Johnny Greenan Takes the Mic

Thursday, 06 Aug 2015

Sydney musician Johnny Greenan never meant to co-write a hit song. Now retired and living in the Blue Mountains, he laughs when he thinks back to the 1950s and the inspiration behind Australia’s first homegrown rock hit, ‘Wild One’.

As one of two saxophonists in Johnny O’Keefe and the Dee Jays, Greenan was present at a fateful gig in Newtown in 1957, when the band’s performance was interrupted by a wild brawl. With their audience more interested in watching the fight than seeing the band play, O’Keefe and friends gave up and went home. That night over a few bourbons, Greenan and bandmate Dave Owens, also a sax player, started writing.

“And there we were, we just wrote this song after this big fight, this brawl in Newtown, and we just sat around and wrote these words. ‘Well I'm-a just outa school, like I'm real real cool…’ It’s the biggest fluke of all time, you know?” Greenan said.

The song that changed a scene

As with The Velvet Underground’s first album, which was famously said to have sold poorly but inspired everyone who bought it to start a band, ‘Wild One’ has had lasting and significant impact. 

“It didn’t get very high on the charts, I think it got to 22 or something like that, but for the first time there was an Australian song amongst the rest of them, alongside Little Richard, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers ... And there’s Johnny with ‘Wild One’. And then that became his nickname – and all by default! None of it was planned,” Greenan laughed.

Reminiscing about the early days of Australian rock music, Greenan repeatedly stresses Dave Owens’ importance in the scene’s development.

“[He] was the instigator of Australian pop music and rock’n’roll in the fifties, and it was because he came here from the States and he was a jazz player and he knew the black music. And that was one of the big things that helped O’Keefe get that sound, because we had a black sound, and the other guy, Col Joye, they’d never heard any black music!”

The royalties keep coming

After Owens returned to the USA, he and Greenan kept in touch until Owens’ death in the late 1990s. They also kept enjoying the royalties from ‘Wild One’, which found a new lease of life in the USA decades after it was first recorded there (under the alternate title ‘Real Wild Child’) by Buddy Holly and The Crickets.

“They recorded it when they went back (after their 1958 Australian tour)… so we got onto the charts in America! And then Jerry Lee Lewis heard it and he said “Okay I’m gonna record this,” and he recorded it and did very well with it, and so that was all good news up to there. And then the song just went away and nobody noticed.”

Small royalty cheques would turn up regularly, but gradually Greenan resigned himself to the fact that the song had been forgotten. Until one day, he discovered it was featured on a new album.

“I’d lost track of it and then I was in a record shop looking at old LPs … and there was a compilation of JOK’s hits. And I see ‘Wild One’ is listed, and the writers on it were Johnny O’Keefe and Dave Owens, and no John Greenan! So I spat the dummy.”

Perseverance and a few letters from lawyers, resulted in Greenan, the late Dave Owens and the O’Keefe estate finally getting their fair share of the song’s significant international royalties, which show no signs of stopping. Because as Greenan has been delighted to discover, ‘Wild One’ aka ‘Real Wild Child’ has never really gone out of fashion.

A perennially popular hit

To date, the song has been recorded on 72 separate occasions by artists as diverse as Suzie Quatro, David Bowie, David Campbell, and twice by Iggy Pop (the second time with Australian rock band Jet).

It’s also appeared on the soundtracks of numerous films and television programs, from eighties cop show Miami Vice and hit film Pretty Woman, to more recent productions including HBO’s True Blood and ABC TV’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries. It’s even turned up in a Broadway musical and on the soundtracks of video games.

Greenan has no doubt the song will keep appearing on soundtracks around the world, particularly when directors need an appropriate song for an historical drama.

“It was in Pretty Woman and it’s taken off – and now it’s still being used; it turns up in movies everywhere, because it’s of that period, you know?” he said.

Given its enduring legacy, Greenan hopes the song will never be forgotten in Australia.

“It was the beginning of Australian rock music,” he said fondly. “It really was.”


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