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THE TRAVELING WILBURYS
It was never really planned, but a chance get-together was one of the best things that had happened in rock music for a long time. In 1988 George Harrison, on a roll after having suddenly come back with his greatest success on record since 'My Sweet Lord', was about to release a third single from his then current album, 'Cloud Nine'. The record company wanted a new track as a bonus track for the 12 inch, and by coincidence, friends and fellow heavyweights Jeff Lynne (formerly of ELO), Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty were around. They had recently been working with each other in various permutations, and all agreed to combine in order to knock off something on the spur of the moment. Harrison asked Dylan for some words, and Dylan saw a cardboard box lying around with HANDLE WITH CARE on it. The resulting song, everyone knew, was far too good to be buried on the back of a single, and they decided to spend the next few days together writing songs as a group and recording an album. They needed to work to a deadline as Dylan was due to go on tour after that.
The project may not however been quite as spontaneous as that. In a recent interview, Lynne said that he and Harrison had previously traded ideas for fun as to who they would like to have in their ultimate, all-time group. He chose Orbison, while Harrison named Dylan. Soon afterwards, the dream team became reality.
Both CDs in this collection are reissues of the original albums/CDs, 'Traveling Wilburys Vol 1' (1988), and 'Vol 3' (1990), each with two bonus tracks.
'No. 1' could have been a load of self-indulgent nonsense, but with that amount of talent under one roof, it could equally have been something special. It was. While most of the ten songs are more or less recognisable as being to some extent the work of one particular member, ideas were batted around freely and each song was credited jointly to all five.
'Handle With Care', the first single (a No. 21 hit), has almost everything. It's a wonderful song, with a really catchy guitar figure that recurs at regular intervals, a burst of trademark Harrison slide guitar, Dylan's endearingly wheezy harmonica just before the fade out, and lyrics that manage to be thoughtful and funny at the same time - to say nothing of vocals traded between each member in turn. Even after hearing it regularly for over twenty years (and of late playing it with my occasional group), it's still one of those magical songs that stops me in my tracks every time it comes on the radio, and makes me drop everything to listen.
'Dirty World' is obviously mainly Dylan's work - in his own words, lyrically, 'something like Prince', a brisk number with daft lyrics about 'a sexy body' and car maintenance. 'Rattled' is a rockabilly tune, with Lynne much in evidence. 'Last Night' has a South American feel to it, with saxophone capturing a Tijuana brass feel, mainly Petty's work with Orbison singing the bridge. Next is one of the real star tracks, 'Not Alone Any More', a powerful, majestic ballad with strings and lead vocal from Orbison, who hit those breathtaking high notes with the same ease that he did thirty years earlier.
What was side two of the original album starts with 'Congratulations', a slowish, rather tongue-in-cheek love gone wrong song from Dylan - 'congratulations, you came out on top - congratulations, you never knew when to stop'. It's followed by the more upbeat 'Heading For The Night', clearly a Harrison song with shades of his 1981 hit 'All Those Years Ago', and 'I Want To Tell You', from the Beatles' 1966 'Revolver' album - and the playful saxophone adds something here. 'Margarita', partly instrumental, has some pungent lead guitar and a Spanish flavour, lyrics coming only halfway through. 'Tweeter And The Monkey Man', with the stamp of Dylan and Petty all over it, is lyrically one of those American lowlife epics that Dylan specialised in. 'End Of The Line', the album's second single and minor hit (No. 54), is a jaunty optimistic number which gives all five a shot at lead vocal.
Bonus tracks, both unreleased at the time, are the brisk 'Maxine', and the slower 'Like a Ship', which sound like the work of all five.
Sadly, Orbison died of a heart attack a few weeks after 'Vol 1' was released. It was rumoured that fellow seminal rock'n'roll star Del Shannon might replace him, but he killed himself a year later after a long battle with depression and alcohol dependency, and just after Lynne and Petty had produced and played on what was to be his final album.
'Vol. 3' (yes, three - the joke is that there never was a No 2!) is on balance possibly not quite as good as its predecessor, perhaps largely due to the lack of Orbison, but it's not far behind. Lead track (and first, but flop, single), 'She's My Baby' was the hardest rocking number they ever did, with scorching lead guitar courtesy of ex-Thin Lizzy's Gary Moore, who had made an album with Harrison guesting not long before.
'Inside Out' is more mellow, and on first listen not one of the stronger tracks. 'If You Belonged To Me', jaunty jug band fare, begins with one of Dylan's trademark harmonica introductions. 'The Devil's Been Busy', the nearest it gets to social comment with references to toxic waste and pollution, boasts some excellent sitar work from Harrison. 'Seven Deadly Sins' slows things down, a touch of doo-wop balladry similar to songs like 'The Great Pretender'.
'Poor House', a brisk rockabilly number, gets things moving again, with characteristic Harrison guitar work. 'Where Were You Last Night' is characterised by a homely 12-string acoustic guitar riff and tune so deceptively simple you feel you must have heard it before somewhere. 'Cool Dry Place' is a kind of 12-bar blues in disguise, clearly Petty's song, while 'New Blue Moon' is a slower harmony number, with touches of the ELO big production. It's followed by the slower 'You Take My Breath Away', more touches of ELO sweetness, opening with more tongue-in-cheek lyrics - 'You took my breath away, I want it back again.'.
