Penguin Cafe Orchestra is a collective musical project that was founded and anchored by Simon Jeffes and Helen Liebmann. Their first record, Music from the Penguin Cafe was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records int 1976 and gave their first public performance in support of that record by opening for Kraftwerk. According to his son, Jeffes claimed that the inciting incident for the Penguin Cafe was a fever dream where he pictured
a nightmare vision of the near future – where everyone lived in big concrete blocks and spent their lives looking into screens. There was a big camera in the corner of everyone’s room, an eye looking down at them. In one room there was a couple making love lovelessly, while in another there was a musician sat at a vast array of equipment but with headphones on so there was no actual music in the room. This was a very disconnected de-humanising world that people had made for themselves…
However you could reject that and look further afield, and if you went down this dusty road you would eventually find a ramshackle old building with noise and light pouring out into the dark. It’s a place you just fundamentally want to go into, and this is the Penguin Cafe.
Blending Jeffes’ and Liebmann’s classical experience with rock music, and an interest in non-Western rhythms and instrumentations, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra released records regularly throughout the 1980s, albeit with a rotating list of members. “In the Back of a Taxi” was comes off their 1984 release Broadcasting From Home, which features perhaps their best known track “Music for a Found Harmonium,” which has been covered many times and featured in television, movies, and advertisements. Some notable appearances include Napoleon Dynamite, She’s Having a Baby, Capitalism: A Love Story, and, ironically enough, advertisements for major companies like Ford and Hewlett Packard. You can watch a 1989 performance of “Music for a Found Harmonium” at the BBC here.
Jeffes passed away in 1997 from a brain tumor, but members of the group have continued performing Penguin Cafe Orchestra material under the name The Anteaters while Simon Jeffes’ son Arthur has formed his own group called the Penguin Cafe.