The Traveling Wilburys were one of the most understated and consistently excellent supergroups to ever grace the American music scene. Their saving grace was just having fun and not trying to overreach or become something they were not.
Some groups were just meant to be. George Harrison needed a B-side for a European single he was about to release. He was having supper with Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison and they decided to work on the song together. They then called Bob Dylan who had a home studio. By chance Harrison had left his guitar over at Tom Petty’s house and so he came along for the ride.
The result was “Handle With Care,” which the record company declared too good to release as a throwaway flip side. The five musicians then agreed to create a whole album together and went into the studio during the spring of 1988.
They had fun with the group name, portraying themselves as the Wilburys, who were half brothers. George Harrison was Nelson, Jeff Lynne took the name Otis, Bob Dylan was Lucky, Roy Orbison was Lefty, and Tom Petty assumed the name Charlie T. Jr.
And while he was uncredited on the album, longtime Harrison drummer Jim Keltner provided the percussion. He eventually appeared in some of the group’s videos as Buster Sidebury.
Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 was released October 18, 1988 and was an instant smash, reaching number three on the U.S. album charts and eventually selling over three million copies. It also went on to win a Grammy Award.
The music is joyful, polished pop. Lynne and Harrison produced the album and they added a sophisticated sheen that served the music well. The harmonies were some of the best of the eighties.
It is an album without a weak track. “Not Alone Any More,” which features Orbison’s tenor soaring above the mix, takes on an additional poignancy considering the legend died suddenly less than two months after the album’s release. Both of the Dylan tracks, “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” and particularly “Dirty World” are excellent and present his humorous side. “Rattled” is close to a rockabilly sound and has a nice lead vocal by Lynne. And “Handle With Care” features a Harrison/Orbison vocal with some expert slide guitar from George.
Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 is the lighter side of eighties pop music at its best. Five superstars managed to keep their egos under control and just have a good time, culminating in an album that should be a part of everyone’s collection.