This series is dedicated to my mom! Not only did she a) buy me this box set, but b) introduced me to the artists in the first place. My mom’s favourite Beatle was George. She saw Roy Orbison live, at the old Glenbriar Curling Club on Weber St. in Waterloo. Later, she had this Traveling Wilburys album on cassette, and that tape went up and back from the cottage many, many times!
We’re going to be looking at the Wilburys albums, plus a DVD and bonus 12″ EP, over the course of three installments. Today is the album that started it all.
THE TRAVELING WILBURYS – Volume 1 (1988, part of the Traveling Wilburys Collection 2007 Rhino)
If ever there was a group that deserved the word “supergroup”, it would be the Traveling Wilburys. Grown out of an extension of the B-side sessions for George Harrison’s Cloud Nine, this group of five legends produced only one album in its original lineup. It’s really something when the lesser royalty of the supergroup included names like “Tom Petty” and “Jeff Lynne”. That’s because in comparison to George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison, they were relative newcomers to the game. It still blows my mind that this album exists; that this actually happened. Fortunately the CD version of this box set includes a DVD; behind the scenes and interviews that prove it wasn’t just a dream! (The Wilburys’ drummer was Jim Keltner, an unofficial sixth member.)
The song that started it all was “Handle With Care”, written as a Harrison B-side. It was apparent to all concerned that the song was too good to throw away like that. Instead it became the first single and opening track from The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. George sings the verses, Orbison the chorus, and the others the bridges. Although George Harrison sounds youthful and Beatles-esque, it is Orbison who steals the song. His angelic voice simply shines. Also exciting is George’s eloquent slide guitar. Let us not forget what an excellent slide player he was.
Bob Dylan sings lead on the fun “Dirty World”. Although it shares the same acoustic, upbeat vibe as “Handle With Care”, Dylan infuses the song with his flat funkiness. I mean that in the nicest possible way! Horns accent the song, as do the backing vocals of the other Wilburys. Sonically this sounds like Harrison’s Cloud Nine, and no wonder. Both albums were produced by Jeff Lynne and George Harrison!
Speaking of Lynne, he sings lead on “Rattled”, a great little country rocker. “Rattled” is a suitable title since it seems designed to get people shakin’. And you gotta love when Roy Orbison does his signature “Rrrrrrr!” Roy sings a bit more on the reggae-stylee of “Last Night”. Tom Petty sings the verses, while Roy takes the bridges to a whole other level. I get chills when he sings:
I asked her to marry me,
She smiles, pulled out a knife,
“Your heartache’s just beginning”, she said
“Your money or your life.”
“Last night” indeed! It’s impossible not to like this song.
Finally, the moment I had been waiting for: a Roy Orbison lead vocal! “Not Alone Any More” is golden. There will only be one Roy Orbison, and this song is as essential to his songbook as any of his other hits, in my opinion. It sounds timeless, and it boasts that powerful, mournful voice. It speaks volumes that no other Wilburys sing prominently on this song; they obviously gave Roy the space that his voice deserved. It is a classic song. It is a shame that no music video was made for this, the third single.
Side Two opened with “Congratulations”, a slow-as-molasses Bob Dylan turn. This has always been one of the lesser songs, but on an album full of shiny diamonds. Its slow, dreary vibe can be hard to penetrate at first. The key is focusing on the lyrics of Dylan. “Heading For the Light” then is an upbeat Harrison number, another one that easily could have been on Cloud Nine. It boasts those chiming guitars, and a great chorus with Jeff Lynne helping out. The sax solo (by Jim Horn) is another treat.
“Margarita” always sounds a bit odd when it opens. A synthesizer of all things pulses away, but soon all the live instruments fade in. More horns, more of those chiming guitars, and George’s slide. Once again Bob Dylan sings lead, although the song was primarily written by Tom Petty, who shows up later in the song. It has an exotic sound, and it’s something I associate with summer.
Epic time. “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” (famously covered and punked up by the Headstones) is Bob Dylan’s album centerpiece. A tale about an undercover cop and other shady characters, this is Dylan as only Dylan can do. Words cannot really do this song justice. It’s one of those tracks that demands multiple listens, since there is so much going on lyrically and even vocally. This is the only song on the album to which Roy Orbison did contribute.
Nothing like the Wilburys version.
Although a song like this could have easily closed an album, the Wilburys had one more track of their sleeves. “End of the Line” was an apt farewell, and again, it’s hard not to get chills when Roy sings. This single features George, Tom and Jeff prominently along with Roy Orbison, but Bob doesn’t sing any lead parts. “End of the Line” feels like a bookend with “Handle With Care”; two similar songs opening and closing the record.
I’m going to skip discussing the bonus tracks for now; we’ll get to them in Part 3 of this series of reviews. Besides, the 10 core tracks on Vol. 1 are plenty enough to discuss. Within a couple months of its release, Roy Orbison would pass away at the young age of 52. The Wilburys bestowed upon Roy another chance in the spotlight, and he worked hard to complete his solo album Mystery Girl, while playing shows and filming music videos. Although he had been experiencing chest pains and had meant to see a doctor, he never did.
I was as surprised as anyone when the remaining four Wilburys re-convened to record another album. Vol. 3 appeared two years later, and was dedicated to the memory of Orbison…or at least his Wilburys alter-ego, Lefty Wilbury. Check back tomorrow when we’ll look at that album in detail.
As for Vol. 1?