CAPTAIN MATCHBOX WHOOPEE BAND - Wangaratta Wahine (1974)
Here are my liner notes for the 2013 CD reissue on Aztec Records of Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band's Wangaratta Wahine (1974).
“My Wahine in Wang...”
By Ian McFarlane
As one of the most unusual aggregations ever assembled in Australia, Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band played jug band blues, jazz and folk enlivened with sideshow entertainment and vaudeville lunacy. Even in the 1970s it was music of a by-gone era (1930s) yet in the hands of lead singer / washboard player Mic Conway and his eccentric crew it was vibrant and highly entertaining.
Mic and his brother Jim Conway formed the band in 1968 while still at high school. Their early inspiration came from the likes of Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and other 1930s jazz exponents, in addition to jug band acts such as the Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Captain Matchbox’s theatrical style found much favour on Melbourne’s underground scene, and the band became a regular at the Much More Ballroom supporting major rock bands of the day such as Spectrum, Daddy Cool, MacKenzie Theory etc.
The group’s irreverent style was almost unclassifiable in some ways because they traversed the folk, jazz and rock scenes without having to be loyal to any particular one. They could appear at rock venues, outdoor festivals, jazz clubs, folk gatherings and the audience response was generally positive. Their flippant approach could work against them sometimes, in particular if certain audience expectations were not met. Having started out acoustically, the group eventually introduced electric instruments in an effort to be heard above rowdy fans calling for their favourite pop stars during Captain Matchbox’s support slots.
Nevertheless, between 1972 and 1980 they were incredibly prolific issuing six albums (one being a compilation), eight singles and one EP (Matchbox Madness). Wangaratta Wahine was their second album, issued on the Image label (ILP-744) in November 1974. Sales were slow to begin with but once local radio stations began playing the five and ½ minute title track as if it were a single (followed by an appearance on ABC-TV’s pop show Countdown), by May 1975 the album had reached #4 on the national chart. It eventually sold a respectable 30,000 copies, qualifying for Double Gold status.
The album retains a quirky, appealing freshness to this day, full of yodelling vocals, rattling percussion, gypsy violin, honky tonk piano, bluesy harmonica, kazoo solos and a large dash of ocker humour – all up just a barrelful of kooky fun. There are also numerous drug references which only added to the counter-cultural aspects inherent in the group’s overall identity. Rhythmically the band played everything from a jazzy swing and a quick foxtrot to a slow bluesy waltz and a gypsy tango. To round out the programme we’ve added six bonus tracks from various stages of the band’s career.
“Who walks in...”
When interviewed in 2013, front man Mic Conway explained the group’s origins.
“In the late sixties my brother Jim and I were at Camberwell High School and we started the band as a bit of a joke. My sister Janie’s boyfriend was Carrl Myriad, who was also a ‘70s performer, and he lent me a tape of old blues and jug bands and I just fell in love with this stuff. I heard Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers. They had this talent contest at school and there were guys in bands playing Rolling Stones kind of things and we just thought we’d do this little jug band to take the piss out of rock ‘n’ roll.
“It was just a joke on our part. It was just us and a bunch of friends and we’d already done this piss-take of a theatre show at school that no-one got the joke and thought it was serious and complimented us on our high art (laughs). So we thought we’d do something else like that which was this jug band, we called it the Jelly Bean Jug Band. I was just besotted with this sound and the fact that you could play music with instruments that weren’t real instruments. So we won this talent quest and it turned into a career. We really didn’t expect it.
“My grandparents on my father’s side were old vaudevillians and the sense of humour and the sense of taking the mickey was very strong in my family. And then we had opera singers on my mother’s side of the family which was bizarre because I’ve never been an opera singer, but I guess it’s why I’m a singer basically. So it was a combination of those two influences from my family.
“Also as a kid I used to collect old 78 records, jazz records from the ‘30s and ‘40s; that was my obsession. That’s how come we ended up doing things like ‘My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes’ and songs like that, I’d heard people like Fats Waller doing songs like that. I just loved songs with stupid titles. I’d find these old 78s at school fetes and opp-shops and places like that.”
The original line-up circa 1969 comprised Mic (vocals, washboard and ukulele), Jim (harmonica, kazoo, vocals), Dave Hubbard (guitar, vocals), Peter Inglis (guitar, vocals), Peter Scott (tea chest bass), Mick Fleming (banjo, mandolin, guitar, vocals) and Jim Niven (piano, pedal organ). Inge De Koster joined on violin soon after but she left before the band started recording. They had no trouble scoring gigs on the folk and jazz scenes and eventually moved into the rock scene.