To round off is the delightfully tongue-in-cheek 'Wilbury Twist', with wonderfully daft lyrics - 'Turn your lights down low, Put your blindfold on, You''ll never know Where your friends have gone' - plus some great piano and sax work.
The two bonus tracks here are a Top 50 hit single, 'Nobody's Child', with shared vocals, an old country number which they recorded early in 1990 for the Romanian Relief Fund, and a tribute to Del Shannon with a respectful remake of his classic 'Runaway' which is almost as good as the original.
When they first appeared, these records were like a breath of fresh air. Into a musical climate of acid house and increasingly computerised dance fare, or certain over-earnest groups who were intent on saving the world, this back-to-basics bunch of folk-rock-skiffle was a real treasure. Due to contractual reasons (some members were signed to different record companies at the time), they were unavailable for several years. On reissue in 2007, not surprisingly, this package deservedly entered the UK album chart at No. 1. When first released, they had made no higher than No. 16 and No. 14 respectively.
In addition to the two CDs, a DVD includes a 24-minute documentary with footage from their recording sessions and brief interviews, plus videos for 'Handle', 'End Of The Line', 'She's My Baby', 'Inside Out', and 'Wilbury Twist'.
The CDs and DVD are all mounted in a four-way foldout digipak, which also includes a pocket for the 16-page booklet. This contains track listings and credits, plus a (serious) note on how the band came about, written specially for this reissue, as well as the original humorous Monty Pythonesque sleeve notes which appeared on the original releases - and which gave me the title of this review.
I have seen 'Vol. 1' and 'Vol. 3' available separately on CD. There was also a boxed set containing the DVD plus two 12" vinyl albums, an expensive limited edition which often commands hefty prices online these days.
If you've ever been a fan of any of these performers, you'll almost certainly adore this (if you haven't for years already). Even the slightly less worthy tracks are pretty good, while the best are nothing short of utterly magnificent. What's not to love about the Traveling Wilburys?
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Whilst the "Making Of" documentarys for Apocalypse Now and Fitcarraldo are sometimes considered to be equals to the films they were making, I would have been sceptical at the idea of the same paradox being repeated in pop music.
Watching George Harrison talk about music any day of the week was a warm and endearing task, with his soft and relaxed Liverpudlian accent sounding so calm and humble, but to see him giggling and thrilled at the surreal realization of forming a band with Roy Orbison is a rare moment of unrestrained joy and unpolished glee that is hard to find in todays music industry.
I had a long running joke with my girlfriend about the song Handle With Care - which she used to include on every playlist she made, about the fact the these Travelling Wilburys, a band unknown to me, sounded a lot like they were trying to mimic the inimitable Roy Orbison. She bought me this Collection, sat me down, and watched my open-mouthed astonishment at the revelation of the members of this band.
I was glad to see George Harrison working with Jeff Lynne from E.L.O. staggered to see an individual such as Tom Petty had turn up to sing and play, absolutely dizzy with excitement to see Bob Dylan joining the band, and incredulous to see that it was actually Roy Orbison who was singing in the chorus!!!
The DVD, whilst home recorded and basic, is a perfect introduction to the most enviable group of friends; all who are admirable, revered musicians in their own right, and refreshingly free of ego, hyperbole or gossip. They sit, they play some music together, they crack each other up and they play five guitars at once like five adorable boys with dreams of fame!
Given themseleves 10 days to record an album is a difficult task for any group, even with the proven ability of the musicians, and it is fair to say that the outcome isn't an exponential accumulation of their talent, but it has the heart and humour that you would truely want to hear from these idols. It is free of marketing, target audiences, pretention and has never been overplayed nor overly praised, and it ends up being a lot more normal and accessible for it.
There are truely evokative, searing songs like Not Alone Any More, and Maxine is a sweet and sorrowful shanty which catches your attention on the fifth or so listen and leaves you feeling slight shocked by its brevity. There are perfect, droll and ironic songs from Dylan like Congratulations which feels a bit self-parodying but fit perfectly with the mood of the album.
Handle With Care, Dirty World, Last Night and End of the Line are carthartic, fun and inspiring moments of that Je ne se qua of feeling that this odd and confusing Life isn't too bad. That moment after the rain, that getting back in contact, that unexpected, reassuring conversation.
If they would have toured you might have been lucky to get tickets, and you might have got a seat where you could make out the faces of each man on the stage, but there would have been some potential for disappointment, some feeling of disatisfation. With this collection this very real friendship is contained and accessible, and like a lot of truely brilliant moments in our cultural history it was never allowed to get old or predictable.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Handle With Care
2 Dirty World
4 Last Night
5 Not Alone Any More
7 Heading For The Light
9 Tweeter And The Monkey Man
10 End Of The Line
11 Maxine (Originally Unissued)
12 Like A Ship (Originally Unissued)
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 The True History Of The Traveling Wilburys
2 Handle With Care
3 End Of The Line
4 She's My Baby
5 Inside Out
6 Wilbury Twist
Disc #3 Tracklisting
1 She's My Baby
2 Inside Out
3 If You Belonged To Me
4 The Devil's Been Busy
5 7 Deadly Sins
6 Poor House
7 Where Were You Last Night?
8 Cool Dry Place
9 New Blue Moon
10 You Took My Breath Away
11 Wilbury Twist
12 Nobody's Child