with a name like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra should play some very cool music. 🙂

The PCO (as I’ll shorten them, although I don’t know if this is an officially sanctioned abbreviation) is a band that I was first introduced to way back in about 1990, when I used to go across to my maths teacher’s house for computer programming lessons.  It’s a sad fact that this kind of thing would almost certainly not be allowed to happen now, due to child safeguarding laws and suchlike.  In addition to taking my first steps in programming computers beyond what ZX Spectrum BASIC had to offer (not that I’m knocking that, as it was an excellent introduction to the whole programming thing), these semi-regular Saturday afternoon sessions over the course of several months, or possibly a couple of years, introduced me to the fine art of making guacamole (a skill which I don’t think I’ve ever got round to putting into practice but it’s nice to know it in theory anyway) as well as a whole load of excellent music, of which the PCO is very definitely at the top of my list.

The music of the PCO is often-described as New Age; Wikipedia defines this as “an umbrella term for various downtempo music intended to create artistic inspiration, relaxation, and optimism”, which is actually not too bad a description of the PCO sound in general, although quite a lot of their stuff (including most of my favourite pieces) is fairly up-tempo, energetic music.  There’s a good chance you’ve heard some of their music, perhaps without realising it, as several of their tunes have featured in films and adverts over the years (see the Wikipedia article linked at the start of this post for a list).

For some reason I used to believe that there was an actual Penguin Café (which I thought was in Edinburgh) and that the PCO was the band in residence there.  I now gather that this is not the case (at least the bit about the PCO being a house band for a café – there may well be a Penguin Café in Edinburgh as indeed there is one in Bangor).  Instead it’s the name of a group of musicians led by the English composer/multi-instrumentalist Simon Jeffes who, sadly, died of a brain tumour in 1997.  Incidentally, although the word café is properly written with an acute accent on the ‘e’, this seems to be absent from the official spelling of the band name.

The original PCO produced, I think, 5 studio albums and 2 live albums (as well as a few compilations) during their active years from the early 1970s to the late 1990s.  I have had the first four studio albums for quite some time and enjoyed listening to each of them many times over.  I have only just got my hands on the last studio album (Union Cafe, released in 1993) and one of the live albums (descriptively entitled Concert Program and hailing from 1995) and have so far only had time for one listen through each, but my first impressions are very favourable and I shall look forward to many more listenings of both.

One of the things I love about the PCO, apart from the many fine melodies, is the eclectic range of instruments to be heard in the ensemble.  Looking through the sleeve notes to Union Cafe, for example, I find that alongside violins, cello, piano, trombone, clarinet and cor anglais, there are appearances by a ukulele (that one has been a fairly common feature of pretty much all the PCO albums), electric aeolian harp and “clay pot and twigs”.  There’s also one track which was realized on a computer and another one featuring a guest performance from Kathryn Tickell on the Northumbrian smallpipes (as well as one with Nigel Kennedy – presumably this is back when he was still using his first name – on violin).  The whole PCO sound is very much instrumental music, although there was some use of vocals on their first album (mostly by Emily Young, who also painted the wonderful pictures of people with penguin heads that adorn most of the album covers).

Apparently Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur, has taken up the mantle of the PCO, now redubbed simply as Penguin Cafe and has produced one album so far (with a completely new set of musicians), while many of the original members of the PCO have continued working together under the name of Anteater.  I’m not sure whether they have released any albums yet, but both of these bands may be well worth a listen whether they are following closely in the footsteps of the PCO or exploring new paths.