“After winning this talent quest at school we started playing the folk scene. My sister was in the folk scene with Carrl, they were already playing concerts. So then because the music was jazz-related we started getting gigs in the jazz scene, that scene was quite strong in Melbourne at that time as well. Then somehow we came to the attention of John Pinder and Peter Andrew, they’d formed the Let It Be booking agency and had started the T. F. Much Ballroom. So they asked us to play on the floor between the ‘real bands’, hah, you know I say that in inverted comas, meaning the rock bands.
“We were acoustic, so they said ‘oh come and play on the floor’ which was when the curtain was drawn across the stage and they were setting up amps and drums for the next rock band to play. So the audiences used to go berserk over us and then after that Pinder put us up on the main stage, as a ‘legitimate rock act’. We never looked back after that but we weren’t rock at all. We were sort of folk-jazz, I suppose... Look it’s hard to tell what we were, we were just having fun.
“It was really like some perverse joke, but audiences went with us. We just couldn’t believe that we were playing on the rock scene. Look, we just really enjoyed it; we were art students having a great time.”
The T. F. Much Ballroom was located at Cathedral Hall, 20 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, a major bastion of Melbourne’s burgeoning progressive rock scene. Captain Matchbox appeared on the bill of the opening night (8th August 1970), alongside the main attractions – Spectrum, Geof Crozier’s Indian Magik Show, Lipp Arthur, Adderley Smith Blues Band, Sons of the Vegetal Mother, Gerry Humphreys & the Joy Band, Margret RoadKnight and the Tribe Theatre. The T. F. Much Ballroom concerts only lasted until early 1971, but Pinder and Andrew relaunched the venue as the Much More Ballroom in December 1971.
Opening night (4th December 1971) featured Chain, Gerry & the Joy Band, Carson, Lipp & the Double Decker Brothers, MacKenzie Theory, Indelible Murtceps and Captain Matchbox. The Much More Ballroom concerts lasted for a year with the final night (9th December 1972) featuring Spectrum / Murtceps, Captain Matchbox and Miss Universe.
Once the group had made it onto the Ballroom main stage, they also picked up gigs at popular inner-city venues such as the Station Hotel, Prahran. They also made it to the Myer Music Bowl as part of the Buoyancy Benefit (31st July 1971 – Daddy Cool, Spectrum, Company Caine, Langford Lever, Captain Matchbox, compere Gerry Humphreys with The Wizard) and the Operation Earth Concert (2nd November 1971 – Aztecs, Chain, Bakery, Carson, Captain Matchbox, Matt Taylor, Friends, Gerry & the Joy Band, Blackfeather, Healing Force and Indelible Murtceps). Another major concert was at the Regent Theatre, South Yarra, (24th December 1971 – Daddy Cool, La De Das, Tribe Theatre, Lipp & The Double Decker Bros, Captain Matchbox and Rock Granite & the Profiles).
There are numerous references on-line now to Captain Matchbox being a vaudeville / cabaret act; certainly there are elements of that vaudeville lunacy and there’s that theatricality to the presentation, but cabaret?
“Yeah, it depends on people’s definition of cabaret. I mean we certainly played cabaret venues. Cabaret suggests a closer audience, a more immediate connection. I guess we fitted into that description early on because we mixed comedy in with close-up entertainment. But musically we didn’t have any torch singers singing those big, dramatic songs. The definition of cabaret is so varied that I don’t really know where we fit in. Each person has a different understanding of the meaning. We’re not really cabaret but we have worked the cabaret scene as we worked just about everything.
“You couldn’t really pigeon-hole us into any genre really, it was hard. It did work against us sometimes, because we weren’t rock ‘n’ roll but we worked the rock scene, we weren’t jazz but we worked the jazz scene, we weren’t really folk even though we were acoustic. Later on we went electric. We were certainly vaudeville in the way we mixed up the comedy and the magic, and the juggling and the tap dancing and all those kinds of skills. Later on we were founder members of Circus Oz; a lot of people may not know that. That was kind of a vaudeville show in itself.”
An overseas equivalent might be a group such as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, perhaps.
