Simon Jeffes on bowed guitar (left) with David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto

Wow, what a loaded track title and what a loaded track. This band was born out of a hallucinated dream experienced by one Simon Jeffes while recovering from food poisoning. In one fever dream he saw an all seeing eye viewing a couple making love, lovelessly with modern technology rather than with passion, then in another room viewing a man staring at himself in the mirror with obsession, and finally in another room there was a musician with an arsenal of keyboards, with headphones on, making music no one could hear except himself. All of this was a dire nightmaric vision to him. He saw all these people as self-interested prisoners to the cold order of modernity.

A couple of days later while strolling on the beach with better health and spirit, a poem came to him: “I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe, I will tell you things at random'” and so on explaining the virtues of living an unorderly fearless life. Somehow, seeing through his vision and creating this monument to a new form of neo-folk, an “imaginary folkloric” music as Simon would put it, that showed something from the past truly mattered. A band that could play somewhere, out in the open, a seamless version of free folk music that would be where these cold people could go and open up.

You see, up to this point, in 1972, Simon was struggling mightily with the spirit of his life. Simon was born in Sussex to a father who had a profession that required him to travel to many foreign countries. This type of life meant the Simon spent most of his life moving around Canada and Europe, never feeling much rooted to any home. When he finally picked up a guitar at the age of 12, that gave him some sort of consolation. So enamored he was with music that he enlisted in a music university as soon as he could. There he would learn classical theory and technique but become quickly disillusioned with the stiff order of it all. Shortly thereafter he dropped out and joined Gilbert Biberian’s Omega Players (an avant garde 10-piece guitar ensemble). Something he quickly developed a distaste for, for being far too eggy and cerebral.

For a brief period in the early 70’s he toyed with the idea of being a rock musician. Simon would serve as lead guitarist for singer-songwriter Rupert Hine, and even went so far as creating demos trying pull of some kind of a reggae vocalist career. By 1972, he took a sojourn to Japan and discovered a whole slew of ethnic music he never heard before. The sound of African kora music, Japanese koto folk, and so on set him on a different path. While he deeply loved all this new folk music, he knew that he shouldn’t be a privileged westerner emulating it, he should come back home and create his own ethnic music.

His idea of making music that wasn’t omnivorous, but expanding and omnidirectional was a cousin in spirit to the music of Mike Oldfield‘s and the Third Ear Band. Simon dreamt of creating a music that would appeal to listeners and remind them of: “Beethoven, Bach, Erik Satie, John Cage, Abba, Wilson Pickett, Zimbabwean mbira, Cajun fiddle, Irish bagpipe, Venezuelan cuatro, West African choral, the Rolling Stones, and Stravinsky.” He had a pan-folk vision when everyone else was running into their own caves. In 1973, he rounded up 3 other musicians Helen Liebmann (who would become his long time companion) on cello, Gavin Wright on violin, and Steve Nye on electric piano and with himself on lead guitar (and many other instruments) they played their first gigs in London. The first two pieces they recorded were the appropriately named “Penguin Cafe Single” and my track of the day “The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away and It Doesn’t Matter”.

Those two pieces full of gorgeous thoroughly modern sounding folk music so wowed someone who was introduced to Simon, Brian Eno. When you hear the mind expanding looping violin and guitar work in the single, or the post-rock lilting bittersweet balladry of “The Sound…” who wouldn’t be struck by its uniqueness for its time, lord knows I was floored by it. Its this different take on the past that led Eno to them. Simply trying to get his fledgling record label Obscure Records up and running he invited them to sign and contribute. His dream of having a record company where new more engaged types of experimental musicians and modern classical composers could release their work would be a perfect fit for them. Now influential artists like Gavin Bryars, Harold Budd, Michael Nyman, and John Adams (let alone Eno’s own ambient career) all got their start there. Unfortunately, for Simon, Eno didn’t have much of a recording budget to provide, only giving them around 900 British Pounds to work with.

Music from the Penguin Cafe album cover by Emily Young.

Recording most of the album in his back garden, Simon called on friends to come and contribute. Painter Emily Young (the Emily from See Emily Play) sang on a few songs and donated a surreal painting which became the iconic artwork/image for the band. An university lecturer friend of his donated ukulele and some lyrics. Jeffes interest in unusual instruments grew to include ring modulator, and spinet, weaving them into the fabric of his new folk music. Various musicians from different stages in life came and left to contribute.

Original artwork, Obscure Records era.

When all was said and done a song like “Giles Farnaby’s Dream” which mixed latin grooves with native English baroque-style melodies (in homage to Giles Farnaby the composer himself) typified this new massively different vision of modern English folk music. When the album was released in 1976, as part of the amazing Obscure Record series (the original cover being part of a compendium of communal covers making out a painting), it was part of a new vision made more supportive by the rise of punk (lest we forget he actually orchestrated Sid Vicious’ death of classic punk, anthem “My Way“), new age, and disco movements. This was music that people from all walks of life could gladly put on in public to enjoy in between these other styles, taking folk music forwards stylistically but back emotionally to a more communal time. A true orchestra in a literal sense it was being heard not on headphones but on stage supporting Kraftwerk or in people’s stereos.

Enough of me yapping, I’ll let you listen to the rest of the album and steal a quote, which you can read here, by Brian Eno stating perfectly what he (and I agree wholely!) thought of Simon’s work:

“Given his individuality, his non-allegiance to any particular musical category, and the unfailing eclecticism of his vision, Simon Jeffes could easily be marginalised as an English eccentric – and thus sort of overlooked.

The truth is he discovered a huge musical territory – stretching along the border regions of the whole United Nations of music – and he wandered through it fascinated and, apparently always smiling. These pieces are reports back from those borderlands.

Like any good explorer, Simon was both alert and humble. He had no trace of musical snobbery, but delighted in the length and breadth of music, happy to experiment with all combinations.”

Ah, different combinations that’s how English neo-folk music will endure! More of that tomorrow though…

Bonus track, a bit later in time, but capturing the same spirit of the past, its a then rare TV performance of theirs at the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1984 playing other tracks like “Prelude and Yodel”, “Paul’s Dance” and more from a future brilliant release (I’ll get to in due time):

Listen to Music from the Penguin Cafe at Spotify.