There’s something about a barrage of multiple guitars, be they acoustic or electric, six string or twelve string, or any combination; there’s just something indefinably, spine-tinglingly, spirit-liftingly magic about it. Some folks get their goosebumps from classical symphonies or operatic arias: each to their own. Me, I’ll stick with the guitars.
When those guitars are backed up by a combined array of voices, effortlessly interchanging lead and harmonies in a series of self-penned compositions, it gets even better. Let’s throw in some of the finest veteran session players around on drums, sax and percussion for good measure.
When the songs, voices and guitars happen to belong to Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and George Harrison, you’ve got the Traveling Wilburys (the session players being Jim Keltner on drums, Jim Horn [saxophones] and, on percussion, Ray Cooper and Ian Wallace).
The putting together of five such monumental talents could have been a recipe for disaster: plenty of other so-called supergroups have left behind a legacy of overblown showcases for ten-minute solos, with all the balls or soul impeccably polished out. The illegitimate sons of Charles Truscott Wilbury (Sr), however, accomplished a rare — a maybe unique — feat: they left their egos in a cardboard box outside the studio door, carried in with them 100% of their musical integrity, and just got on with it.
The ‘studio’ was Lucky Zimmerman’s barn in Malibu. Spring ’88: Nelson Wilbury needed a ‘B’ side, and so he called up his Cloud Nine compatriot collaborator, E.L.Otis, who’d also been producing for both Lefty Roy and Charlie Tom. Somehow, all four had a gap in their agendas, and decided to lend him a helping, half-brotherly hand. Anyway, Nelson had left his guitar round at young Charlieboy’s place.
The resulting song, ‘Handle With Care’, was evidently way too good to be buried on the back of a 12”, so they decided to make it the Traveling Wilburys’ first 45, and get back together the following month to make an album out of it. Just like that!
As the formerly-fab Nelson himself observed, if anyone had tried to put something like that together, there’s no way it would’ve worked. The very fact that it ‘just happened’ is the key to the Wilbury Magic. The spontanaeity and sense of team spirit of the project come through the speakers with a warmth you can toast bread on. There’s a feeling of familiarity to the songs, thanks to the varying blend of the voices (not to mention the guitars!), that right from the first time you listen to them — like a beat up, battered around old pair of slippers — just feels good!
The ‘Wilbury Bros’ spent ten days writin’, rehearsin’ and recordin’ to get the whole thing down. Usually the main lead vocal betrays the main instigator of a particular track (or section of one), though all are credited to the family as a whole. Often they switch the lead between ‘em, just like they’d all thrown in lines and middle-eight breaks while they were workin’ ‘em out — usually earlier the same day. Nelson and Otis wilburied on a few production tweaks afterwards (how not?!!), but that was it: done an’ dusted in ten days. A treasure that’s already outlived two of them — and will probably outlive you and me: “to the end of the line.”
Maybe it ain’t an album that’ll change your life, but I for one hope it’ll continue being a big part of mine for many years to come: “to the end of the line (of the line).”
The Traveling Wilburys — Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1: Track-by-track review
1. “Handle With Care”
Ah — how many song titles (and first lines) have been inspired by the humble cardboard box… It can only have been that in which the Wilbury half-brothers stored their egos whilst putting the whole dang album together!
This was the result of Harrison’s trying to find a ‘B’ side which led to a legend, and spawned a dynasty. If his on-spec collaboration with Messrs. Lynne, Orbison, Dylan and Petty hadn’t come together, neither would the Wilburys.
There they are, introing the album: them geetars, a barrage in unison! If they don’t grab you round the throat, then the world of wilbury ain’t what you’re lookin’ for. Go find another review. Georgie/Nelson, never the most confident of singers, opens with a refreshing assurance: “Been beat up and battered around…” Bless him, love him, handle him with care!
Sidebury drum-meister Jim Keltner hits in on the off-beat, and the Quiet One rises to the challenge, rest his soul. He hands over to Lefty Orbison for the first break: only the lonely could deliver “I’m so tired of being lonely” so perfectly as big brother Roy (rest his soul too). And then in come the rest of the boys, craning their necks to get in on the microphone:
To le-e-a-a-n on…
A lick of his ‘Blow Away’ guitar and Nelson continues with his plea: “handle me with care.” Ain’t it good to be part of a caring, sharing family of Wilburys?!! Brother Lucky throws in some harp at the back and, as the harmonies are getting almost too tight to bear, it comes to the fore for the fadeout, and you wish the track’d go on another ten minutes or so.
Oh, sweet smell of success!
2. “Dirty World”
Lucky Bob, apparently, wanted to do a Prince number: “He loves your sexy body, he loves your dirty mind…” Whilst the end result ain’t exactly ‘Little Red Corvette’, the car/sex double innuendos are well-worthy of Paisley Park, and Bob has more fun with the vocal since ‘Lucky Wilbury’s 115th Dream’:
You don’t need no wax-job
You’re smooth enough for me
and, my personal favourite:
Let me drive your pick-up truck
And park it where the sun don’t shine!
