The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band – Wangaratta Wahine – 1974 – Image Records

The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band - Wangaratta Wahine - 1974 - Image Records

Those who remember Captain Matchox remember them fondly. They were active in the 1970s playing a crazy, souped up 1930s style of jug band music, in many ways they were swimming against the stream. They were a really, really great band but I don’t think anyone, the band included, expected them to be the nationwide success that they were. The core of the band was the two brothers, Mic and Jim Conway. Mic was the front man, the vocalist, he was a great showman. As well as singing and playing a variety of instruments he did magic tricks and fire breathing during songs. (This aspect of their show couldn’t really be demonstrated on vinyl.) Mic’s voice was fantastic, he has a great way of replicating that 1930s phrasing but he sounds like no one else. His brother Jim is a great harmonica player. He’s played with everyone – Johnny Shines, Brownie McGhee, Colin Hay, Jon Lord and so on. The two brothers are coming from related areas musically but they are fairly distinct. Jim is more into the blues end of the spectrum and Mic’s influenced by music hall, vaudville and novelty songs. There’s a good energy between them though, a clear respect for each other’s talents.

I never got to see them back in the 70s, I was too young, but I have seen Mic Conway’s band, The National Junk Band, a couple of times and I know Jim. Jim played on my most recent album, Mr Living Good. That was a fantastic experience. I never thought he’d say yes to being on my album. He has an inate understanding of what a song needs. I’ve seen his band, the Big Wheel, once. They are really great. Jim’s health isn’t so good these days, he has multiple sclerosis, but he performs and records regularly and his playing is as good as ever.

I was glad to find this album on vinyl. This is their second LP. I already had it on CD but, as you may have guessed by my blog, I prefer vynil. It’s bigger, it looks better and I suspect that most of my vynil will outlast my CD collection. I love the cover art by Michael Leunig. For those of you who aren’t from Australia, Michael┬áLeunig is one of our most well known cartoonists and has written and drawn a regular cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald for many, many years. He has a whimsical, sad and surreal style. I love how there’s the creepy pervert looking guy on stilts trying to lick the stomach of the naked woman who is holding the bridge together with a parade of unsuspecting people walking across. It’s absurd, weird, sort of disturbing and a bizarrely funny image, a strange catastrophe in motion. It suits the record. It won Album Cover of the Year in 1974. It deserved it.

Wangaratta Wahine is a fantastic album, wild, carefree, funny, satirical, nostalgic, crazy. It’s perhaps the most unlikely gold record in Australian music history but it is one of the best. I love playing this to people who’ve never heard the band before. The reactions it gets are interesting indeed.

Captain Matchbox reformed a couple of years back for a final bunch of shows. The only original members were the brothers, the rest of the band being made up of members of Mic and Jim’s bands. There were so many shifts in lineup during their initial run anyway that it didn’t really matter and the new version was made up of first rate musicians so it sounded great. I managed to see one of those shows in Leichardt, Sydney. It was a riot of a show. Captain Matchbox were all set to do a show at the Sydney Opera House as the backing band for 60s underground cartoonist Robert Crumb that year but Robert Crumb cancelled because of an Australian media backlash against him (because his art was deemed to be degenerate by the conservative press, it probably is degenerate in its way but it is brilliant too). He decided it was safer not to visit Australia. That’s a pity. It would been a great gig. It would have sounded fantastic.

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Harry Belafonte – The Midnight Special – 1962 – RCA

Harry Belafonte - The Midnight Special - RCA - 1962

On this album Harry Belafonte branched away from calypso to American folk songs and blues. It was recorded in Webster Hall, New York City in 1962. This was the first Belafonte album I bought. It is a great record. He’s such a perfectionist but the gloss doesn’t kill the feeling. Harry Belafonte possessed one of the purest sounding voices, it was sweet like honey, smooth and light but it had guts and soul too. The versions of Midnight Special and On Top of Old Smokey are still my favourite recordings of those songs. I got this album when I was still a teenager and it was a time when I was starting to search for where the music I liked came from. I was starting to look at the musical ancestry so to speak. More than anything this record really got me interested in folk music. It was like a signpost pointing in two directions. You could go back further from here to people like Leadbelly and forward to people like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.

