The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band were formed in 1969 by Mic and Jim Conway of Melbourne, Australia. Although their father was a wool merchant, the brothers Conway grew up in a family with professional ties to vaudeville, theater, and opera. Inspired by their parents' collection of 78-rpm recordings (including selections by Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller) and fascinated with the rowdier aspects of the classic blues tradition, they formed the Jelly Bean Jug Band while enrolled at Melbourne's Camberwell High School, and expanded it to create the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band shortly after graduation. The Australian music scene of the late '60s and early '70s was richly populated by reckless neo-traditional groups with names like the Starving Wild Dogs, the Stovepipe Spasm Band, the Gutbucket Blues Band, the Moonshine Jug and String Band, the Original Battersea Heroes, and now the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, who were soon performing for the public at Sandringham Beach, inside the Much More Ballroom, within the Thumpin' Tum (a pub well-known for its ham-and-cheese sandwiches), and the Yellow House, a gallery and performance space in Sydney. In 1971 the group appeared in Stork, a motion picture by Tim Burstall. In 1972 they toured Australia with U.S. folk singer Phil Ochs, signed a contract with Image Records, and released their first single, "My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes." This revival of an old music hall novelty tune charted in the Australian Top 40. Their second single, "I Can't Dance (Got Ants in My Pants)" b/w "Jungle Dance," hit the streets in April 1973.
Two months later, the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band came out with their first LP, entitled Smoke Dreams. This record, also released in a quadrophonic U.S. edition (ESP 3009), was packed with vintage jazz, blues, and jug band tunes reinterpreted in ways that appealed to the drug-addled international youth culture of the early '70s. In addition to the Conways on washboard and harmonica, the cardinal members were string players David Hubbard, Peter Inglis, and Mick Fleming; fiddler Eric Gradman; pianist Jim Niven; and one Peter Scott, who played jug and tea-chest bass. (Throughout the remainder of the decade the personnel in this band would change rapidly and frequently to include Tony Burkys, Stephen Cooney, Chris Coyne, Dave Flett, Geoff Hales, Graeme Isaac, Rick Ludbrook, Peter Martin, Eric McCusker, Gordon McLean, Louis McManus, Peter Mulheisen, Fred Olbrei, Manny Paterakis, Robert Ross, Jack Sara, Jon Snyder, Colin Stevens, and Chris Worral.) More singles were released in 1974, including a cover of Fats Waller's famous hit "Your Feets Too Big," a tango tribute to bandleader Spike Jones entitled "Hernando's Hideaway," and original works with titles like "Down Undergroundsville," "Wait for Me Juanita," and "Wangaratta Wahine," which was also the name of their next LP. This, the group's all-time best-selling album, made it to fourth place on the national charts during August of 1975. By then they were already presenting their next album, simply entitled Australia, which contained provocative titles like "Cocaine Habit" and "Masochism Tango," a tune borrowed from yet another longtime Conway inspiration, Tom Lehrer.
During the autumn of 1976, the Matchbox band became part of something called the Soapbox Circus, a multimedia ensemble that included a politically outspoken experimental theater collective known as the Australian Performing Group (APG). This collaborative performance project, developed before the public at Melbourne's progressive Pram Factory and La Mama theaters, resulted in a live album entitled The Great Stumble Forward. By 1978 the Soapbox Circus had become Circus Oz and the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band (now armed with electric bass guitar and a rock drummer) was simply called Matchbox. Released in 1978, their final LP was titled Slightly Troppo. The last of their singles were "Sleep" (June 1978), "Love Is Like a Rainbow" (January 1979), and "Juggling Time" b/w "Dirty Money" (1980). Matchbox ceased operating under that name in September 1980. During the next decade the Conways would also lead the Hotsie Totsie Band (1981), Carnival (1983), and the Conway Brothers Hiccups Orchestra (1984-1988). In 1989 the brothers parted company; Jim went off to work with the Backsliders while his brother returned to his original stylistic stamping grounds with an ensemble that operated under the name of Mic Conway's Whoopee Band. ~ arwulf arwulf