Pound for pound, the Traveling Wilburys contained more sheer musical genius than a Lollapalooza of lesser bands. A Beatle, a Dylan, a Heartbreaker, a legendary voice and an Electric Light Orchestrator? It sounds like rock star fantasy camp, but it was reality nearly 20 years ago now.
The combination of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne made for one of the finest "supergroups" of all time. Their first album, The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, and to a lesser extent, their second, teasingly labeled Vol. 3, represent a shining high point in each of the artists' careers.
Shamefully, these discs have been out of print and fetching high prices on eBay for years now. Rhino Records has now repaired the situation by reissuing the Wilburys' two discs, remastered and with bonus tracks, and paired with a new retrospective DVD. All I can say is, it's about time.
The Wilburys sprang out of sessions for Harrison's 1987 comeback disc Cloud Nine. In 1988, Harrison and Lynne were putting together a B-side for the single "This Is Love" at Dylan's home studio. Roy Orbison and Tom Petty just happened to be hanging about, and the five slapped together a little song.
But the result, "Handle With Care," was far from a mere B-side – catchy, wistful, anchored by Harrison's sweet guitar solos, the crooning chorus from Orbison, Dylan popping up to blow a harmonica and croak a few lines like a subterranean oracle. It had the ramshackle feeling of a road trip anthem, the universal appeal of a forgotten classic rock tune, and it was way too good to toss away as filler. The group reconvened to record an entire album. Legend has it that "Wilburys" was coined by Harrison and Lynne during the recording of Cloud Nine as a reference to recorded "flubs" that could be eliminated during the mixing stage (as in, "'We'll bury' them in the mix").
The goofy in-jokes continued right into the album itself, where despite their pictures being on the cover, the band members took on pseudonyms as "Wilburys" – i.e. Dylan became Lucky Wilbury, and so on. Although it was a loosely organized throwaway record – written and recorded in just 10 days – the sum was greater than the solo careers of some of the men at this time.
Even Dylan, who one would imagine the least likely of the quintet to take part in such a goofy lark, seemed to have a blast – the charmingly lovelorn "Dirty World," or his "Tweeter and the Monkeyman," a rollicking Springsteen-meets-Bob parody that's light years above most of Dylan's other '80s output. Orbison hadn't had a real hit in decades, and this disc helped launch the career revival that came too late – he died suddenly at age 52 in 1988 mere months after the recording of this set. Some of his tracks here, like the lovely "Not Alone Any More," stand with the best of his work.
What was so remarkable about Vol. 1 is that it's a "supergroup" album almost entirely lacking in pretension – just simply gorgeous, honest soundcraft, polished to a fine shine by Jeff Lynne's typically slick production. Everyone takes turns on vocals and songwriting, and the result is that no one artist pulls rank on the others. The sonic touch was also present on the Lynne-engineered albums of the time, Harrison's Cloud Nine and Petty's Full Moon Fever In fact, both of those albums featured cameos by other Wilburys and are almost continuations of the Wilbury sound.
Sadly, Orbison died and the result was the Wilburys never quite measured up to an outstanding debut. The remaining four did regroup for 1990's follow-up. With more of that quirky Wilbury humor their second album was labeled Vol. 3, confusing fans forevermore. Vol. 3 unfortunately was more like what Vol. 1 could've been – solid, but somewhat unmemorable, a lark without heft. The operatic voice of Orbison was a key part of the first record's appeal, lending a lovelorn grandeur to many of the songs. He's sorely missed. Songs like "She's My Baby" or "Wilbury Twist" are good-time rock 'n' roll, but there's something missing. The relaxed spontaneity of the first album is a little more forced here, proving that maybe you can't always repeat a winner. Still, the Wilburys never embarrassed themselves.
The reissue includes four new tracks – the benefit for Romanian orphans "Nobody's Child," as well as Vol. 3 outtakes "Maxine" and "Like A Ship," and the UK-only B-side "Runaway."
The DVD features the original five charming music videos, along with a 24-minute documentary told in the group's own voices. There's a variety of editions for fans to choose from – the standard 2-CD and DVD set, a "special edition" boxed set that includes a 40-page book and more, and a vinyl set.
Even if you own one of the original rare CDs, you'll want to make the upgrade to this rewarding, long-awaited collection. There'll never be a Wilburys reunion now that George and Roy are both up at the juke box in the sky, but this is the next best thing.