It’s a story so far-fetched it’s almost unimaginable. George Harrison, needing a B-side for a song off 1987’s Cloud Nine, enlisted the help of Jeff Lynne, who helped produce the album. Lynne, as it turns out, was producing an album for Roy Orbison, and the two legends agreed to lend Harrison a hand. Ready to start songwriting, Harrison fetched his guitar, which just so happened to be at the house of Mr. Tom Petty. You see where this is going, and you were warned that it sounds unbelievable…
Petty, no doubt realizing the unlikely fortune before him, decided to help his friends out, and the trio became a quartet—one that would record their collaboration at Bob Dylan’s studio. When they arrived at the studio, the enthusiasm was contagious, and Dylan threw his more-than-considerable talents into the mix. The lineup for the most amazing supergroup in rock history—and perhaps the only one deserving of the title—was solidified. And that’s the beginning of the Traveling Wilburys (or at least one version of their inception), and you’d have to read the Book of Genesis for a better creation story—or one that sounds more preposterously miraculous.
Supergroups, of course, have a rather pathetic history, one known for ego-clashing and infighting and recording some less-than-super albums. The Wilburys, however, were different from the outset. For one, none of them had aspirations of world dominance. Because they were simply convening to help out a buddy, neither Dylan nor Orbison nor Lynne nor Petty envisioned a “supergroup” in the classic—and ridiculous—sense of the word. More importantly, none of the members even cared to dominate the band; in fact, each went out of his way to avoid stepping on the others’ creativity, probably because each member was enamored of the others. Who wouldn’t be? After all, you had an icon from every generation of rock up until that point in a single band. Insane.
Even more insane is that the Wilbury’s catalogue has been out of print for over a decade now, and those interested in purchasing their albums have been forced to search for used copies that are often difficult to locate and fetch large amounts of money. That a band could boast the greatest singer and the greatest lyricist in rock history and find its work completely nonexistent is an inexplicable crime. Thankfully, Rhino has righted that wrong with The Traveling Wilburys Collection, a two-CD/one-DVD set that chronicles the band’s history and output.
Photo: Neal Preston
The Wilburys recorded just two albums, but they’re two of the greatest lost treasures in rock history. The first, simply titled Volume 1, is the better of the two, if for no other reason that it features Orbison, who died before the follow-up. And since it was recorded on a lark, it sounds loose, carefree, and downright joyous. The album spawned two hits, “Handle with Care”—which was the song originally written for Harrison’s B-side, though it prompted the album instead—and “End of the Line”, a cheerful romp about accepting life on life’s terms. These are the first and last songs, respectively, on the album, and they serve as excellent bookends, as both are examples of pop perfection. When Orbison introduces the chorus of “Handle with Care” by singing “I’m so tired of being lonely/ I still have some love to give/ Won’t you show me that you really care”, it’s enough to make you cry and smile, maybe even at the same time. As for “End of the Line”, it’s so catchy and upbeat and utterly perfect it’s criminal.
Moreover—and more importantly—both “Handle with Care” and “End of the Line” show just how easy it was for the Wilburys to work with one another. Throughout the entire recording of Volume 1, the members selflessly took turns singing the verses and choruses, letting the best person for the job record the part. Because of this approach, the entire album is full of gems. “Not Alone Any More”, for instance, is one of Orbison’s best vocal performances, culminating in one of those dramatic climaxes that he’s known for where his quavering tenor soars right over the horizon. “Rattled” is also a masterpiece, a chug-a-lugging rockabilly track that harkens back to the early Sun Studio days of rock. Not only were the Wilburys making history, they were also channeling it—and to wondrous effect.
The Wilbury’s second album, deviously titled Volume 3, did not receive the universal critical acclaim of its predecessor, but it’s undoubtedly a solid LP. “New Blue Moon”, a track that shows off Harrison’s majestic slide work and Lynne’s genius for arranging harmonies, rivals anything on Volume 1. “She’s My Baby” is straight hell-raising rock, complete with lascivious lyrics (“She’s got her pudding in the oven / And it’s gonna be good”) and blistering guitar work. And “You Took My Breath Away” is a touching ballad sung mostly by Petty that sounds like an outtake from his Full Moon Fever period, when he also teamed up with Lynne. If Volume 3 pales next to Volume 1, it’s only because the former surpassed everyone’s expectations of what a supergroup can actually achieve.
Photo: Alberto Tolot
The real prize of the collection, however, is the film included on the DVD, titled The True History of the Traveling Wilburys. Watching it makes listening to the albums a totally new experience, as it provides background and context that cast the songs in a new light. True, some of this stuff may border on music geek trivia, but it’s fascinating nonetheless. The inspiration for “Last Night”, for example, was “Sidebury” Jim Keltner drumming on jars in a refrigerator. And, just as odd, the lyrics for “Dirty World” were, in part, lifted from an auto magazine. If you’ve ever wondered how geniuses create, this twenty-five minute documentary is an enlightening watch.
The main reason you should watch it, however, is that it captures the sheer joy of the entire experience for the band. The members of the Wilburys were (and are) such icons that’s odd to picture them as human beings, and yet here they are on camera breaking into dance, losing their concentration in the recording booth, and feeling absolutely awestruck of one another. The Wilburys, indeed, were nothing if not a reminder that music is a joyous experience, and it’s a shame that they only put out two albums.
And yet, it’d be nice to believe the band still goes on, just without making records. As Harrison himself stated about Orbison after the latter’s death, “Life flows on within you and without you. He’s around, in his astral body.” The same holds true for Harrison and the band itself. After all, the Traveling Wilburys were always the stuff of myth—of unlikely beginnings and heroes and, yes, even transcending death through creation. Thankfully, with their work back on the shelves, they will do just that.