One of the things this album is famous for is the appearance of a young Bob Dylan on harmonica. It was Dylan’s first professional recording gig. Apparently Dylan didn’t enjoy doing take after take after take and walked out after just one song (Midnight Special). Dylan was much more of a one or two take recording artist and it makes sense with the sounds that Dylan’s interested in. The point to remember here is that there is no right or wrong way to make art. There is the way that makes the most sense for the particular artist. For Harry Belafonte doing endless takes until he is satisfied works and for Dylan doing one or two takes and moving on to another song works. It’s interesting to note that on this record Dylan plays the harmonica with a lot more finesse than on his own recordings. Maybe it’s because he was holding it in his hands and wasn’t restricted by a harmonica holder but maybe it is because Dylan deliberately downplayed his own abilities on other recordings. Maybe it is a bit of both.

This album was pivotal in developing my appreciation of so much music. In that sense it was also pivotal in my development as a musician. I can’t stress enough how important it was to me. Great, great stuff.

Kid Thomas – Living New Orleans Jazz 1973 – Smoky Mary Phonograph Company – 1973

Kid Thomas - Living New Orleans Jazz 1973 - Smoky Mary Phonograph Company - 1973

Kid Thomas Valentine was a New Orleans trumpet player. He’s not to be confused with Louis Thomas Watts who was also known as Kid Thomas. Kid Thomas Valentine and his band were pretty cool. There’s a joyfull exhuberance to the music. I love Kid Thomas. On this record he’s also joined by gospel singers Sister Annie Pavageau and Sister Alma Anderson.

I really can’t remember when or where I found this record. One of the cool things about it is that the cover is signed by Kid Thomas himself and by six other people. Some of those other autographs I can’t decipher and the ones I can didn’t play on the record. I’m presuming that they were in a band with Mr Thomas and an audience member bought the record at a gig they were playing at so they all just signed it anyway. One of the signatures reads “Dr. Paul Polo Barnes – jazzologist”. Polo Barnes was a jazz saxophinist and clarinetist who played a lot in the 20s and 30s. He died in 1981. On the subject of death, Kid Thomas passed on in 1987. Not many people make music like this anymore. In many ways jazz has become too highbrow lately. It’s lost the joy and freedom that it used to have.

I know very Little about the Smoky Mary Phonograph Company but I have one other album that was on that label. I think it is one of the coolest names ever for a record label.

I’m glad that I own this. With the old time musicians playing old 1920s style jazz in the 1970s and with their autographs on the cover it feels like a nice slice of history.

Under Milk Wood – 1954 – Argo // Dylan Thomas Narrating Under Milk Wood – 1956 – Caedmon

Under Milk Wood - 1954 - Argo // Dylan Thomas Narrating Under Milk Wood - 1956 - Caedmon

These are two quite different recordings of Under Milk Wood. The one by Argo is a studio recording by the BBC starring Richard Burton and the Caedmon recording is from a year before that one (but released a couple of years later), it was recorded live in front of an audience and it features Dylan Thomas himself. The Argo recording is the most well known version.

Now Under Milk Wood was written by Dylan Thomas to be a play for voices, a radio drama, so the experience you are getting through the records is pretty much as he intended. I much prefer the Argo recording, it’s slicker but also it just nails the characters better but there’s something nice about the Caedmon version. Dylan Thomas was a great performer of his own work. His voice perfectly suited live readings. Some writers are not so good at reading their own work but Mr Thomas seemed to write his words to fit his voice and his voice was tremendous, all deep and rich and dramatic. The other cast members in the Caedmon recording don’t work so well. Part of the problem is their accents. Llareggub was supposed to be a villiage in Wales and their American accents are distracting but then again, this performance was for a New York audience so I really shouldn’t judge it too harshly for that. An interesting thing about this recording is that it almost wasn’t taped. According to the liner notes someone at one of the performances just decided to record it and put a microphone on the floor at the centre of the stage. It’s remarkable luck that someone did.

Caedmon had planned to record a studio version with Dylan Thomas but he drank himself to death before that could be done (“I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record!”) I often wonder if Dylan Thomas, had he lived, may have been cast in the Richard Burton part for the Argo recording. Possibly. Who knows? Either way it’s a fine record. There’s also a more recent recording with Anthony Hopkins on EMI but I’ll stay with the Richard Burton one.

