Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 21, 2007)
Rock supergroups have come and gone for the last 40 years or so, but the biggest of them all emerged in 1988. That’s when we first heard from the Traveling Wilburys, easily the most super of the supergroups.
Let’s have a look at the band’s roster. We find Bob Dylan, arguably the greatest rock songwriter of all, and George Harrison, a member of the biggest and most influential rock band ever. In addition, we get Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, two more Hall of Famers. In this rarified atmosphere, Jeff Lynne – the leader of Seventies hitmakers ELO as well as a successful producer – stands as the “loser” of the bunch.
That made the Wilburys an absolutely remarkable conglomeration of participants. Can any other supergroups boast that all five of its members produced many huge his over the years, or that four of its five made it into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame?
Definitely not, but even more remarkably, the Wilburys made some really good music. I know that may not sound stunning; after all, shouldn’t it be inevitable that five such amazing talents would produce terrific material? In theory, yes, but a lot of the time, these efforts collapse under the weight of their pretensions.
That doesn’t occur with the light and likable Wilburys. One certainly can’t find pretensions on display here, as the guys went out of their way to poke holes in the whole thing. Rather than go by their names, on 1988’s Traveling Wilburys Volume 1, each musician adopted a Wilbury family pseudonym. Harrison became Nelson Wilbury, while Dylan was Lucky, Petty was Charlie T. Jr., Orbison was Lefty, and Lynne was Otis. Perversely, they changed names for 1990’s Traveling Wilburys Volume 3: it featured Spike (Harrison), Boo (Dylan), Muddy (Petty) and Clayton (Lynne). (Orbison died between the two albums.) And no, they never made a Traveling Wilburys Volume 2; the title of the second album is just a reflection of Harrison’s irrepressible sense of humor.
Of the two releases, Volume 1 stands as the most successful, both in commercial and artistic terms. Perhaps some of this stems from the complete absence of pressure related to it. The first album evolved as something of a lark, whereas the second clearly came with greater expectations attached. I think that the added stress that must’ve come with Volume 3 ended up seen in the less interesting product, and buyers responded accordingly. While V1 moved more than three million units, V3 managed to sell just over one million copies. That’s pretty good, of course, but not as strong as you’d expect from such a group.
Not every V1 track soars, and some come across as rather ordinary. However, most of the material seems quite good, and the personnel help to elevate the less strong tunes. V1 features a rather democratic approach to the vocals. It splits leads evenly among its five leads. That approach may frustrate some folks who’d rather hear more from Harrison and less from Lynne – that’d be me! – but I can’t complain that the album at least attempted to value each participant equally.
Sort of. Through the first five tracks, each Wilbury gets the spotlight. Harrison takes the lead for “Handle With Care”, Dylan does “Dirty World”, Lynne gets “Rattled”, Petty helms “Last Night” and Orbison croons “Not Alone Any More”. From there, however, matters become less balanced. Dylan leads “Congratulations” and “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”, while Harrison does “Heading for the Light” and Petty does the lion’s share of “End of the Line”. Lynne and Orbison are largely MIA for the album’s second half, though “Margarita” offers a group vocal with no lead.
That’s too bad since I liked the album’s egalitarian bent. However, the material remains pretty good through the whole project. Maybe it’s just the music snob in me, but I hate when I think an album’s most popular tracks are its best. However, I must admit that’s the case with V1. The record’s two singles – Harrison’s “Handle With Care” and Petty’s “End of the Line” – bookend the set and give us its two highest moments. Both are gentle but not wimpy light rockers that fare very well.
Though the singles remain the best tracks here, I’d be hard-pressed to find it true dud here. “Margarita” is a throwaway, and Lynne’s “Rattled” leaves me cold, but the rest are pretty good.
Though Volume 3 suffers from the absence of Orbison, it still comes across as a positive album. It shows an aggressiveness absent from the more laid-back V1. We sense this from the opening track, “She’s My Baby”. Despite the generic title, “Baby” provides a rollicking rocker. It’s a real shot of adrenaline that opens the album on a high note.
I don’t think the rest of V3 works as well, but it has its moments. I expected that “Wilbury Twist” would be a silly novelty song, but it’s actually another pretty good rocker. The lyrics are somewhat goofy, but they spoof dance crazes well enough to be entertaining. I like the song a lot and think it’s substantially better than I anticipated. “Inside Out” can be preachy, but it’s still a good tune and one of the album’s better moments.
One difference between V1 and V3 comes from the nature of its vocals, as it offers a less democratic project. While V1 split up the leads pretty evenly, V3 highlights Dylan and Petty much of the time. By my reckoning, Bob takes main or co-lead vocals on four of the 11 songs, while Petty does those duties on three tracks. Both Lynne and Harrison only pop up for co-lead on one song each, which shocks me! The other four songs are true collaborations with no one or two lead singers.