“Funnily, the big joke about the Bonzos was that we’d never heard of them until about 1974. We went to Perth and somebody played us one of their records. The Bonzos had already been and gone by the late ‘60s, they finished in 1969 or something. So the parallels between them and us were far apart. I mean we did some of the same material because they’d heard the stuff from the same source as us. Like me, I guess the Bonzos had gotten hold of old records by dance bands from the ‘20s and ‘30s and had redone the songs in their own way, they weren’t a tribute act, as we weren’t. We were getting these songs and doing them in our own way.”
The group’s first mainstream exposure came with an appearance in Tim Burstall’s 1971 film Stork starring Bruce Spence and Jackie Weaver. They appeared in the party scene performing three songs, Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘In the Jailhouse Now’ (much later to feature in the successful movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?), ‘Who Walks in When I Walk Out’ and ‘Ukulele Lady’ as well as backing folk-pop singer Hans Poulsen on ‘There’s a Light Across the Valley’.
Another cinematic experience for the band was an appearance in director Peter Weir’s 1972 10-minute short 3 Directions in Australian Pop-Music, which had been filmed in 1971 at the Much More Ballroom as part of the Commonwealth Film Unit’s Australian Colour Diary series (#43). Captain Matchbox performed a breakneck rendition of ‘Who Walks in When I Walk Out’, much to the audience’s delight. Interestingly, Mic is playing his bespoke Captain Matchbox washboard which became an integral part of his stage persona. (Other acts featured were renowned blues singer Wendy Saddington and Indelible Murtceps.)
“Since making whoopee became all the rage...”
By mid-1972, Image Records had signed the band and issued the singles ‘My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes’ b/w ‘Nagasaki’ (a Top 40 hit in November 1972) followed in 1973 by ‘I Can’t Dance (Got Ants in My Pants)’ b/w ‘Jungle Love’ (April) and Smoke Dreams (June). The album was comprised entirely of 1930s and 1940s jazz, blues and jug band standards. The Fred Kohler-penned ‘My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes’ had been popularised by singer Al Bowlly in the 1930s; alongside Fats Waller and Memphis Minnie, Bowlly was one of Mic’s favourite singers. Image licensed the album to the ESP-Disk label (home to Tom Rapp’s Pearls Before Swine) for release in the USA.
Even before the album had been issued, however, guitarists Hubbard, Inglis and Scott had all left the band. They’d just been worn down by the constant grind for little monetary reward. Inglis immediately scored a gig with a new band put together by bass player / song writer Greg Macainsh – Skyhooks. Even though Inglis and second guitarist Peter Starkie only stayed with Skyhooks for about six months, it was just another one of those essential cross-pollinations of classic Melbourne bands.
Mic explains, “The band line-up kept changing because we never made any money. People came and went and came back again. We were really just art students having fun and when there was no money in it, y’know, people eventually got the shits and moved on. I mean, the Smoke Dreams band, the guys couldn’t believe how awful the music scene was, they eventually got disheartened. Dave, Peter Inglis and Peter Scott, all of whom I’m still very good friends with, they just couldn’t hack the constant grind. We were getting a pittance for gigs, or we’d turn up for a gig in Sydney and it wasn’t on, after we’d driven all the way there from Melbourne. They just cracked the shits in the long run and they quit which left us to promote Smoke Dreams without a band.
“We ended up going to Nimbin for the Aquarius Arts Festival (May 1973) and we met Geoff Hales there, he was playing in a band called White Company, so he joined in with us. He wasn’t actually a drummer; he played percussion and the washboard and was a tap dancer. So I was already the washboard player but to get a drummer who couldn’t really play drums to join the band was just the kind of thing we did back then. It made sense in the world of Captain Matchbox.”
By November 1973, Fred Olbrei (violin, vocals) and Dave Flett (electric bass, slide dobro, backing vocals, ukulele; ex-Lipp and the Double Decker Brothers) had joined the Conway brothers, Niven, Fleming and Hales. Jon Snyder (guitar) joined at the beginning of 1974, and the band issued ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’ b/w ‘Wait for Me Juanita’ (February) and ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ b/w ‘Down Undergroundsville’ (July). ‘Wait for Me Juanita’ was one of the band’s first original compositions (written by Mic and Dave) to see release on record. Previously Mic’s ‘Jungle Love’ had appeared as a B-side.
