Petty and the Wilburys: Supergroup Success Story
By John Milward
The Philadelphia Inquirer — May 4, 1989
Supergroups are almost always a disaster.
Take, for example, one of the original rock supergroups, which brought together Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker from Cream, Steve Winwood from Traffic and Rick Grech from Family. The name they chose was prophetic: Blind Faith. It lasted for one album and one tour.
The reason supergroups are routinely tumultuous is that they’re rooted in an awkward balance of egos. Where a band typically learns to blend its individual personalities while struggling toward success, the supergroup is composed of performers already accustomed to the perks and prerogatives of stardom. Where a hungry band might argue about who ate the last slice of pizza, supergroups tussle over more substantive issues. Like the spotlight.
Conceptually, the Traveling Wilburys sounded like trouble. Consider the formidable lineup: a legend (Bob Dylan), an ex-Beatle (George Harrison), a faded rock star (Roy Orbison), a contemporary rock star (Tom Petty) and a pop artist- producer who’d gone commercially cold (Jeff Lynne). The fact that this unlikely aggregation put together such a low-key and likable album, and that it became a major hit, makes the Traveling Wilburys rock’s against-all-odds supergroup.
The success of The Traveling Wilburys (Warner Bros.) can’t help but have an impact on the way the principals go about their individual careers. It may have been a lark to hide behind phony Wilbury names, but none of these pop stars is likely to miss the fact that their busman’s holiday has sold more records than almost any of these players do on their own.
Orbison is the tragic Wilbury. In the two years prior to his death in December, his career had been rising like a late-inning phoenix. He had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the bizarre use of “In Dreams” in the film Blue Velvet had fueled interest in what would be his first album of new material in years.
That album – Mystery Girl – was held up in part by Orbison’s work as a Wilbury, but nobody worried, for what better way to set the table for a returning veteran than to have him work in a no-risk, high-profile collaboration? Orbison’s voice energized the Wilburys’ bouncy “Handle With Care,” and his solo singing on “Not Alone Any More” ranked as the album’s best performance.
Then, after a massive heart attack, it was all over. Orbison’s Mystery Girl (Virgin), the LP that was to solidify his comeback, was released posthumously: With its snappy hit (“You Got It”) – plus Elvis Costello (“The Comedians”) and U2 (“She’s a Mystery to Me”) contributing songs tailored to Orbison’s style – it was almost possible to ignore duds like the singer’s own “Windsurfer.”
George Harrison’s Cloud Nine (Warner Bros.) preceded the Wilburys, both anticipating its lighthearted tone and bringing producer Jeff Lynne back into the limelight. Lynne, who made a fortune in the ’70s masterminding the Electric Light Orchestra, lost his touch during the ’80s. Working with Harrison let Lynne indulge his love for Beatlesque production.
It also seemed to get some of it out of his system. As the guiding producer behind the Wilburys’ project, Lynne let the music run its course without resorting to fancy tricks. He has retained that bare-bones style while working on the first record to fully reflect the post-Wilbury aesthetic: Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever (MCA).
LESSONS FROM DYLAN
Petty came to the Wilburys with Dylan, whom he and his group the Heartbreakers had backed during a series of concerts in 1987. Petty and the Heartbreakers had become increasingly mannered in the studio, and their stint with Dylan, who’s notorious for fast-and-loose work habits, seemed to shake the group out of its excessive perfectionism. The result was one of the best albums of the Heartbreakers’ career, 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (MCA).
The Wilbury experience seems to have served Petty in much the same ways as his initial run with Dylan. There’s plenty on Full Moon Fever that reflects the homespun music-making of the Wilburys, and not just the sprightly first single, “I Won’t Back Down.” One of the finest songs is “Depending on You,” an acoustic rocker that sounds as if it were spun out of the Wilburys’ beguiling “End of the Line.”
Full Moon Fever is Petty’s first album without the Heartbreakers, but it’s really not all that different from his work with them. It employs full instrumentation – including guest shots by the Heartbreakers – and reflects the same tightly wound songwriting style of Let Me Up.
At the same time, Petty is freed from the need to fill every track with a full band, paring down for dramatic folk-based ballads like “Free Fallin’ ” and “Alright for Now.” Petty has never been an outstanding lyricist, however, so don’t be disappointed to discover that “Free Fallin’ ” is about nothing more than a romantic breakup in the San Fernando Valley.
A BRITISH INFLUENCE
The album, which was produced by Lynne and Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell, makes subtle use of production styles that reflect Lynne’s background in British pop-rock. That makes Full Moon Fever folk-rock in the best sense of the word: It’s largely acoustic-based music that has been dressed up with the stylings of ’60s rock and roll.
The album’s letter-perfect rendition of the Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better” is at once a superfluous remake and a celebration of this style. Petty has long been devoted to the Byrds’ sound, and his re-creation stands as both a homage and an acknowledgment of the group’s continuing influence.
In “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” Petty suggests the ways in which a rock-and- roll artist writes new music by taking cues from the past. Just as Bruce Springsteen referred to Roy Orbison on “Thunder Road,” so Petty here evokes a sing-along with Del Shannon. The reference underscores the fact that while Full Moon Fever doesn’t strike any dramatically new poses, its stylistic integrity instantly places it in a context of high-quality rock and roll.
Full Moon Fever stands to get a big boost from the Traveling Wilburys, but chances are that the artist who will get the biggest lift from the supergroup is Lynne. Having shed the over-ripe production style he perfected with ELO, Lynne has become a stylish performer-producer who reflects an encyclopedic knowledge of pop-rock without producing music that seems stillborn.
Full Moon Fever shows how the gentle bonhomie of the Traveling Wilburys can inspire its members to drop their rock-star pretensions and swing with warmth and style.