The last thing to note is the art. The Argo cover is by Olga Lehmann and the Caedmon one is by Antonio Frasconi. Both are beautiful images that suit the tone of the play.

I feel lucky to own these. They’ve kept me company on many nights when I’ve visited the village of Llareggub and it’s inhabitants in vivid aural dreams.

Queen – Sheer Heart Attack – 1974 – Elecktra

Queen - Sheer Heart Attack - 1974 - Elecktra

I was about 10 years old, so this was around 1983, and I made the first sale of my artwork. It was a painting I’d done of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who. I sold it for $10 to one of my father’s friends in the Labor Party. She wanted to give it to her son who was about my age. What does a kid do when they suddenly find themselves with the princely sum of $10? Buy a Queen album of course.

This was the first record I ever bought. It was a slippery slope from there to a severe case of vynil addiction. If only someone had warned that innocent 10 year old kid that if he bought that Queen record it would lead to an incurable lifetime habit of frequenting second hand record stores at strange hours, of thumbing through well worn record covers trying to find the next LP fix, a lifetime of my cash flowing freely into the waiting hands of the second hand record dealers. But no, no one warned that innocent kid.

I still love this record. I still think it is the best thing that Queen ever did. I am obviously biased but there are a lot of people out there with a similar opinion as mine. When I think about it I realize that it’s a weird album. It opens with carnival sounds, someone whistling I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside, crowd noises and then it goes into the heavy guitar beginning of Brighton Rock and the first time we hear Freddie’s vocals they are obviously recorded slower to make them sound higher pitched than natural. Freddie then sings two characters, the girl (pitch shifted) and the boy (normal pitch). And we get an extended, crazy guitar solo. All in the first song. At times this record is some of the hardest rock that the band ever did such as Stone Cold Crazy or Flick of the Wrist, but there’s also the goofy 1930s type ukulele-banjo driven Bring Back That Leroy Brown, the slow, haunting and slightly disturbing She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilletos) plus a whole lot of other delights. It’s an eclectic mix.

The thing with Queen is that they were always trying to push the envelope with studio technique and with what genres they could convincingly shift into. When they started they were like some weird mix of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys. No one else really sounded like them. The harmonies were strong, the drums were solid and that lead guitar playing was so distinctive. No one got a tone out of a guitar quite like Brian May’s.

Sheer Heart Attack still surprises me with how well it hangs together. It’s an incredibly well structured album. There’s a unified sound even with it skipping across genres unexpectedly. Roy Thomas Baker did a remarkable job with the production. I rarely hear production this good even now. It’s like a richly layered cake covered in the best icing you can imagine.

My favourite moment on this album is Tenement Funster, the track where Roger Meddows Taylor, drummer, gets to sing lead. He had a great rock voice with over four octaves, raspy as hell but totally on the money. He was also responsible for all the really high pitched notes on Queen records. People always think that those notes are Freddie but they’re not, they’re Roger.

The main thing that an aspiring musician could learn from Queen is to not be boxed in to just one particular genre or style. Queen’s eclecticism was one of their biggest strengths and it didn’t detract from them having an instantly recognized style nor did it detract from them becoming one of the biggest acts in music history.

So this was the beginning of my record buying. I was never to be the same again. I was almost immediately, at the tender age of 10 years old, a certified LP junkie.

Woody Guthrie – Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti – 1960 – Folkways

Woody Guthrie - Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti - 1960 - Folkways

This album was recorded in January 1947 but it wasn’t released until 1960. As far as “concept albums” go this is by far my favourite. Some credit the Beatles with inventing the concept album, some credit Frank Sinatra but really, no one invented the concept of the concept album. The idea of stringing together songs that relate to a theme of story and putting them together in one album is just a natural thing to do. Invented had nothing to do with it.

The album deals in forensic but passionate detail with the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists who were excecuted in 1927 for the murders of Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli during a robbery at a shoe factory in Massachusetts. The confession of Celestino Madeiros to the murders didn’t help their situation. They were excecuted anyway. Many saw their conviction and excecution as being a reaction to their political beliefs rather than a result of looking at the evidence.

