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.

Gary Shearston – Songs of Our Time – 1964 – CBS

Gary Shearston - Songs of Our Time - 1964 - CBS

I first read about Gary Shearston in Craig MacGregor’s book People, Politics and Pop. I found a copy of Songs of Our Time for $1. Its cover was ripped cover and the record had so much surface noise that the crackle was as loud as the recording. This LP is one of my all time favourites and features the best version I’ve ever heard of Dirty Old Town. I’ve since bought two other copies in much better condition and one copy on CD. Listening to Gary Shearston taught me that singing in an Australian accent, singing in your own voice, was cool. Over here in Australia the whole culture is living so much in the shadow of America and England, American movies, American and British television, American music and so on that it is nice to be hear performers who aren’t trying to sound either American or British. There is nothing wrong at all with music from the States or from England, some of the best music ever comes from those places but to try to be something that you are not just comes across as false. Shearston had a great voice, it was instantly recognizable. In many ways he was like an Australian Pete Seeger, an anti-war activist, singer and a leftie. Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, was going to manage him but Shearston wasn’t allowed to enter the United States of America due to his anti-Vietnam war activities. Later in life he became an Anglican priest. He kept performing and recording and his voice never aged. Sadly Gary died a few weeks back. I’m glad I got to see him perform once. I loved his work but Songs of Our Time remains my favourite record of his. It is great stuff.