The Traveling Wilburys were a big deal to me. I remember the news item announcing them. I remember my mum and dad took us out, family outing, Friday night (late-night) shopping, to buy the cassette tape.
Not only that we took it home and sat and listened to it. The whole family. It was an event. I told some of that story, years later, as part of my Vinyl Countdown, after wearing out that tape I found a second-hand copy of the LP…
There was a reverence – it was George Harrison and he used to be a Beatle. But it was also Bob Dylan, he had been a big deal too. And Tom Petty. There was this other guy – Jeff Lynne, didn’t know as much about him, but then someone mentioned a group ELO or Electric Light Orchestra they were a bit like a Disco-Beatles in my mind. And that was okay. Then there was The Big O – Roy Orbison. Everyone knew his rock’n’roll hits from that earlier era. He was a living legend. Well, they were all living legends really…
I loved the music of The Traveling Wilburys. That first album, Vol. 1.
We listened to that tape twice through on that first night.
The songs were great – there was the big lead single, the opener, Handle With Care, but I liked the jaunty End of the Line, and the mopey Congratulations. It was about spotting who had written what and where each part seemed to come from. That distinctive sprig of Harrison’s guitar at the end of a song that Tom Petty drawled into place. Jeff Lynne’s harmony vocals and production ideas (horrible, of-their-time chorused guitars) and Bob Dylan seemingly stealing back from Bruce Springsteen with Tweeter and the Monkey Man.
But the star of the Wilburys was The Big O. And you got the feeling that all the others knew that. He was the big man – and they made room for him. His vocal turns the absolute highlight.
If the Wilburys existed for nothing else than but to provide Orbison with a rightful swansong moment (Not Alone Any More) then they (more than) served their purpose.
At the time it seemed a cute, strange folly actually. They all took on stage-names, George was Nelson Wilbury, Jeff Lynne was Otis, Tom Petty was Charlie T. Wilbury, Lefty and Lucky Wilbury were the people you knew as Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan. But then I’d read a bit more about it, via Harrison and Dylan biographies and as new albums by Tom Petty and George Harrison arrived in our collection (the Harrison released just before the Wilburys’ first album, the Petty just after) it started to make even more sense. And the bonhomie, the impromptu nature of this “supergroup” became an interesting part of the story.
I believe the Wilburys saved the 1980s for Bob Dylan, or saved Dylan in the eighties. They gave Harrison that chance to be, nominally, a band leader, the project seemed to form around him, he had the lead single – recorded originally as a standalone, a charity single, he had the biggest claim to fame at the time (Dylan’s 1980s hadn’t really meant a whole lot). Tom Petty wasn’t quite in a slump, but close enough to it in the scheme of his career – he wasn’t at any crossroads, more a pause. And Lynne wasn’t a household name – he became one (or close enough to it) with this group. He was something of a secret-strength, a big part of the glue. His production of George Harrison’s Cloud Nine and Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever gives clues to that; those albums bookending this Wilburys project. (There was also the Wilburys-assisted final Roy Orbison album).
It’s not that the players were has-beens, or forgotten, but they were – in some sense – on their way to that. Harrison’s career had only just been jumpstarted after dwindling. Dylan was less than coasting.
This record allowed them to all bring bits and pieces of songs to the table.
But you got the feeling – and with only a tiny bit of ready-for-the-press shaping – that the Wilburys really did like hanging out, that this “supergroup” formed nearly by fluke, that it was all some strange lark.
It should have ended there.
Someone else will tell you that the Wilburys’ second album, Vol. 3 (named volume three because it was released after Orbison died, there’s a “Vol. 2” bootleg record, the “missing volume”) has hidden gems. But it mostly just shows up the fact that The Big O is gone. He’s the piece that’s missing. The puzzle now a bit jumbled.
When the albums were reissued a few years back, packaged together, it had me revisiting Vol. 3 and feeling kinder towards it. But it’s Vol. 1 that tells – and sells – the story of The Wilburys.
Now there might be better supergroups, collections of players that made music more momentarily exciting. But I’d like to think of The Traveling Wilburys as being something special certainly, probably because of the surprise. Now everything is telegraphed, we get teaser-ads for things like Them Crooked Vultures. We’re told, months in advance, that our mind will be blown because the guy who played drums in Nirvana is back playing drums again, though this time it’s with the bassist from Led Zeppelin. Then they come here and tour and it’s all a bit of a mess. They’re talked up as the saviours of rock and a serious project, their second album will dazzle. And then they’re gone. Yesterday’s clickbait.
With The Traveling Wilburys it seemed real and lovely and gentle. We didn’t know about it – and then it was there.
The timing was everything.
And, briefly, there was strength in numbers. The songs drawing strength together, the band members having a laugh, but creating something lasting.
I’ll always have fond memories of first hearing The Traveling Wilburys. And I can always return to that first album. Actually it’s been the Tom Petty-related album I’ve listened to most in the wake of his passing (R.I.P.)