One small step for man, one giant leap for Australian rock'n'roll, the 'Wild One' will come to life again

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the Big Bang of Australian rock lives on, like an electronic Jurassic bark, writes Patrick Donovan.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the Big Bang of Australian rock lives on, like an electronic Jurassic bark, writes Patrick Donovan.

A PRICELESS piece of Australian rock history was given its last rites in Sydney this week.

The threadbare, 50-year-old master tape of what is considered Australia's first classic rock song - Johnny O'Keefe's Wild One - was played, probably for the last time, at Turtlerock Mastering Studio in the inner city suburb of Camperdown.

That it was played on the Festival Records Ampex 351 mono recorder on which it was recorded 50 years ago, only reinforced the feeling that we were witnessing the recreation of the Big Bang of Australian rock.

The clunky machine could not have looked more antiquated sitting alongside its replacement - a state-of-the-art mixing desk - that has transferred the masters to today's recording formats.

They will be released next month in a new compilation CD and documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of Australian rock, and 30th anniversary of O'Keefe's death.

The compilation features recordings, conversations and out-takes never released before.

Listening to it felt like O'Keefe was in the room. A Sydney mastering engineer, Rick O'Neil had to track down the original masters from Festival's climate-controlled vaults and painstakingly transferred them to CD. Many had not been played since the 1960s.

It took Mr O'Neil three months to find all 400 of them. After choosing the best 25 versions from eight hours of material, he baked them in a special oven for three days to ensure the glue made from whale oil stuck together.

"The tapes are so old, no one touches them because they fall apart," he said.

In fact, the master tape of O'Keefe's Shout snapped as it was being set up for The Age photograph. O'Neil then played the new versions against previous CD compilations to illustrate the superior sound he had recorded by going to the source.

"Because the tapes weren't allowed to be played, those CDs were copies of copies, and they are distorted and hissy and tinny," he said. "It's not about new technology, it's just about going to the source and doing it properly, so it stands up alongside today's sounds.

"It has been put together with an almost forensic process. This is the best J.O.K has ever sounded." At his peak, O'Keefe was a prolific artist, recording a song a week. Most of them were covers of big US hits that he recorded for his TV show, but he wrote about 10 himself.

Ed St John, chairman of Warner Music Australia, which now owns the masters, said Wild One was the first chapter in the story of Australian rock.

"That came before Billy Thorpe and Cold Chisel and others, who would acknowledge their debt of gratitude to O'Keefe," he said.

"Until now, you could count on the fingers of one hand how many people have heard the original masters on the original tape machine."

He described the costly and labour-intensive exercise, which the label had previously invested in Elvis Presley and Split Enz back catalogues, as a "labour of love".

The studio session felt like witnessing 50 years of history unfold in two hours. But any grief at the death of the Shout and the retirement of Wild One masters was overcome when O'Neil played the 81st - and most recent - cover version of Wild One.

Recorded by the godfather of punk, Iggy Pop, and Australian rockers Jet, earlier this year, it has renewed interest in O'Keefe.

It has been included on the new compilation, which is released next month and was yesterday released as a single to mark the 50th anniversary. Patrick Donovan travelled to the Sydney recording sessions courtesy of Warner Music Australia.


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