I’m presuming that this record was originally meant to be released as an album of 78s. If you don’t already know, before long playing records were the standard way of buying music you could buy albums that consisted of several 78s all together. They were an album like a photo album but instead of pages there were sleeves that held the records. There were two songs per disc, one on one side and one on the other so if you had 5 records in an album you had 10 songs. The delay in the release of these songs is probably due to Woody Guthrie not being happy with them. Regardless of Woody’s thoughts I feel that it is his best work. It nearly brings me to tears whenever I listen to the story in these songs.

The last song on this album, Sacco’s Letter to Son, is performed by Woody’s close friend Pete Seeger. The music to that song is by Pete and the words are Sacco’s own. They are his goodbye to his son. Going from Woody’s harsh and cracked voice telling the story and ending on Pete’s beautifully high and sweet voice singing a final goodbye is perfect – “If nothing happens they will electrocute us tonight… be brave so as to comfort your mother… help the weak ones at your side / The weaker ones that cry for help, the persecuted and the victim / They are your friends, friends of yours and mine…”

Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs, Vol. 2 – 1964 – Folkways

Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs, Vol. 2 - 1964 - Folkways

I can’t remember exactly where or when I bought this (though I can say it would have been when I was a teenager). I do remember that it was my first Woody Guthrie. If you’ve been reading my posts you can probably guess what I’ll say next… I had never heard Woody until I bought this record. I’d read about him a lot especially in Bob Dylan biographies but no one I knew had any records and the radio certainly didn’t play Woody. Woody wrote about 1,500 songs. He was a great songwriter. I loved this record as soon as I heard the first sixty seconds. There is such energy to Woody’s sound. I did’t care that most people think he couldn’t sing or play. He could. He just didn’t sound like what most people think singing is about because his voice was rough hewn, the sounds he made were guttural and raw and the accents in his voice were heavy with a nasal twang. Why would that mean that he could’t sing though? Beats me. Singing doesn’t have to be nice and smooth, it can be harsh and abrasive. Whatever works. This is a great record with great performances. Woody is joined by Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry. Sonny Terry used to play with Brownie McGee. The first thing to notice about this record is the cover. Yes, my copy is bruised and battered. That is the way it was when I bought it. It seems appropriate for a Woody Guthrie record that it would be a bit weathered. Also you’ll notice that the cover is printed cheaply. Folkways record covers always had cheaply printed but well designed record covers. The designers were good at making the cheap printing an asset rather than a deficit. Often the covers looked like they used just a one or two colour process. This one looks like they’ve actually gone all out and done three colours, there’s the green colour, the black for some of the text and theres the grey that is down below, then of course the white of the paper is what they’ve used for the white text. My guess is that these covers were hand printed. They always looked good. Folkways records always came with an insert inside the cover, a little booklet that often contained lyrics and information, sometimes even musical notation and chord diagrams for the songs. Unfortunately this record was missing the booklet when I bought it. It’s a shame but I have downloaded a PDF of it from the Smithsonian Folkways site. Ah, that is the other interesting thing about Folkways. You can still get copies of every single album that they’ve ever released. Though these are on CD now or downloads whichever you prefer. They had some great artists on their label – Peter La Farge, Brownie McGee, Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, Elizabeth Cotton, Leadbelly, Barbara Dane, Mary Lou Williams and so on. Early on I started to notice their distinctly styled album covers and if I noticed one I’d instantly be keen on buying the record. It wouldn’t matter who or what it was I just knew it would be worth hearing.

This record opens with Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy. I never knew if that was meant to be double entendre or not but it was a good song. Talking Hard Luck Blues, the second song is my favourite. The other ones I really like are Danville Girl and A Picture from Life’s Other Side. There’s a real humanity to all these songs, a warmth even in the sad and lonely ones. I’m not sure if Woody wrote any of these songs or not. Some of them are definately old folk songs. Some may be his. Before writing this post I checked some of the songs online at the Harry Fox Agency and that didn’t make it any clearer. The label on this record claims that the songs are all Woody’s. Some of the songs like Danville Girl are even more confusing having a listing at the Harry Fox Agency for a song by Woody and for a song written by both Woody and Cisco Houston. Presumably both are the same song. I think what may have happened is that with some of the songs Woody and Cisco have listed themselves as arrangers and the strange tides of time have obscured the details a bit. Who knows? But whether this has any songs actually penned by Woody or not it was a great introduction to his work. It’s a great record. I will digress now and say that if you ever get a chance have a read of Woody’s autobiography, Bound for Glory, it is one of the best things you will ever read.