penguin cafe – ‘cooking in a room with people’

Those of you who regularly follow Steve’s ‘sleepyard’ tumblr (or who inhabit the shady world of Japan fb sites, where these pictures are often re-posted within seconds of Steve hitting ‘enter’) can’t fail to have noticed the slew of amazing photos he unearthed last week, documenting the opening of the Penguin Cafe in 1981.  From the initial shots of Mick and Rob, beautifully robed in their own ‘penguin’ suits, to the onslaught of images of all the ‘Japan’ boys celebrating the first day of Mick & Yuka’s catering venture, we were treated to that rare thing – a whole raft of new images featuring Messrs Karn, Sylvian, Barbieri and Dean.

Rob Dean - Penguin Cafe
Rob Dean – Penguin Cafe

Much was made in the music press at the time, of Mick’s involvement with the Penguin Cafe; a lunchtime only affair, where he crafted exquisite pastries (as he did clay) into the shape of hands and fingers, to serve alongside a range of curries, grilled meats and vegetarian meals. However, the reality was that it was actually Yuka’s idea to transform the small space at the October Gallery into a restaurant and tea room.  Given a 10 month contract, Mick and Yuka took the name from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra (an instrumental band who would frequently cross paths with the Japan members over a number of years) and they would spend hours devising menus with Mick concentrating ‘most on desserts, with my sculpted finger biscuits as the main attraction….cinnamon flavoured with chocolate finger nails, with the real treat appearing once bitten and the jam interior oozed out’ (MK – Japan and Self Existence)

Mick & Rob - Penguin Cafe
Mick & Rob – Penguin Cafe

But, this was 1981. A year when Japan started to really break into the mainstream in the UK; with 2 tours (in May and December) and an album to record, just how much time could Mick have really devoted to the running of the Penguin Cafe? I think Connie’s PR machine must have been running on full throttle again, as Mick was frequently credited with being the ‘owner’; whereas in reality, Yuka and her friend were responsible for the running of the business, with Mick contributing to the creative side of catering, as and when he could. A polymath he may have been, but even he couldn’t be in 2 places at the same time!

However, that matters not a jot. Regardless of how much time he actually spent with his hands in a mixing bowl, what we have here are some wonderfully candid images of the band in relaxed and happy mode, enjoying the atmosphere of the opening day of the cafe. Richard and David contributed in their own way, providing a musical backing tape – and Steve (obviously) took on the role of professional snapper!

Richard Barbieri - Penguin Cafe
Richard Barbieri – Penguin Cafe
Poised penguins, Rob Dean (L) and Mick Karn
Poised penguins, Rob Dean (L) and Mick Karn
Happy penguins, Rob Dean (L) and Mick Karn
Happy penguins, Rob Dean (L) and Mick Karn
Mick - Penguin Cafe
Mick – Penguin Cafe

So, what of the cafe’s namesake, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra? How do they fit into the ever unravelling story of Japan? Well, at the end of the 10 month tenure at the October Gallery, the PCO were drafted in to perform, marking the climactic closing of the Penguin Cafe.  Although I am by no means an expert on the rather convoluted history of PCO , there are some pretty obvious connections between the 2 sets of musicians……

Simon Jeffes formed PCO in the early 1970s and went on to work with Sylvian and Sakamoto in 1982 on ‘Bamboo houses/Bamboo Music’

Sylvian, Sakamoto & Jeffes
Sylvian, Sakamoto & Jeffes

Joining Jeffes was none other than Steve Nye, a man whose impact upon Japan, and the recording of ‘Tin Drum’, cannot be over-stated; he continued to work with Sylvian for a number of years and worked with the band again on the Rain Tree Crow project.

Sylvian and Steve Nye during recording of Tin Drum
Sylvian and Steve Nye during recording of Tin Drum

Another PCO alumnus who fits into the story is Ian (Jennifer) Maidman, who joined David, Steve & Richard on the ‘In Praise of Shamens’ tour in 1988/89 and contributed to Alice’s ‘Il sole nella pioggia’ album, alongside Steve, Richard and Jon Hassell.

(Good grief, I feel as if I need to get Pete Frame to help me out with this!)

Ian Maidman USA 1988
Ian Maidman USA 1988

Thankfully, all of the people mentioned also feature in photos taken by Steve, which makes my life much easier – and this blog far more interesting. However, what of Mr Jansen himself? The man who is, by the very nature of this blog, usually absent from any of the images.

He once joined PCO on stage at Hackney Empire, as almost evidenced on this clip which has been doing the rounds on youtube for a couple of years:

And he also contributed a beautifully whimsical version of ‘Isle of View (Music for Helicopter Pilots)’ to the 2007 Penguin Cafe Orchestra tribute album.

So, there you have it. There are probably lots of other connections between the 2 bands that I have neglected to mention – feel free to highlight any omissions in the comments box below. There is one glaring oversight I think could have been addressed at the time, given the obvious influence of various members of PCO upon the members of Japan from 1981 onwards…….Rain Tree Penguin, anyone?

Flyer for the Penguin Cafe
Flyer for the Penguin Cafe

All photos by Steve Jansen A selection of these images are available to purchase from Steve’s imageshop

Steve answers questions and publishes photographs on his ‘sleepyard’ tumblr here:

Although Simon Jeffes sadly died in 1997, Penguin Cafe lives on under the stewardship of his son, Arthur, and information about the band can be found here:

‘Isle of View (Music for Helicopter Pilots)’ can be purchased via i-tunes

5 thoughts on “penguin cafe – ‘cooking in a room with people’

  1. Really interesting Blog as always. Very little is known about the Penguin cafe, so , with the impetus from Steve`s generosity, thanks for delving a little deeper, and pulling all the various strands of the cafe, the orchestra, and Mick`s place in it all, together.
    My brother had a cassette of the PCO many years ago, and i never bothered to listen. Just had a quick look on youtube and found this interesting clip from The Wogan show. I`m sure the main protagonist is Steve Nye, and is that Ian Jenny Maidman on percussion at the back ??

    I do think its really cool to see Rob in these pictures, and how they remained friends after he had left the band. Great pictures, great back story, great blog. Thanks all 🙂 x

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oooh, this is the best yet 😀 I so wanted to go to the Penguin Cafe and never did make it…..but finger biscuits are on my list of things to do. 😀 Who could resist?

    Liked by 1 person

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