Wilburys album features familiar faces
By Dave Mahlin
Tritonian — November 4, 1988
Just when you thought it was safe to listen to classic-hits radio, along comes “Traveling Wilburys.” I don’t listen to the radio much myself, but I’ll wager that this album is all over KZEP by now and will stay there for quite a while, because this is the first time that George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan (credited as Nelson, Otis, Charlie T. Jr., Lefty, and Lucky Wilbury, respectively — no other names are given) have recorded together. Granted, when stars of this magnitude get together and collaborate on an album, it’s a big deal. The fact that this is a really good album, when it easily could have been bad, makes it all the more exciting.
If this sounds like an unlikely combination of players, think again. All these guys have a lot in common musically and some go back quite a ways personally. George Harrison first met Roy Orbison (of “Oh, Pretty Woman!” fame) when the Beatles opened for him on his UK tour in 1962, and he hung out with Bob Dylan in Woodstock, NYT in the mid 60’s, during the recording of Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” and the Band’s “Music From Big Pink.” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers backed Dylan on his world tours in 1986 and ’87, and Jeff Lynne, who is best known as the leader of the Move in the 60’s and Electric Light Orchestra in the 70’s (and a blatant Beatles imitator if there ever was one), produced Harrison’s “Cloud Nine” last year and is currently working with Petty and Orbison on their respective projects.
The first track, “Handle With Care,” is the LP’s statement of purpose. With each member trading off vocal lines and the refrain “Everybody’s got somebody to lean on,” it would seem that the guys have discovered a need to stick together in their old age. And though none of them are by any means old, 37-year-old Tom Petty is the closest thing to a happenin’ dude these geezers have to offer. And the oldest member, Roy Orbison, will never see 53 again.
Otis and Nelson Wilbury (Lynne and Harrison) produced the album and the sound throughout is very much like that of Harrison’s “Cloud Nine.” However, the tunes themselves were undoubtedly written collaboratively by the whole Wilbury clan, at least to some extent. Case in point is “Congratulations,” which is based on a chord sequence typical of Jeff Lynne, but is sung by and bears a lyrical bent which is pure Dylan (“Congratulations for breaking my heart/Congratulations for tearing it all apart”). The result is a collection of 10 straight-ahead rock and roll tunes from five of the best guys in the business.
The most revealing aspect of this album is that it proves that Dylan is still capable of doing quality work. His last three (self-produced) albums have been spotty at best, and of the eight albums he’s released in the last 10 years, only 1983’s “Infidels” approached the level of his best work, thanks in no small part to producer/guitarist Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. The cuts on “Traveling Wilburys” on which he is featured vocalist, particularly “Dirty World” and “Tweeter and The Monkey Man” far surpass anything he’s done in recent memory, thanks no doubt to the input (and probably a good kick in the butt) from the other guys. Bob needs a steady collaborator, at least for now, and maybe this album will convince him that there’s nothing wrong with that.
If the “Volume 1” on the spine of the album jacket is any indication, we could be in for more. I’d certainly like to see more projects like this in the future, because groups of like-minded, musically compatible artists getting together in the studio to produce a collaborative piece of work are infinitely more interesting and enduring than a “We Are The World” collective jerk-off. Next time, maybe they could invite Neil Young (he could certainly use a collaborator), Robbie Robertson or Keith Richards. After this, I’d certainly be willing to plunk down my hard-earned simoleans for more of the same.