The Traveling Wilburys – The Traveling Wilburys Collection
Available at Amazon.com
In the English language, there are a number of ten-letter obscenities. Lenny Bruce was hauled into court for using one of the more popular ones on one of his many obscenity busts. But it took the music industry to create a new one, at least in the minds of the more effete, snobbish would-be musicologists. As loath as I am to use obscenities…oh, who am I kidding? Anyone who’s ever read me knows that I have an elite education combined with the vocabulary of a longshoreman. I’m not afraid to use obscenities in any of my columns. So, I’m going to use this one now. You ready? Last warning, you can turn away your virgin eyes now. You’ve been warned. Here it goes…
There, I’ve said it. And I’m not ashamed. If you’re offended, tough luck.
What I can’t figure out is why it’s considered an obscene word by music fans at all. The list of supergroup (meaning a group composed of members of other popular acts) accomplishments is a rather noteworthy one. Blind Faith’s only album. The Plastic Ono Band. The Flying Burrito Brothers. Asia’s first album (and, yes, I’m excited that the original line-up is getting together again). The most popular edition of Fleetwood Mac can be considered a supergroup. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hell, I even liked the Power Station.
But if you need an argument in favor of supergroups, you have to turn to the greatest supergroup of all time. Five men, four of whom are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and the fifth should be, but I’m the biggest ELO fanboy in the world, so take that for what you will)â€”their influence on rock is incalculable. And when they teamed up in the late ’80s, it was an exciting proposition that was more than fulfilled. George Harrison. Bob Dylan. Tom Petty. Roy Orbison. Jeff Lynne. The Traveling Wilburys.
The thing is, they’re more known than heard today. That’s because their work together hasn’t been that easy to find over the past decade or so. That problem’s now been solved courtesy of Rhino Records. They’ve collected both Wilburys CDs into a collection and added a DVD and a small booklet with notes by Mo Ostin (a fitting tribute to all concerned given Ostin’s status). If all you’ve heard is “Handle With Care” playing on your local rock station, there’s definitely more to the Wilbury Experience, and this collection has it all. For what was supposed to be a one-off B-side for a Harrison single, this turned into magic.
Both Wilburys CDs, Volume 1 and Volume 3 (Volume 2 was skipped as a tribute to Orbison), are here, along with a short DVD of Wilburys videos. The CDs have been remastered by Jeff Lynne. Now, given the preferences of some people, this might be a warning signal. Lynne’s prediliction for overproduction is quite well-known, after all, and there’s no George Harrison to rein him in as there was on the original sessions. Good news, folks: Lynne still has the proper Wilburys spirit. He expands the sound without destroying the original balance, something that’s apparent immediately on “Handle With Care”. The guitars provide a much firmer backing to Harrison’s vocal than on the original, and the vocal plays against the acoustic strumming to a greater extent as well. And when Orbison comes in on the bridge… well, that’s the moment that justifies the Wilburys right there. “I’m so tired of being lonely” is a six-word summary of Orbison’s entire career, and he puts every bit of ethereal beauty the line deserves from him into it. It’s been preserved perfectly in the remaster. Hearing Orbison sing those words is spine-tingling every time. It didn’t need the remaster, but it sure helped.
It’s pretty hard to screw up the first Wilburys album, even if you set out to do so. Volume 1 was the catalyst for creative peaks for all concerned. Harrison and Lynne had just collaborated on Harrison’s comeback Cloud Nine, an album that received raves (and gave Harrison a Number One single with “I Got My Mind Set On You”). The Wilburys would be the immediate inspiration for other masterpieces by the individual members (with frequent contributions from the other Wilburys): Orbison’s Mystery Girl, Dylan’s Oh Mercy, Lynne’s Armchair Theater, and especially Petty’s Full Moon Fever. Everyone’s in fine form here, and Lynne concentrates on bringing out their best in the remaster. On “Congratulations” and “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”, he’s smoothed out Dylan’s more egregious… well, Dylanisms. Yeah, Dylan’s ragged vocals are part of the charm, but there’s only so much you can take.
He’s also improved the remainder of that album. “Not Alone Any More” no longer sounds like a rehearsal for Mystery Girlâ€”it’s become a true Orbison masterpiece. “Heading for the Light” reveals its origins as an unused ELO track (remember, I consider this a good thing), and Harrison’s lead vocal is less jarring. He’s also brought out the full contributions of the “Sixth Wilbury”, legendary session drummer Jim Keltner (well, technically, Keltner is a “Sidesbury”, but there’s some common blood there); the drums, along with Ray Cooper’s percussion, sound sparkling. The first album contains two bonus tracks (speaking of jarring, hearing something after “End Of The Line” after nearly two decades of hearing this album in the normal fashion is a little disconcerting), and you can really hear why they were cut in the first place. They don’t wreck the quality, but “Maxine” is quite negligible, although “Like a Ship” has its occasional moments.
The acid test for the remaster, though, was “End of the Line”. If Lynne screwed this up… well, he didn’t, so he has nothing to fear. He indulged in a little remixing along with the remastering, and it’s done the song good. The four lead vocals mesh into one another rather than rub against each other (this is clearly evident in Orbison’s vocal turn, which now merges beautifully). Petty no longer sounds like he’s coming out of nowhere. “End of the Line” has always been my favorite Wilburys track; now it’s so more than ever. Lynne proves that his efforts are a labor of love with this song. Specifically, it’s a labor of love for his friend Harrison, restating for George, in whatever afterlife he’s in, that Lynne would be nothing without him (remember, it was the Beatles’ experimentation that inspired Lynne to turn the Move into ELO).
