The Traveling Wilburys: The Biography by Nick Thomas, Guardian Express Media (E-Book) 2017
The story of the Traveling Wilburys began twenty-five years before the 1988 release of their first album, Volume One. In the spring of 1963, an American superstar arrived in England for a two month tour, supported by local bands. One of these bands had become almost unimaginably successful in the period between when the tour was booked and the first shows began to take place. It was decided that they would share top billing with the American superstar. He was very gracious about it but every night the English band watched his set from the wings wondering how on earth they could manage to follow someone with so much talent. The Beatles’ guitarist, George Harrison, probably never imagined he would one day play in a band with the superstar, Roy Orbison.
About 8 months later, a 13 year old boy called Tom Petty in Gainesville Florida was watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, completely unaware that he would one day form a band with the shy fellow playing a Gretsch Country Gentleman. Four or five months after that, in the summer of 1964, George and his band mates were supposedly introduced to marijuana (Rock and Roll myth #540: They didn’t come across weed in Hamburg? Yeah right!) by a chatty fellow from Minnesota named Bob Dylan. As they puffed away in the Delmonico Hotel, Bob probably didn’t foresee the day when he would accept an invitation to join George Harrison’s band.
Four years on, a young musician named Jeff Lynne, from a band called The Idle Race, couldn’t sleep. He had spent the day watching The Beatles record Glass Onion at Abbey Road. It would be days before he’d recover from the experience. Years later he would produce two new tracks for The Beatles and play in a band with one of them. Who knew?
Nick Thomas’s book, The Traveling Wilburys: The Biography, is very good on the long backstory to this unusual moment in rock and roll history. ‘Super groups’ were nothing new, nor were collaborations between musicians. The ‘with heavy friends’ phenomenon goes back at least as far as Louis Armstrong turning up on a Jimmy Rogers record. Look at the names on Miles Davis’ Blue album. Super groups didn’t start with Cream though they might have ended with Asia. Thomas demonstrates that the Wilburys grew out of a number of collaborations but shows that this was no ordinary meeting of minds. This wasn’t a super group. This was Yalta!
After those first encounters, each of the Wilburys had played and/or recorded with at least one of the other members before 1988. Bob and George had jammed in a much-bootlegged 1970 session featuring Charlie Daniels (yup, the same one) on bass. Bob had used Tom Petty’s keyboard man, Benmont Tench, on his Shot of Love album and written with Petty himself before touring with Tom and the Heartbreakers extensively in the mid eighties. Jeff Lynne produced George Harrison’s Cloud Nine album and was working on Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl record when George phoned him, hoping he would produce a new track as a b-side to a proposed single.
There followed a relatively straightforward sequence of events. Tom borrowed George’s guitar. George picked up it up at Tom’s house and invited him to join him and Jeff at Bob Dylan’s home studio in Malibu. Roy Orbison was playing a gig nearby so they all went, ending up at Denny’s on Hollywood Boulevard after the show. The next day, they reconvened in Bob’s garage where there happened to be a box was labeled ‘Handle With Care.’ George turned to the future Nobel Laureate and said, ‘You’re supposed to be good with words, aren’t you?’ The song was written and recorded in a matter of hours.
When George played the track for the record company folks, it’s fair to say that the executives all probably had to change their trousers soon after the meeting. Make an album! Now! The name came from a joke between Jeff Lynne and George. When someone made a mistake on a song, they’d say, ‘We’ll bury it in the mix.’ We’ll bury – get it? Somehow this became Trembling Wilburys that was then prudently altered to The Traveling Wilburys.
The album was a massive success and the various singles were a pleasant break from the usual cocaine nonsense that constituted popular music in the 1980s. Sadly, Roy Orbison died within weeks of its release. There was no tour and everyone went back to whatever they were doing before the Wilburys. They did manage to reconvene for a slightly disappointing second album in 1990. It’s called Volume 3. ‘Let’s confuse the buggers,’ said George. By 2000, both were out of print and more or less forgotten. Rhino released a nifty box set in 2007 and updates have followed. Handle With Care was covered by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins at some point.
Thomas’s book makes no special claims for the songs on the album. They were written quickly by a group of very experienced songwriters throwing out lines to each other. Lyrically speaking, nothing on either record is a patch on any of the members’ own work, your feelings about ELO notwithstanding. But this record is all about atmosphere and sound. George Harrison’s lovely guitar work; Roy’s otherworldly voice; Dylan’s strangeness; and Petty’s punk rock sneer all combine here for something very special. Jeff Lynne adds his acoustic wall of sound and old school rockabilly sensibility for the icing on an estimable cake.
I was listening to the first album while writing the review and I will admit to a tear or two when End of the Line came on. Thomas’s book appeared a day or two after the sad news of Petty’s death. Reading about George’s last days with Jeff Lynne at his side while coming to terms with the idea that Tom Petty was gone too was a lot to take in. Tom formed close friendships with all of the other members, particularly George. He was a remarkably generous musician who also collaborated with people like Roger McGuinn and Del Shannon – both discussed as replacements for Roy apparently – in a spirit of respect and gratitude. His own work with The Heartbreakers and as a solo artist represents one of the great bodies of work in rock and roll. If his death has left you feeling like you need to dive back into his music and life, you could do worse than this short but thoroughly researched book on his most famous collaboration.
For Tom Petty, October 20, 1950 – October 2, 2017
Teasers: Handle With Care has a very similar opening to an ELO song. Do you know which one?
An early Wilbury moment: