Discover more from The Metropolitan
1976: Pop Muzak
A quiet drink with Jean-Michel Jarre at The Penguin Cafe
Strange how potent cheap music can be. Like a whiff of Blue Stratos on the night air, all it takes is a few bars and there we are, forty years ago, dripping extruded ice cream product on the vinyl seats of a Morris Marina while the rain falls on a pebbled beach. Year by year, these are the songs that have soundtracked our lives.
Zopf: Giles Farnaby’s Dream - The Penguin Cafe Orchestra
Obsession and obsolescence are twin features of music listening. You find a new exciting record and play it to death, and then it dies. You forget all about it until, years later, while looking for something else, you unearth an old mixtape and suddenly remember how you wore the oxide off the plastic with relistening. But that person is gone now and the music is just the sound of a memory.
But there is music that you never stop listening to. That even as you change, and the music changes, the connection and pleasure still remains. The Penguin Cafe Orchestra is one of those for me. From the moment I first discovered them in the ’80s, their music has soundtracked my life.
Simon Jeffes’ weird, parping, jiggling minimalist folk jazz ensemble released their first album in 1976: Music from the Penguin Cafe. It’s almost impossible to describe the Penguin Cafe Orchestra to someone who has never heard them, but there are very few people who haven’t heard them, even if purely unconsciously, because they manage to be both omnipresent and invisible.
In this early 1976 incarnation they’re like an English folk rendition of Krautrock: German minimalist pioneers Neu! by way of New York jazz weirdo Moondog. But instead of driving down the autobahn to Dusseldorf, we’re gavotting monotonously round a knot garden. This is dinner party music, if you’re an artist holding a dinner party in a half-renovated Spitalfields weaver’s house.
Oxygène, Part 4 - Jean Michel Jarre
The British had cod-Baroque minimalism and the Germans had the pulsing beat of modern industry; the French had the sci-fi soundtrack of the psychedelic future. Synth pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre’s first album, Oxygène, was also released in 1976, and it’s like a bande dessinee by the comic-book genius Moebius turned into music: all clair ligne alien landscapes in sunset colours and intricate neon renderings of skyscrapers.
It sums up the indescribable dorky coolness of ‘70s and ‘80s France: the home of technological marvels, like Concorde and Minitel, but also creaking traditions, such as inept pop music, the forced feeding of geese and the 2CV. Oxygene is futuristic music for a very old-fashioned future, a future in which lasers were cool (especially when you made a harp out of them, as Jarre did).
My experience with Jarre’s music is different from my experience with the Penguin Cafe Orchestra; I loved it, then lost it. I listened to Oxygène and its follow up Équinoxe over and over again in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, spending endless evenings in deep electronic reverie, lost in visions of gleaming starships plunging through nebulae in a shower of scintillating stardust. Until, that is, I discovered less hallucinogenic occupations, like taking drugs.
The Sound of Someone You Love Going Away And It Doesn't Matter - Penguin Cafe Orchestra
Those reveries, dreaming along to the images the music conjures, are a kind of clue to what kind of music this is (as well as what kind of listener I am).
Jarre and Penguin Cafe Orchestra have both been used liberally in soundtracks and as theme music. This explains their invisible omnipresence: they are in the background but uncredited, unless you recognised Oxygène noodling away under Peter Jones’ narration in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Penguin Cafe Orchestra introducing bourgeois brain-scrambling boffin-off Round Britain Quiz on Radio 4. They are, to a certain generation, the sound of Television for Schools and mildly educational documentaries on BBC 2.
Both of them lend themselves to soundtracks admirably, melding ‘tunes the people can hum’ (as Tom Lehrer once witheringly described Mozart) with a minimalist Satie background throb that fills space without occupying it too noticeably.
This makes them perfect personal soundtracks as well: music that does not demand to be listened to, that can accompany another activity. Like writing this, for example.
Oxygène, Part 2 - Jean Michel Jarre
What they are, in other words, is a higher form of Muzak. Muzak is a corporate eponym, like Hoover, another instrument of good suburban housekeeping. The company’s name was a deliberate elision of music and Kodak: music that is effortless, the aural equivalent of a holiday snapshot with the heads cut off.
The mission of the Muzak Corporation was to pipe music into workplaces with the express purpose of encouraging different styles of work. Different genres were matched to different tasks; specific kinds of music were chosen to tune employees’ minds to specific goals. Fordist capitalism with a catchy beat.
But we also use Muzak on ourselves: to catch our moods, calm them, enhance them. These are ‘lo-fi hip-hop beats to study to’ as YouTube has it; music that does not insist on us being anything other than ourselves. Music that can drown out the internal monologue even as it can help us dream.
Penguin Cafe Single - Penguin Cafe Orchestra
Background music is often derided, mostly because it’s often easy to deride. But there is a deep snobbery in that derision. We’re supposed to ‘enjoy’ music in the same way as Tibby in E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, following along with the score on our laps, not like his sister Helen, imagining all the goblins that Beethoven conjures for her. But not all music is Beethoven. In fact, very little of it is, statistically speaking.
And yet, in its own quiet way, even this kind of music can be innovative. Even a light classical composer like Eric Coates incorporated jazz or contemporary classical into his work (there’s invisible omnipresence: you all know Coates’ music because it’s used as the theme for Desert Island Discs but how many of you knew his name?). Mid-50s composers like Martin Denny raided the traditions of the Pacific for their albums of ‘exotica’.
This is 1976, after all, an era of progressive rock for university students, jazz for pro musicians and modern classical for people who hate themselves. Even pop music is full of storytelling lyrics that demand attention. To compose music that is just tune and rhythm, that does not impose: this is revolution.
In a couple of years’ time, Brian Eno will release his first Ambient record, leading us on down to the hauntological theme tunings of Belbury Poly and the unsettling dreams of Boards of Canada. This is a revolution, but a quiet one, in the background, almost unnoticed.
The playlist for 1976:
Previously in background music, we wondered what the poor old ukulele had done to deserve to be in so many ads for insurance:
The Metropolitan is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.