Volume 3 is a trickier proposition than Volume 1. A great deal of their Wilburys-related inspiration had been subsumed into their solo albums (and when Petty got the Heartbreakers together with Lynne, they came out with another masterpiece, Into the Great Wide Open). They’d lost Orbison after they gave him that one final moment of glory (remember that “You Got It” was already a Top Ten hit the week Orbison died), so getting together again for another disk must have been a bit disconcerting, and the results showed. Volume 3 is nowhere on the level of Volume 1, but that’s damning with faint praise. Volume 1 is, after all, the best album released between Appetite for Destruction and Straight Outta Compton. Volume 3 couldn’t help itself if it wasn’t as good. Just the lack of Orbison alone…
Volume 3 takes a radically different approach to Volume 1. Volume 1 had its set of star turns. Volume 3 is a collective effort. On Volume 3, the Wilburys are more of a group with four lead singers, and they have no problem exchanging lead. “Inside Out” shows this approach to magnificient effect, playing to everyone’s strengths. Dylan and Petty take most of the lead vocals on the song, while Harrison and Lynne demonstrate their mastery of harmony. Harrison/Lynne harmony vocals is one of the great treats of any of the projects they worked on together; it really made Cloud Nine, just to cite one example. If there are solo turns on Volume 3, they belong to Dylan, as is proper. “If You Belonged to Me” works perfectly in this vein. “7 Deadly Sins”, though, is a miscalculation. It was a tune that was obviously earmarked for Orbison, who would have done a magnificent job with it. Petty’s solo turns tend to sound like Full Moon Fever outtakes given the Wilburys treatment. It’s not a bad thing, just unusual, something proven on “You Took My Breath Away” with its Petty/Lynne lead with Lynne taking the solo on the middle eights. Volume 3 is a disk that takes multiple plays to work itself into your affection.
The first album was suffused from start to finish with a sense of fun. A lot of that is lost on Volume 3; it seems like more of a project. There are those moments of fun, though. “Poor House” is goofy and weird in the best way, with Petty/Lynne harmony vocals on the lead and the unmistakable Harrison lead guitar creating a bizarre fusion of rockabilly and classic country. It’s Hank Williams on acid, and all the better for it. “New Blue Moon” is in a similar vein, only substituting Leiber/Stoller Drifters production for hardcore country. It’s the closest the Wilburys ever came to giving Harrison a Beatles-circa-1963 number to work with. Of course, the closing track, “Wilbury Twist”, is pure, outright fun, and the booklet gives you a full lesson on how to do the Wilbury Twist, a very helpful guide indeed.
The bonus tracks for Volume 3 are well-chosen. “Nobody’s Child” became the title track for the all-star effort to assist Romanian orphans after the true conditions they were living in were exposed in 1990. It’s not the best track from that album (I happen to own it; it was a good cause); that’s G&R’s “Civil War”. However, it’s nice to have it here. Their cover of Del Shannon’s classic “Runaway” deserved to be the A-side rather than the B-side of “She’s My Baby”. Lynne’s recreation of the immortal Musitron solo from the original is note-perfect. It’s meant to be faithful in the nicest way. After all, Shannon was going to replace Orbison in the Wilburys, and Lynne was working with Shannon on a comeback album when Shannon killed himself.
The DVD features a 25-minute documentary on the creation of the group and the recording of the first album. The documentary shows the happenstance nature of the writing and recording of the album, written on the spot and recorded in the kitchen of Dave Stewart’s house. The creation of each song is covered in detail, so it’s complete and informative. The five Wilburys videos are included in the DVD. The video for “End of the Line” is heartbreaking. It was filmed after Orbison’s death, and he’s represented by a photo and an empty chair with a guitar sitting on it. The videos are transferred very well on to DVD, and Lynne remastered the audio for the videos as well, so the songs come out perfectly clear.
Considering the personnel involved, it’s very unusual to ask the standard question of What Could Have Been when it comes to the Wilburys. But the questions are there nonetheless. What if Lynne had been able to stop Shannon from killing himself (or Shannon cut down on his Prozac use)? Would the group have continued in an on-and-off format? Harrison didn’t record very much in the decade prior to his death, and having more of George would have been a great thing. Petty went into a bit of a creative tailspin. Dylan is still Dylan, occasionally producing an unexpected masterpiece, but he really flourished inside of this format. Lynne preferred to spend his time in court attempting to get the ELO name back, and when he finally did, produced a dud of an album with Zoom. The Wilburys were a distraction for them, but it was a distraction that brought out the best. Now, thanks to this package, we get to live out that distraction again. If you weren’t there the first time, it’ll be a revelation of the most pleasant variety. If you were there, you get to live it out again, even if your memories of that time aren’t the best (hearing “Handle With Care” takes me back to my Army training in San Antonio, six months of hell). But grab this package, and you’ll want to do the Wilbury Twist until the sun goes down, and then you’ll find you can’t stop.