POP BEAT: Wilburys The Fame of the Names
By Chris Willman
The Los Angeles Times — October 29, 1988
For every pop fan who ever wanted to hear Roy Orbison backed by the Electric Light Orchestra, with George Harrison sitting in on slide guitar–and even for those of us to whom the idea hadn’t occurred–something fairly akin to that momentous event hit record stores this week in the equivalent of a plain brown wrapper.
The Traveling Wilburys is your basic quintet made up of five of the most popular and important figures from three decades of rock ‘n’ roll operating as equal partners under bumpkin-like pseudonyms.
Orbison and Harrison are joined by Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and ELO’s Jeff Lynne on the makeshift band’s debut album “Volume One,” crafting a strange and irresistible blend out of classic voices and styles that’s certain to be picked apart by music buffs for years to come.
It might even become a smash hit among non -buffs. For although the Traveling Wilburys’ real names are nowhere to be found on the album packaging, the five stars are hardly taking pains to keep their identities secret. In fact, they’re publicizing the LP in a fashion that indicates this is no idle “throwaway” project.
“We always intended to promote it,” said Petty, a.k.a. Charlie T. Wilbury Jr., one of three group members in town this week. “(But) we wanted to treat it as though we were a new group, which is what we’re still trying to do, and not as one of those supergroup-type things. We know we’re going to get some of that, but we’re trying to avoid it as much as possible, and put an air of fun to it rather than pompousness.”
Pompousness is the last charge anyone is likely to level at “Volume One,” which finds the fab five letting their collective hair down with 10 wild, woolly and witty (but seriously good) collaborations. The Beatles-cum-ELO pop sheen is tempered with a good amount of rockabilly/folk flair.
Harrison and Lynne, who co-produced and played the lion’s share of the instruments, are clearly the driving forces behind the overall sound. (Lynne produced Harrison’s hit “Cloud Nine” album and worked on tracks on upcoming LPs from Petty and Orbison as well.) But all five Wilburys strum acoustic guitars throughout, and the vocals are fairly evenly spread out, with duets or trade-offs on most tracks.
A game sure to be played with each song among fans in the coming weeks: Spot the Dominant Source or Principal Writer.
“We all wrote everything, but when somebody sings, it’s sort of their influence,” said Lynne, a.k.a. Otis Wilbury, who noted that many tracks were recorded the same day they were written. “The guy who sings it is usually the guy who started the chord sequences, (though) not necessarily the words.”
Dylan, perhaps the most ragged singer of the bunch, gets the most vocal vinyl time, surprisingly. He sings lead on four of the 10 cuts. Among the standouts he croons are “Dirty World,” a slightly randy series of ridiculous double-entendres, and “Congratulations,” in which he sadly offers bitter kudos to an ex-lover for managing to break his heart while the other Wilburys repeat the title refrain like tired Jordanaires.
“Handle With Care,” the first single, is another highlight, sung mostly by Harrison–who first conceived of it as a potential B-side for an English single. After recruiting such famous friends to sing on such a catchy ditty, Harrison deemed the track too good to relegate to the flip side of a 45. Before long nine more such tracks were in the works for a rather spontaneous group album.
“I think it had to be an accident to happen,” said Petty. “We couldn’t have planned it and done it. It wouldn’t have worked. We were really doing it before we thought about it, almost.”
It might be expected that the notoriously spontaneous Dylan and Petty would adjust more readily to such an off-the-cuff recording schedule than, perhaps, Orbison and Lynne, who strive for vocal or instrumental perfection. But the mesh of recording styles came off without apparent hitches.
“It’s kind of like (the Wilburys) had a life of their own,” said Orbison, a.k.a. Lefty Wilbury, “and we all worked differently than we would have under other circumstances. We all play guitar, which helped, so by the time it was to the next stage, why, we all knew what we were doing.”
Could travel be in the future of the Traveling Wilburys? Members wax enthusiastic about the possibility of a few live dates, but a full-scale tour isn’t seen as likely just yet.
Said Petty: “My problem is I would rather be out in the audience, watching these guys, than on stage.”