“In going electric we kept the same flavour of the music. What we actually wanted was a double bass, Dave must have played double bass about twice but he just wanted to play electric bass. We were working so many rock venues and sometimes we were literally drowned out by the audiences. We’d be drowned out by fan clubs of bands like Hush and all that, people just couldn’t take us seriously. We wanted to up the level of the music because once you have bass and drums it brings everything up a level in terms of volume and just the overall sound.
“So that was a deliberate effort to make us more accessible to rock audiences because by then that’s where we were predominantly working. There was no money in the folk or jazz scenes, not that there was much money in the rock scene either. We didn’t make a lot. It wasn’t about the money really, anyway. But we wanted to be able to go on rock shows, rock concerts and festivals and not be swamped by rowdy audiences.
“Before we appeared on Countdown, what broke us on television was GTK (Get to Know). That was about the youth culture rather than the glam and the glitter which was what Countdown was about. GTK was an incredible show, they didn’t just talk to the pop musicians; they looked at the rock scene and the theatre scene. It was broadcast in black & white, before colour TV, most people don’t remember it. That was what broke us in Australia. We went over to Perth to play, for absolute chicken feed because we were told that no-one knew us over there but when we got there every gig was chock-a-block with people queuing around the corner for us. And that was because of GTK.”
Matchbox Madness EP (1974) front cover
Matchbox Madness EP (1974) back cover
“Truck on down to the candy store...”
Because Smoke Dream had sold well enough, Image gave the green light for the band to complete a second album. Another Conway-Flett song ‘Wangaratta Wahine’ became the title track to the band’s breakthrough album which came out at the end of 1974. One of the album’s distinguishing features was the Michael Leunig cartoon on the album jacket.
“Actually, that Leunig cover was planned for the first album but Leunig didn’t make the deadline and John McDonald from Image was hot on deadlines so he got Phil Lukies to do the first cover. So Michael waited around to do the second cover. He wasn’t such a big name in those days, he was just starting out, and he approached doing the cover in such a different way. He’d never done a record cover before so he thought they all had a formula to them so he wanted to break the formula. He actually won ‘Cover of the Year’ with that album. That was great for him.
“He was known for his work with the Nation Review, which wasn’t that widely read, but it certainly broadened his audience. A lot of people really loved that cover; it was such a great cover. It really tied in well with the music. With the wanted poster on the bridge, one thing that we did to promote the album was to re-create that poster which we got Leunig to print for us and we stuck all these posters on bridges all over Melbourne. So I went out with this guy John Koning who was working with me and we slapped up these posters all around. That actually helped; at first people didn’t know what this thing was about, y’know, ‘wanted for unnatural activities’ and all that (haha). So Michael did a screen print of that. I’ve still got some of those posters.
“We assembled the songs that we wanted to record. Ernie Rose had engineered the first album and then he became the producer for the second album. We had a lot of fun recording that album. ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ was a tribute; I’d read a book about Le Grande Pétomane who was a French musical hall artist from the 1880s / 1890s. I’ve always loved the oddities and this guy performed at Moulin Rouge and he could do things with his bottom, he’d fart on demand, make it sound like a trumpet.
“Actually ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ had nothing to do with that but we just stuck the two ideas together. The song was a tango from The Pyjama Game and it had these honking sounds in the middle as a tribute to Spike Jones. We used to do this thing on stage where we’d do this pretend farting thing where one of the guys would disappear off stage with a microphone and do these farting noises, and Dave would have this phonograph horn stuck up his bottom, y’know, we loved doing things like that. It was a modern vaudeville show; we just had a lot of fun with it all.
“So the second album had Fats Waller songs on it, because I was obsessed with him. ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’ and ‘That’s What the Bird Said to Me’ which was really an environmental song from the 1920s. ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’ was one of my favourite songs of all time; it’s such a funny song. I used to do a tap dance on it and we used to do this whole big number around it.”
The album opens gently with a rustle of guitar and violin strings and Mic’s crooning vocals, the tempo picks up and the band’s underway with the gypsy-jazz swing piece ‘Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me’, a jug band standard from the 1920s. There are brief snatches of calliope music and symphonic exclamation marks amidst the breakneck rhythm and it certainly sets out the band’s stall in one defining piece. The vaudeville lunacy continues with the bluegrass styled ‘Lovesick Blues’, Mic in fine country yodel mode and there’s great interplay between violin, percussion, piano and kazoo. ‘Half a Moon (Is Better than No Moon)’ features banjo, piano, violin and guitar over a quick two-step rhythm.
