PHOTO CREDIT: Neal Preston
Most supergroups implode amid a clash of warring egos, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that artists of the stature of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne would be able to spend, say, five minutes together in the studio before vying for dominance over each other. Not so. All concerned have looked back fondly on the recording sessions that produced Traveling Wilburys Vol.1 and its follow-up, Traveling Wilburys Vol.3, professing amazement at working with fellow musicians they considered idols, and finding relief away from having to carry the weight of expectation that usually greeted albums they put out under their own names. Indeed, when Vol.1 was released, on October 17, 1988, these five rock icons presented a united front – a brotherhood, even – each donning a new Wilbury moniker that allowed them to take refuge behind their Ray-Bans: Lucky (Dylan), Nelson (Harrison), Lefty (Orbison), Charlie T, Jr. (Petty), and Otis (Lynne).
Pressure? This was almost too easy. Legend has it that the Wilburys fell into place largely by chance: Harrison needed to record a B-side, and, over dinner, asked Lynne to produce. Orbison was also at the table that evening, and Harrison invited him to attend; the session was to be held in the garage of Dylan’s Malibu home, where Dylan had a recording studio. En route to the recording, Harrison dropped by Petty’s house to retrieve a guitar. Before long, all five future Wilburys were writing and recording songs together, at a rate of one per day.
The first, Harrison’s intended B-side, “Handle With Care,” set the parameters: unfussy arrangements, deceptively simple melodies, and radio-ready production that made space for each bandmate to shine. With knowing lyrics from a rock star now in middle age (“Been beat up and battered around/Been sent up, and I’ve been shot down/… Handle me with care”) and a spine-tingling pre-chorus from Roy Orbison, the song was deemed too good to be squandered as a B-side; issued as a standalone single in its own right, “Handle Me With Care” went to No.2 on Billboard’s Album Rock Tracks chart.
The group repeated the success with Vol.1’s eventual closing track, “End Of The Line.” But, if anything, being part of The Traveling Wilburys proved there was plenty more road ahead, creatively speaking, for this pace-setting generation of stars. Roy Orbison’s untimely death, aged 52, just a little over a month after the album’s release, may have cut his time as a Wilbury short, but this ageless collection of songs remains a musical epitaph to that rarest of things: a truly egoless collaboration between titans of their craft.
At 25 minutes, this official documentary captures the group together in the studio, conjuring magic seemingly from the air. “All we planned was which weeks we were all available to get together,” Harrison admits. “Apart from that, there was no other plan.”
Speaking on the 30th anniversary of Traveling Wilburys Vol.1, the ELO mastermind reveals how the Wilburys wrote songs together while they ate: “We’d be sitting there at the table, throwing out lines… the whole thing was done at dinner time.”
And Tom Petty reveals what truly made it work: “A lot of people think that The Traveling Wilburys were united because it was a good idea, but really we were pals and hanging out long before.”
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE...
You’ll be familiar with the catchy classics “Handle With Care” and “End of the Line,” but here’s more to dig into…
“Dirty World” - Prince reigned supreme in the 80s, and the Wilburys couldn’t resist a playful attempt at channeling “The Purple One” at his most lascivious. “Dirty World” may be more Americana boogie than “Minneapolis sound,” but a litany of innuendos (“He loves your fuel injection,” “He loves your five-speed gearbox”) would have made the “Little Red Corvette” hitmaker slam the brakes.
“Rattled” - All five Wilburys were fans of 50s rock’n’roll, but only Roy Orbison provided a tangible link to that era, having been signed to Sun Records, the original home of Elvis Presley, during rock’n’roll’s heyday. With a classic rockabilly beat and all-shook-up lyrics, “Rattled” bursts out of the traps as a fine homage to the music the Wilburys grew up on.
“Not Alone Any More” - Orbison had made his name in the early 60s with heart-on-sleeve hits such as “Crying” and “In Dreams.” Featuring his only lead vocal on the Wilburys’ debut album, “Not Alone Any More” proves that time had done nothing to age his soaring multi-octave range.
“Tweeter And The Monkey Man” - Bob Dylan’s recent solo albums had left some fans wondering if he’d lost his way. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” assuaged those fears, as the “Desolation Row” songsmith unfurled a convoluted narrative full of his trademark enigmatic characters and cryptic lyrical allusions.
DID YOU KNOW?
- The Traveling Wilburys originally planned to call themselves The Trembling Wilburys. Whether they were named after George Harrison’s nickname for mistakes made during recording – as in, “We’ll bury them in the mix” – remains apocryphal, according to some.
- Often considered to be poking fun at Bruce Springsteen, “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” was actually written in honor of New Jersey’s finest. “We weren’t trying to mock anybody,” Tom Petty insisted, adding that Dylan’s lyrics were meant “as praise”…
- … The group were, however, having fun at the expense of rock critics when they named their second album Traveling Wilburys Vol.3 (there was no Vol.2). “Let’s confuse the buggers,” Harrison said.
- Roy Orbison died before sessions for Vol.3 began. Reflecting their forced change in personnel, the Wilburys took on a new round of pseudonyms for the album: Boo (Dylan), Spike (Harrison), Muddy (Petty), and Clayton (Lynne).
Words: Jason Draper