“It really had very little to do with combining a bunch of famous people,” says Tom Petty about the Traveling Wilburys. “It was a bunch of friends that just happened to be really good at making music.”
One of the most modest supergroups of the 20th century, one that fate and chance threw together for a very brief period, the Traveling Wilburys made music that sits outside the usual histories of 1980s music, featuring five men in different states of their careers. Tom Petty was about to have a comeback, George Harrison had just had one, Jeff Lynne was no longer having chart hits as ELO, but he was shaping the sound of the late 1980s as a producer, Roy Orbison was *about* to have a posthumous comeback, and Bob Dylan was…doing whatever Dylan does—every album he put out in the ‘80s had an equal number of detractors and comeback claimants. Put it this way: the Traveling Wilburys didn’t feel like a nostalgia act, and neither did it feel like a marketing idea. It was actually lightning in a bottle.
“It was George’s band,” Lynne says in the above mini documentary, but it wasn’t really formed as one. It just sort of *evolved*.
As he explains early in the doc, Harrison was having dinner with Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne and invited them along to a studio in Los Angeles the next day. He had the hankering to make a tune, and they wound up using Bob Dylan’s home studio—the normally reclusive Dylan actually picked up the phone on the first ring and gave the okay. And Harrison’s guitar was over at Tom Petty’s house, so he came along as well. The song they recorded that day was “Handle with Care,” which fell together like magic. (Dylan provided the title after looking over at a cardboard box).
Harrison sat on the song for a while, having no idea what to do with it. The only thing he could do, was to record nine more songs and call it an album. Which, once they had found time in everybody’s schedule, they did. The songs were recorded at the home studio of Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) and finalized back in London with Harrison and Lynne. The group gave themselves the assignment of one song written and recorded per day. That the record isn’t a mish-mash of jamming, leftover ideas, and covers, and instead has a legitimate amount of classic singles and career-highlight moments is a testament to the friendship between the five (and drummer Jim Keltner, who knew them all).
Friends indeed, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t also big fans of each other. What’s cool to watch in the doc is how in awe they all seem: George is amazed by Bob’s cryptic scrawled lyrics and his ability to nail a song on essentially the first take. Tom Petty is in awe of George’s democratic ways with choosing who gets to sing one of the songs, regardless of who wrote it—really, how do you follow Roy Orbison’s version of a song? But Tom Petty still had a go.
The album maintains that friendly vibe in the recording: microphones were mobile to catch music wherever it happened. Jim Keltner played rhythm on the inside of the kitchen’s refrigerator. Songs were written in the kitchen. And after the work was done, the music would continue. “A lot of ukuleles till dawn,” says Harrison.
Roy Orbison only made it into the first music video off of the album, “Handle With Care.” He passed away just after the album went platinum in 1988, and appears as an empty rocking chair on the next video, “The End of the Line.”
The four remaining Wilburys would reunite for one more album (jokingly titled Volume 3 by prankster Harrison), but the first album still sounds timeless, five friends just having a good time together.
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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.