"This is the best record of its kind ever made," wrote David Wild in Rolling Stone's review of the Traveling Wilburys' Volume One. "Then again," he added, "it's also the only record of its kind ever made."
The Traveling Wilburys' album was one of those happy accidents that was almost waiting to happen. Starting with a throwaway song quickly recorded by George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne for the B side of a Harrison single, the project soon took on a life of its own. After completing the track and deciding it was too good to waste on a flip side, the veteran rockers cooked up a full-length album that not only included some of each member's strongest material in years but also became one of the decade's genuinely unique musical achievements.
From the catchy folk-pop hooks of the first number, "Handle With Care," to the breezy country-rock finale, "End of the Line," the album's chiefly acoustic tunes all have the sound of instant classics. But the real kicker was the presentation. Rather than releasing the album under their own names, the five musicians hid behind a thin cloak of anonymity, attributing their work to a mythical supergroup and adopting hick personae as part of an elaborate charade that included a bogus biography and a custom record label.
The tongue-in-cheek concept was a humorous way of placing the emphasis on the music instead of the big names. Besides offering a witty commentary that mocked the symbols of superstardom, the Wilbury sobriquet served as a sly, preemptive strike against those who might spoil the party and canonize the fun-fest as a Serious Rock Summit.
The five half-brothers of the Wilbury family were hokey but hip, and their individual strengths complemented one another perfectly. There was Orbison (Lefty Wilbury), whose haunting, dynamic vocals are enshrined on the operatic "Not Alone Any More," and who reclaimed his former glory only to pass away shortly after the album became a huge hit. Harrison (Nelson Wilbury) spearheaded the project following his fine solo album, Cloud Nine, proving that his comeback was no mere fluke. Dylan (Lucky Wilbury) emerged from a rut of several mediocre albums with his sneering "Congratulations," the jaunty "Dirty World" and a seeming lampoon of Bruce Springsteen, "Tweeter and the Monkey Man." Meanwhile, Petty (Charlie T. Jr.) acted out the role of eager kid brother, with his fine work on "End of the Line" and the woolly pickup tale "Last Night," presaging his top-selling solo album the following year. Rounding out the quintet was Lynne (Otis Wilbury), the former Electric Light Orchestra leader who handled most of the production chores and also sang the throbbing rockabilly bopper "Rattled."
Describing a typical day in the life of the Wilburys, Lynne remembers how the five musicians usually gathered at Dave Stewart's home studio in Los Angeles and banged out ideas until a complete song resulted from the jamming. "We would arrive about twelve or one o'clock and have some coffee," says Lynne. "Somebody would say, 'What about this?' and start on a riff. Then we'd all join in, and it'd turn into something. We'd finish around midnight and just sit for a bit while Roy would tell us fabulous stories about Sun Records or hanging out with Elvis. Then we'd come back the next day to work on another one. That's why the songs are so good and fresh — because they haven't been second-guessed and dissected and replaced. It's so tempting to add stuff to a song when you've got unlimited time."
While the Wilburys were intended as a lark, songs like "Heading for the Light," "Not Alone Any More" and "Handle With Care" offer idealistic, romantic messages from a fraternity of rock graybeards. "Well, it's alright, riding around in the breeze/Well, it's alright, if you live the life you please," says the opening lyric to "End of the Line." It is a comforting notion indeed, as the uptight, conformist Eighties draw to a close.