Why was Harrison in the back seat for so much of the album? I don’t know, but it creates a disappointment. Many of us regard Harrison as our fave Wilbury, and we especially want to hear more from him since he was so inactive outside of the band. Dylan and Petty put out new material frequently, but not Harrison. After 1987’s Cloud Nine, George didn’t release a studio non-Wilbury album before his 2001 death.
With or without Harrison’s active participation, V3 works pretty well. In terms of bad tracks, only one song really stinks: “7 Deadly Sins”. Dylan’s rewrite of “Blue Moon” doesn’t work at all. Nostalgic tunes can be fun, but this one is deadly dull and turgid. I only needed to hear it a couple of times before it became an automatic “skip” for me.
Otherwise, I like V3. No, it’s not up to the standards of V1, but it’s a successful follow-up release. Both albums will continue to get lots of play from me.
In terms of the DVD, we start with a documentary called The True History of the Traveling Wilburys. This 24-minute and 53-second show takes us to recording sessions and other behind the scenes bits as well as some interviews. We get comments from Harrison, Petty, Orbison, and Lynne. We learn of the band’s origins and the album’s writing and recording in May 1988. We also get a couple of notes about shooting the videos and Orbison’s death.
My only complaint about “History” stems from its length: it’s way too short. I’d love to see hours of the footage from the recording sessions, and the interview remarks are good too. Hearing Harrison’s sly wit makes me miss him even more, and we discover useful info about the project. This is a fine little program.
Five music videos appear as well. From Volume 1, we get “Handle With Care” and “End of the Line”, while Volume 3 offers “She’s My Baby”, “Inside Out” and “Wilbury Twist”. “Care” presents a tremendously basic but awfully effective video. It simply places the five singers around a single microphone and has them lip-synch the song while they play guitars along with it. That doesn’t sound like much, but it suits the tune, and the sheer star power of seeing all five guys together makes it charming and enjoyable.
Sadly, it stands as the only video with all five Wilburys, as Orbison died before they could shoot “End of the Line”. Along with drummer Jim Keltner, that clip takes the guys on a train ride as they play and lip-synch. Again, its simplicity works for it, as it fits the laid-back nature of the tune. I also like the low-key manner in which the video pays tribute to Orbison, as it represents him with a photo and a guitar in an empty rocking chair.
As we move to the V3 videos, “Baby” essentially emulates “Handle With Care”. If gives us the four Wilburys plus Keltner as they play along with the tune in a circular fashion. It also tosses in some odd elements like Dylan riding a bike around the room. It’s nothing exceptional, but it’s another video that succeeds well enough for the material.
This approach gets somewhat tired by the time we reach “Inside Out”. Once more, the four Wilburys and Keltner perform, though this time they stand on a stage. I guess it’s not substantially inferior to the three that precede it, but the video somewhat bores me anyway. It just doesn’t seem as exciting, though it’s hard to tire of the sight of all that talent in one place.
Finally, “Wilbury Twist” alters the blueprint - almost. At the very start, we see John Candy as he gets the involuntary impulse to act out the lyrics. Unfortunately, we see him briefly, and the rest goes with the usual lip-synch footage. It’s got more energy than “Inside Out”, but it’s too bad it doesn’t make more use of Candy.
Actually, after I watched the video, I found out that the original version included more of Candy – and plenty of others. For reasons unknown, this DVD’s “Twist” provides a radically altered cut of the 1990 video. That one featured plenty of low-level celebrities as they danced and acted out the tune. We got folks like Cheech Marin, Whoopi Goldberg, the kids from The Wonder Years (!), Milli Vanilli (!!), and Woody Harrelson.
Why was this changed? I don’t know. Perhaps some rights problems arose, but that doesn’t explain why the video chops out so much of Candy. He appears in other parts of the original video that don’t appear here. Some of the other videos have small cuts, but none have been altered as radically as “Twist”.
Rock supergroup footnote: other Beatles participated in some bands with tons of talent. John Lennon led “The Dirty Mac” with Eric Clapton and Keith Richards for a performance in 1968’s Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus, while Paul McCartney created a “Rockestra” packed with solid players for his 1979 album Back to the Egg. However, the Wilburys are much better realized than either of those. The Dirty Mac was just a one-off group thrown together to play “Yer Blues”, and the Rockestra was a gimmick that lasted for a couple of tunes and that was that. The Wilburys were a real band who put out two full albums, and that makes them much more viable than the others.