‘Jug Band Music’ by the Memphis Jug Band is a classic of the genre and the group carries if off with great aplomb: “Jug band music sounds so sweet to me”. The Conway-Flett-penned ‘Wait for Me Juanita’ is a slow bluesy waltz with lashings of ocker humour and references to Chiko rolls, a Bonox with milk and sugar, pianolas / bananas / drinking granitas, eating guavas in Guam, meat pies in the sky and “see ya later sweetheart, you bang like a dunny door in the wind”.
Irving Berlin’s ‘Top Hat’ is another brisk foxtrot, originally from the Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers 1935 dance musical Top Hat. The full song title is actually ‘Top Hat, White Tie and Tails’ but no matter because it’s just a fun ride.
‘If You’se a Viper’ is a classic jazz hop tune from the 1930s. Originally written by Stuff Smith and recorded by Stuff Smith & His Onyx Club Boys in 1936, it was popularised in 1938 when recorded by Rosetta Howard and the Harlem Hamfats as ‘If You’re a Viper’. Either way, it’s one of the great dope smokers’ songs for the ages. Of course, jazz and marijuana were closely linked in the early part of the 20th century, with “jazz cigarette” being a well know euphemism for a joint or a reefer. The opening line of the song goes “Dreaming of a reefer five foot long...”, while saying someone was a “viper” meant they smoked dope. The intake of breath when inhaling from a joint was likened to the hissing of the viper, hence “If you’se a viper”. Furthermore, there’s the line “truck on down to the candy store” which is a direct reference to a dope smoker getting the munchies.
Just how Captain Matchbox managed to get this past the authority figures of the day is probably down to the fact that the band takes the tune at such a cracking pace that Mic’s garbled lyrics get lost in the rush. Then the band chimes in with a message to “light up a Viper” (a la the “light up a Viscount” cigarette ad) to the tune of ‘There’s a Hole in My Bucket’ and a public announcement of “Medical authorities warn that smoking is a health hazard”. As the tune ends Mic announces “Ah, that’s a killer” in a husky, stoned voice and Mr. Plod intones “Awright, I’d like you to accompany me down to the station”. It’s like Monty Python meets Cheech & Chong – ah, it’s all just roaring good fun!
Next is a more relaxed ‘That’s What the Bird Said to Me’ by Fats Waller. Then we’re into the main event with the album’s prime cut ‘Wangaratta Wahine’. Witty, playful and utterly unforgettable, there’s nothing else quite like it in the whole history of Aussie rock music. Skyhooks had sung about Carlton, Balwyn and Toorak; The Dingoes had sung ‘Way Out West’; and then here was Captain Matchbox singing about getting stoned in a Victorian rural township along the Hume Highway.
For their appearance on Countdown, the group took their theatrical bent to extremes: Jim is resplendent in an orange and yellow kangaroo suit with huge fluffy feet; Mic is relatively straight in Hawaiian shirt and severely parted and slicked back hair but he does the parping trumpet sounds with his lips and remains completely poker faced the whole time; Jim Niven gurns outrageously in lipstick and eye make-up beneath his glasses; Flett hams it up to the max with a shit-eating grin and his interjections of “What do you want?” and “You’re a great galoot”. It’s a very funny clip and highly entertaining.
Mic says, “Wangaratta Wahine’ – I’d written songs before that but we didn’t record them, which was a mistake. The first song we wrote was called ‘Pollution Drag’ which we performed all over the place, we played that at the moratorium marches and things like that, but we never recorded it. We did write some others things that we recorded such as ‘Jungle Love’. So ‘Wangaratta Wahine’ came out of an idea based around the ukulele.
“As a young man I loved the ukulele. From the First World War onwards across Australia, and indeed the rest of the world there was this interest in the ukulele. In Australia there was this magazine called the Australian Hawaiian Magazine or Club, I think it was called. In one of the mags I saw this picture of two blonde girls in hula skirts and underneath this caption said ‘Wangaratta Wahine’ and I thought that’s fantastic!
“I had friends from Wangaratta who never referred to it as Wangaratta, it was always Wang. I just wrote this song about being stoned off my face, as everybody was back then, and just landing in this roadhouse in Wang. It’s just mythical, it didn’t happen but it was just a bit of fun to write this song. I collaborated with Dave and then my brother said he hated the song and didn’t want to play it (haha) but then eventually he made the song very musical, his input on the harmonica really gave it the hook that it needed. So in the long run he ended up liking the song but his initial reaction was ‘you do this and I’m leaving the band’.”
