If you make a revolution, make it for fun, don’t make it in ghastly seriousness, don’t do it in deadly earnest,
do it for fun. Don’t do it because you hate people, do it just to spit in their eye.
DH Lawrence, A Sane Revolution
Standing at the 2011 Byron Bay Bluesfest, watching the recently re-formed Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, my mind went back to the early seventies, where I had first had my funny bone mercilessly tickled by Mic and Jim Conway’s anarchic-psychedelic-reefer-cabaret-jazz-circus troupe. Even though none of the original members were here, bar Mic and brother Jim (now beaten into a wheelchair by MS), the spirit, sideshow laughs and capital-F Fun had barely diminished over the 40 years between.
The new book from Catherine Fleming and John Tait – Captain Matchbox & Beyond: The Music & Mayhem of Mic and Jim Conway – reveals that the first show the brothers did, as The Jelly Bean Jug Band (in black-face!) was at a talent quest to “take the micky out of the rock bands”.
And they have been taking the micky ever since – out of the pompous, the straight, the grey men, cold-hearted politicians and anyone who would make the world less bright and sunny for us all.
The early 1970s was the perfect time for Captain Matchbox to arrive – the fragrant and colourful atmosphere suited the band’s zany humour which drew on Mic’s fascination with 1920s jug band and novelty recordings; the flavour of revolution in politics suited their anarchic thrust, giving them a wide range of targets for their pop-guns and custard pies. Yet, behind the rubber chickens and car-horn hooters was a keen satirical intelligence and a sharp eye for the hypocrisies of suburban straight Australia.
Adopted as house party band by the ‘70s counter-culture, Captain Matchbox were widely loved and hugely popular. They were such a sweet and sticky antidote to the po-faced blues noodlers and progressive rock beardies of the time.
Yet through a series of inter-band spats, poor record deals, touring disasters and more career near misses than any band should ever deserve, they never capitalised on their uniqueness.
Also at work was the perpetual friction between Mic, the joker of a thousand silly puns and Jim, the blues harp virtuoso who yearned to be a ‘serious’ musician. After being forced to wear a fruit suit once too often, Jim parted ways and became a member of two of Australia’s finest blues bands – The Backsliders with Dom Turner, and his own band, Jim Conway’s Big Wheel.
Mic never wavered from his crooked and parti-coloured path – he performed with left-field institutions such as Circus Oz, The Pram Factory and his own National Junk Band as well as cabaret shows such as Vaudevillains and Fairground Snapz. His face is as unmistakeable as the big facade of Luna Park and just as much a national treasure of mirth, wonder and a very Australian humour in the face of life’s kicks. Touring schools across Australia, Mic Conway’s one-man show sought to show modern children how people entertained themselves ‘before television’.
The list of musicians and entertainers who went through Mic and Jim’s bands or benefitted from their association is staggering as well – from Mondo Rock’s Eric McCusker through to the Wiggles, jazz violin virtuoso George Washingmachine and cartoon satirist Michael Leunig.
Captain Matchbox & Beyond: The Music & Mayhem of Mic and Jim Conway is a journey, not only through the crazy maze of the Conways’ music, but also through the 1970s, a time when it seemed anything could happen. Looked back upon from today, it is hard to believe such an anarchic-psychedelic-reefer-cabaret-jazz-circus troupe could have even existed, let alone been nationally loved. But Captain Matchbox were, and from what I saw at Bluesfest in 2011, still are. Long may they razz.
Captain Matchbox & Beyond: The Music & Mayhem of Mic and Jim Conway is launched this Friday July 3 at Camelot Lounge Marrickville.