Saturday, April 10, 2021

Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988)

I chronically associate the "supergroup" idea with albums featuring long jams by players such as Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. But Wikipedia sez those guys are merely the source of the term when they made an album in 1968 with Stephen Stills called Super Session. The crowd-sourced encyclopedia goes on to list examples of supergroups: Cream, Led Zeppelin (!), Crosby, Stills (him again), Nash & Young, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, etc., etc., all the way unto SSAK3 last year. Fair enough, fair enough. The supergroup that the Traveling Wilburys most resembles to me is Blind Faith, with a consortium of mostly well-established if disparate players and one amazing album. I know the Wilburys have a second album, called Vol. 3 (to baffle the completists, hyuk-hyuk), but stick with me.

My instinctive resistance to supergroup projects was locked in by 1988. From the outside this looked like the usual half-baked collision of over-the-hill celebrity and tender egos and my inclination was to skip it. But at some point I saw it for cheap somewhere and thought I really oughta. The album hit me like the work of supergroups in the other sense of the term (e.g., the Beatles and the Stones) and I have been a partisan ever since. The experience was reminiscent for me, and remains so, speaking of those supergroups, of bringing Beatles albums home for the first time back in the wayback. The first sensation is pure pleasure followed by playing it a lot. In the first days and weeks with these albums you don't even particularly sort out what's good and what's better and why, you just listen to them every day, sometimes multiple times, cramming it all the way down to the brainstem until you can hear the beginnings of the next songs in the endings of the previous. As with the Beatles, you can try picking apart the constituent elements of the Traveling Wilburys but it never seems to help much.

So, for me, in 1988 and holding to this day, give or take: Bob Dylan, big thumbs up mostly for past accomplishments; George Harrison, OK that's a Beatle; Roy Orbison, he's still performing?; Tom Petty, nay; and Jeff Lynne, who? oh, ELO. You can perhaps imagine my reasons for skepticism and likely add your own. But hey, all forgiven. Nothing to forgive. My bliss was nearly perfect and has remained so over the years. Memory fades, attitudes die hard, and I can lapse back into doubting this album's worth. It doesn't help that Vol. 3 is always a disappointment—it never was Revolver after Rubber Soul, it couldn't be, without Orbison. But Vol. 1 is such a constant pleasure, a genuine Rubber Soul in its way, once I get over myself and remember to put it back on once in a while.

There's a familiar chassis of a mush of '70s rock production—Lynne and Harrison get the formal production credits (which led me btw to Lynne's 1990 solo album, Armchair Theatre, a gem in its own right and I say this as someone officially dubious about ELO beyond one or two singles)—over which lush vocal harmonies ride and glide. It's really a vocals album more than anything, once again much like Harrison's former. And you wouldn't necessarily think this mix of singers would work. It's a decidedly assorted bunch, from Dylan's ongoing ever-worsening rasp and croak to Orbison's operatics, still perfectly serviceable at 50+, which was another happy surprise on this album, though sadly he died within weeks of its release. Throw in Harrison, Petty, and Lynne—that's a pretty good crew of backup singers.

All songs are credited as written by them all (under their various goofy "Wilbury" names) but, perhaps again as with the Beatles, the lead vocal and backing vocal credits vary widely, practically a new arrangement on every track. It's tempting to think the singer is also the songwriter with a little help from the all-for-one in this one-for-all project. "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," for example, Dylan on lead vocal, is obviously a Bob Dylan song with its narrative folk stretchers and effulgent wordplay. But the Dylan template has been fitted to this generic rock Wilburys chassis, and thus includes obvious Harrison, Lynne, and Petty touches in parts, where you can really hear this is all a collaboration of distinct voices—in this case happening inside a Dylan song.

"Not Alone Any More" with that title is what else a Roy Orbison song, but attacks with cascading figures I associate again with Petty and Lynne, also early '60s pop like Del Shannon. I would guess it was Harrison's idea to throw in the girl group sha-la-la-la's, also vintage early '60s. When Orbison steps up he owns the song completely, with maybe the best set of backup singers he ever recorded with. Beautiful. "Handle With Care," the album opener, features Harrison with Orbison. The tempo is plodding but the song is well constructed and builds on its ambling way as the voices assemble like the stage production in Stop Making Sense.

And so it goes, from track to track, every one here a winner and fascinating to pick apart, assigning or guessing the individual contributions. But this is not another celebrity ID orgy as in "We Are the World." The parts of the Traveling Wilburys are great but the whole is even better than their sum. Maybe Harrison at the soundboard dusted it all with a little of the old Beatles magic. It's possible boomers only need apply but I swear something has always been working really well here. Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 is a good one never to forget.


  1. "End of the Line" is the one song that has stuck with me. The video for that is nice, with Orbison represented by an empty rocking chair, and Tom Petty pretending to play bass.

  2. Yes, that was a nice tribute!