Traveling Wilburys – The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1
I guess the idea of a supergroup was appealing…
IN THIS PHOTO: The Traveling Wilburys (left-right:Tom Petty, Bob Dylan; Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne (centre)/PHOTO CREDIT: Alberto Tolot (Courtesy of Concord Records)
in the 1970s and spawned the likes of Cream (who released their debut album in 1968). I am not sure how the phenomenon started but I guess, when you have these big artists that need a new creative lease, it makes sense they would look around and, in a close-knit community, reach out to musician friends. Here is a list of some epic supergroups - and I am a big fan of a lot of them. If you want the ultimate supergroup, look no further than the Traveling Wilburys. If your least famous members are Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne then who the hell are the MOST famous?! In the case ofthe Traveling Wilburys, we have Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and George Harrison! Whilst Harrison was recording his 1987 album, Cloud Nine, the idea was sprung: Harrison and Lynne started the endeavour after the five Wilburys recorded a bonus track for the European release of Cloud Nine. Handle with Care was seen as too strong for such inclusion and the band was set. It is amazing to think that you could bring all these world-class musicians together for a one-off track for the European market – would we ever see anything like it today!? It is clear that Dylan, Orbison; Harrison, Lynne and Petty held great respect and affection for one another; so it was understandable an album would come.
Bringing together such eclectic and fantastic artists might have been a bit of a mismatch and failed experiment. There have been some botched supergroups because people – mainly labels – think you can shove famous artists together and magic will happen. There needs to be chemistry and friendship and, with the Traveling Wilburys, the connection was clear from the debut album. Not only did The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 help revitalise the careers of Dylan and Petty but it provided this sensational sound that was effortless across ten tracks. Released in 1988, Harrison was keen to record an album with his mates and, when one of your mates is Bob Dylan, how could it go wrong?! A lot of groups have ego struggles but, with the Traveling Wilburys, there was this carefree writing and partnership that you rarely find. Although certain members took the lead on each track, the rest of the gang would pitch in – Dirty World is a prime example of each member chucking in a line! Harrison and Lynne became friends with Tom Petty in late-1987 when Petty’s band, The Heartbreakers, toured Europe as Dylan’s backing band; Lynne was working with Petty on his debut solo album (Petty), Full Moon Fever, and Harrison has enormous respect for Dylan. Rather than it being this unwieldy coalition of mates, the criteria for being in the band was the ability to hang out; each member had to get on – for one, they all bonded over their love of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
I believe, as the story goes, there was an awkward moment where Bob Dylan was singled out. Being, perhaps, the best solo composer of the group, there was a conversation around status – the band would treat him like anyone else and not put him on a pedestal. Happily, Dylan responded by saying he was in awe of the other guys and, so, this remarkable band was cemented. Although Harrison was the band leader and sort-of-manager, Lynne helped direct the recording sessions – there were no power struggles and it was as carefree as you would hope. I shall come on to some reviews and my personal experiences with the album but, in order to get that relaxed and natural flow, the songwriting sessions for The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 was pretty casual. The group would meet at lunch and have some coffee; they would pitch ideas and exchange lyrics and they would finish at around midnight – often made golden by Roy Orbison who would captivate his bandmates with stories of his Sun Records days. It wasn’t too long after the album was released on 17th October, 1988 that I first heard it. It might have been a couple of years after but, as I was driven to my grandparents every Sunday – the family and I would visit them and, along the way, stop off for a cheeky MacDonald’s – The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 was played.
I adore every song on the record but the opener, Handle with Care, is a perfect thing: Harrison leading vocals (with Orbison joining in), and the song rising and flowing; some great guitar twangs, a catchy chorus and this instant sensation. Last Night is a great song that utilises Orbison’s vocal gifts – Petty leads but Orbison swoons in to add some shiver and power – and Not Alone Any More is Orbison solo on one of his most affecting and quivering performances. Heading for the Light and End of the Line are exceptional group performances and Tweeter and the Monkey Man – a bit of a Bruce Springsteen homage/dig – is one of Bob Dylan’s finest songs of the 1980s…and the song from the album that made the biggest impression on me growing up. Although every song but one (Rattled is only a second shy!), only one of them lasts over four minutes (the aforementioned Dylan gem). It is almost like the band knew that a perfect song has time to breathe but never goes on too long: they had this set formula and left you wanting more. At ten tracks and with that great pacing and running time, one is in awe. The tracklisting is perfect so it starts and ends with these group performances and easygoing melodies (Handle with Care and End of the Line); each songwriter has their moments in the spotlight and the finest tracks – a subjective measure but I think many critics agree – are scattered evenly so The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 is neither top of bottom-heavy.
There were a load of great reviews for The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 upon its release. It could have been a bad idea bringing together such renowned musicians but the bond was obvious and people responded! The retrospective reviews have been hugely positive and, in a year when U.S. Hip-Hop and epic Dance/House music were dominating (1988), there was this appetite for a Folk/Country-Rock album – maybe its simplicity and casual vibes was a perfect balance against the more aggressive and energised styles of the time. AllMusic, in their review, had this to say:
“Looking back via The Traveling Wilburys, the group's success seems all the more remarkable because the first album is surely, even proudly, not a major statement. Even under the direction of Lynne, who seems incapable of not polishing a record till it gleams, it's loose and funny, even goofy. It's clearly a lark, which makes the offhanded, casual virtuosity of some of the songs all the more affecting, particularly the two big hits, which are sunny and warm, partially because they wryly acknowledge the mileage on these rock & roll veterans. "Handle With Care" and "End of the Line" are the two masterworks here, although Roy's showcase, "Not Alone Anymore" -- more grand and moving than anything on the Lynne-produced Mystery Girl -- comes close in the stature, but its stylized melodrama is a ringer here: it, along with Dylan's offhand heartbreak tune "Congratulations," is the only slow thing here, and the rest of the album just overspills with good vibes, whether it's Tom Petty's lite reggae of "Last Night," Jeff Lynne's excellent Jerry Lee Lewis update "Rattled," or Dylan's very funny "Dirty World," which is only slightly overshadowed by his very, very funny Springsteen swipe "Tweeter and the Monkey Man."
These high times keep The Traveling Wilburys fresh and fun years later, after Lynne's production becomes an emblem of the time instead of transcending it. (The album contains two bonus tracks in this reissue, the excellent Harrison song "Maxine" -- a low-key waltz that should have made the cut -- and "Like a Ship," a folky dirge that builds into ELO-esque pop which is pretty good but doesn't have the effervescence of the rest.)”.
Uncut were similarly impressed by The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1:
“Recorded in L.A. in just 10 days, the supremely accomplished Volume 1 now seems like a boxful of revelations. Dylan submits to the novelty of placing his unruly voice amid Lynne’s scrupulous, glossy production on “Dirty World,” “Congratulations” and the captivating “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”. Orbison absolutely blows the roof off what would be his last rock aria, “Not Alone Any More”. Petty’s “Last Night,” suffused with bonhomie, and the synth-meets-horns production number “Margarita” exemplify the extremes of his longstanding partnership with Lynne. And the reinvigorated Harrison’s “End of the Line” returns him to the form of his early solo work, while coming off as both more poignant and more life-affirming in retrospect”.
I recommend people listen to the debut from the Traveling Wilburys on any format but, if you snap it up on vinyl then do so. The band would record a follow-up album, 1990’s The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 3, without Orbison (he died in December 1988). It was not as successful and, whilst there were a couple of good songs – New Blue Moon and 7 Deadly Sins -, maybe it suffered because of a lack of Orbison’s presence. In any case, one cannot overlook a remarkable debut that, in my view, does not get talked about enough! I would continue but, having written about The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 for a while, the songs are stuck in my head so I am now off to allow these wonderful tunes to…
DO what they do best.