‘Flaming May’ was another brisk foxtrot followed by ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’ which Fats Waller had made famous in 1939. Originally written by Fred Fisher / Ada Benson, Waller added his own lyrics “Your pedal extremities are colossal, to me you look just like a fossil” which Mic chews up with great relish. Mic explained to Juke magazine at the time that “Fats Waller, as far as I’m concerned, was the greatest singer because he was both brilliant and funny with it. He was a brilliant musician and vocalist. He’s probably been the greatest influence on anything I’ve ever done.”
The album ends with ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, a tango written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross in 1954 for the Broadway musical The Pajama Game. Captain Matchbox have great fun with it, throwing every kind of percussive sound and vocalese (raspberries, gargles, coughs and farting trumpet noises) into the mix.
“Roll that reefer...”
Even as the album was slowly taking off, the line-up had changed again; Fleming, Snyder and Hales had left by the end of 1974 to be replaced by Chris Worrall (guitar; ex-Pelaco Brothers) and Manny Paterakis (drums). This was the most rock-oriented version of the band to date. Captain Matchbox made an appearance at Sunbury 1975, with some unexpected guests climbing on stage.
“When we appeared at Sunbury some of the guys from Osibisa came up on stage and played percussion with us. They were touring Australia at the time, they weren’t actually booked for Sunbury, they just showed up and decided to play with us.”
Now entrenched in the Melbourne rock scene as a major attraction, Captain Matchbox signed to the Premier Artists booking agency (alongside the likes of Skyhooks, AC/DC, Ariel, Ayers Rock, Billy Thorpe, Buster Brown, Dingoes, Jeff Duff, Jim Keays, LRB, Madder Lake, Lobby Loyde, Phil Manning Band, Renée Geyer Band, Split Enz, Wendy Saddington and Richard Clapton). They were playing all the usual rock venues around town (Hard Rock Café, Matthew Flinders Hotel, Dallas Brooks Hall etc). They also ventured up to Sydney to play at the Paddington Town Hall with Jeff St John.
The connection with Premier Artists led to a new record deal with Mushroom Records. Mushroom issued ‘Australia’ b/w ‘Christopher Columbus’ (October 1975) and the album Australia (November). Once again it was an entertaining mix of originals and covers like ‘Cocaine Habit’, ‘Sweeny Todd the Barber’ and Noel Coward’s ‘20th Century Blues’. In keeping with the band’s sense of humour, the album credits listed Mic as Microphone Conway while Chris Worrall was Christmas Worrall.
Throughout December 1975, Captain Matchbox was one of the supports for Skyhooks’ In the Heat of the Night national tour (other supports being Ol’ 55, Phil Manning Band, Matt Taylor and UK bluesman Duster Bennett). Then on New Year’s Eve they appeared on the bill of the A-Reefer-Derci concert (with Ayers Rock, Renée Geyer Band, Split Enz, Ariel and Skyhooks), held at the Ormond Hall, Moubray Street, South Yarra.
The Reefer Cabaret was an infamous concert event which had been launched by promoter Mike “Fastbuck” Roberts at the Dallas Brooks Hall during August 1974. Patrons had been encouraged to smoke joints openly and naturally this tended to attract the attention of various authority groups. The Reefer Cabaret was then moved to Ormond Hall and concerts continued until December 1975. Among the many attractions was the screening of Reefer Madness, the notorious 1936 propaganda film about the wicked weed made by the American Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Many local rock acts played at the Reefer Cabaret, including Captain Matchbox who had first appeared there on Christmas Eve, 24th December 1974 with The Dingoes and Pantha.
Captain Matchbox continued to tour with various line-ups. By 1978 the band was known as Matchbox with a line-up of Mic, Jim, Rick Ludbrook (guitar, sax), Peter Mühleisen (bass), Gordo McLean (drums), Tony Burkys (guitar) and Colin Stevens (mandolin) who was then replaced by Louis McManus (ex-Bushwackers).
Then in 1979 a horrific truck smash claimed the life of their roadie Ivan Stegert and brought the band to its knees. As well as losing Ivan, their truck and much of their equipment, the band was heavily in debt, their spirit finally broken. For a while Mic was unsure about continuing; however, Matchbox regrouped with a new line-up which toured constantly for the next six months in order to pay off their debts.
The line-up comprised Mic, Jim, McManus and Mühleisen augmented by Robert Ross (drums), Eric McCusker (guitar) and Chris Coyne (sax, flute). They recorded a final single, ‘Juggling Time’ b/w ‘Dirty Money’, which they issued independently in 1980 – as by The Matchbox Band. Co-written by Mic and Eric, ‘Juggling Time’ was one of the group’s very best songs, a marvellous tune about dealing with the pressures of modern living, featuring a sprightly reggae lilt over a steady 4/4 rock beat. It should be noted that McCusker went on to major song writing success with Mondo Rock.
With over a decade of highs and lows behind them, Mic and Jim quietly laid the Captain Matchbox name to rest. The brothers embarked on a series of new ventures, including The Hotsie Totsie Band in 1981, then Carnival in 1983 and The Conway Brothers Hiccups Orchestra in 1984. Mic also worked as Mic Conway’s Whoopee Band in 1989. When Avenue/CBS reissued Wangaratta Wahine in 1983, Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band reformed for a one-off national tour. The line-up featured Mic, Jim, Flett, McManus, Hales, Niven and Jim Pennell (guitar).
In the late 1980s, Jim was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Despite being wheelchair bound he has continued to play, most notably in R&B bands The Backsliders and Big Wheel. In recent years Jim has had to slow down as it has become increasingly difficult for him to tour. Mic, however, has not slowed down, working regularly with his National Junk Band and taking on such roles as writing with The Wiggles and being the voice of Wags the Dog.
Finally, in 2010, Mic and Jim were persuaded to revive the Captain Matchbox name for a series of Festival appearances (Woodford, Blue Mountains, Bluesfest etc). The concerts were a real eye-opener for the guys, with young kids, teenagers and people in their early 20s (and of course not forgetting their parents) singing along to the delights of ‘Wangaratta Wahine’ and ‘If You’se a Viper’.
Long may the name of the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band be praised to the high hills!
Wangaratta Wahine – Originally issued as Image ILP-744 (November 1974)
1. Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me (Swanstone/McCarron/Morgan)
2. Lovesick Blues (Cliff Friend/Irving Mills)
3. Half A Moon (Is Better Than No Moon) (Reynolds/Dowling/Hanley)
4. Jug Band Music (Memphis Jug Band)
5. Wait for Me Juanita (Mic Conway/Dave Flett)
6. Top Hat (Irving Berlin)
7. If You’se a Viper (Stuff Smith)
8. That’s What the Bird Said to Me (Fats Waller)
9. Wangaratta Wahine (Mic Conway/Dave Flett)
10. Flaming May (Rose/Whiteman)
11. Your Feet’s Too Big (Fred Fisher/Ada Benson)
12. Hernando’s Hideaway (Richard Adler/Jerry Ross)
13. Down Undergroundsville (Mic Conway/Dave Flett)
14. Out in the Suburbs (Mic Conway/Fred Olbrei)
15. Malcolm the Prefect (Mic Conway/Dave Flett)
16. Roll that Reefer (Mic Conway/Dave Flett)
17. Juggling Time (Eric McCusker/Mic Conway)
18. Dirty Money (Conway/McCusker/Mühleisen)
The Liner Notes (From the original album cover)
This is why the boys have clambered (sic) to the top of Mount Wangaratta with their hands full of glistening sixpences, and you would say, “How come?” Since their last recorded noise Edison cylinder ascended (went up) the charts nearly to the top in 1821 and the Wangaratta Founding Fathers were whistling the strains of My Canary etc, the onset of this Great Technological Age has left the words on everybody’s lips: “Yes, but – (1). Can they still dish up that kind of kerosene music? And (2). Will the cats still bop to it?”
They (the boys) said, “Fight fire with fire!” and worked far in to the night translating old kerosene into new electric. It was time for the wheels of change to turn, and with raw guts and fists they hewed through rock with electricity and cut a flat record. And when it was finished they wiped their collective sweaty brow and said, “There!”
Here now is something thoroughly modern for all to regard. For instance, the howling wah-wah tea-chest bass and the jangling strains of the electric jug bear testimony to how these little devils move with the times. For it is in this album that the very stuff from which time is made has been altered. Atoms have been twisted from their time-honoured trajectories and the resultant neo-mutant forms have changed the fundamental mode of perception for the human brain.
It is a new dawning for the new race. Go forth and inherit the Earth, Your Earth, for You made it. Good luck and good fun!