The Wilbury brothers do him proud with the backing vocal, with second cousin Keltner as dependable as ever on drums. Jim Hornbury (twice removed) times the sax-appeal to the minute of the midnight hour.
As the object of desire’s most attractive attributes get listed towards the end of the track, we get the band’s working name of “Tremblin’ Wilburys” thrown in, right between her “big refrigerator” and “marble earrings”. It had to be changed, of course: “it’s a [-‘kin] dirty world!”
Keltner’s drums and that inevitable barrage of guitars lead us into this high-octane Carl Perkins style rocker. “Oh yay!” E.L.Otis takes the main vocal and pummels in some Jerry Lee piano, with Nelson digging out some half-forgotten guitar breaks and solos from his early Rutles heyday. If the chorus doesn’t get you “twisted, shakin’, rattled”, then maybe Roy’s legendary grrrowl will do the job. Mercy!
Session drummer Jim Keltner, of course, was no stranger to rock ‘n’ roll. Amongst his many distinguished contributions to many distinguished projects, he’d played for a former companion Nelson Wilbury’s, one Dr Winston O’Boogie, back in ’75 on the LP named after the genre. His loose ‘n’ easy yet rock-solid style fits the Wilbury groove perfectly, though it wasn’t till last year’s box set re-release that he was officially rebaptised as ‘Buster Sidebury’.
4. “Last Night”
Kid-brother Charlie Tom gets a crack at the lead and, dang me if the young whippersnapper ain’t gone and got himself tangled up with a lady! Course, he’s not growed-up enough to have realised that the sort of “long, tall queen of ’em all” who will “lower her boom” for you in a room above the bar is obviously going to lead to trouble.
The calypso-ska-reggae arrangement may be remeniscent of McBeatle’s ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’, but there’s no “happy ever after” this time. Just as Charlie’s “feeling no pain, feeling good in my brain”, Orbison Wilbury cuts in with more operatic drama than the narrator of ‘Delilah’ to recount how “she smiled and pulled out a knife”.
No wonder Charles Jr can’t stop “thinkin’ (and talkin’) ’bout last night”. As he ruefully concludes, “she done me wrong, all I got is this song”. At least the lad’s learnt something from the experience!
5. “Not Alone Anymore”
A cascading keyboard waterfall, courtesy of the Electric Light Orchestra’s principal conductor, opens the final track on Side 1: a showcase vocal from big brother Lefty. And, my god, what a voice the man had! It has to be remembered that, whatever the star-status of the rest of the Wilbury clan, Roy Orbison had been there first. Even Nelson, ‘a long time ago when he was just starting to get fab’, had played as his support act, along with his three erstwhile bandmates.
The Big O is in familiar vocal territory, ‘cry-y-y-y-ing’ over not only being abandoned in love, but seeing the ‘pretty woman’ get it together with someone else to boot. His kid brothers back him with some of the best “sha-la-la-las” this side of the Shirelles. “It hurts like never before — you’re not alone anymore.”
As well as recalling his past classics, it’s also an obvious precursor of the posthumous smash ‘You Got It’, co-written with Lynne and Petty.
Listening to this majestic, effortlessly emotive performance, it sure as hell don’t sound like Roy was gonna drop dead from a heart attack six months later. The remaining Wilburys’ follow-up, Volume 3, was dedicated to his memory; and you note his absence.
The second side of the original LP opens with another ode to a failed affair. This time it’s Lucky Bob’s turn to prove he sure don’t live up to his name when it comes to love. And the poor fella’s really taken it to heart: Dylan delivers a wonderful vocal self-parody of his grouchy bastard reputation. I’d love to see a Muppet version of this song, with a big ol’ droopy hound-dog doing Bob!
He piles on the pathos, licking his wounds with a succession of cynical couplets:
Congratulations for bringing me down
Now I’m sorrow bound
Congratulations, you got a good deal
How good you must feel
George’s gently weeping guitar throws a sympathetic arm round his shoulder, and all of ‘Los Hermanos Wilbury’ sing like angels: particularly in the hypnotically beautiful coda. Don’t let it get to you too much, bro!
7. “Heading For The Light”
An up-beat Harrison pop-rocker, in similar vein to his then still-recent hit ‘Got My Mind Set On You’ (which had also been co-produced, like the whole of the Cloud Nine album, with Jeff Lynne). Ever the optimist, he relates his emergence from the shadows of despair (“close to the edge, hanging by my fingernails”) to the triumphant affirmation that “now there’s nothing in the way to stop me heading for the light!”
The backing is tighter than a child-proof bottle top, and Jim Horn’s exuberant saxophone adds to the general goodtime feel, especially when Keltner’s drums reintroduce it after the false finish. Horn’s sax rasps away like something from the soundtrack of a cheap porn movie, or perhaps his original playing on Duane Eddy’s ‘Peter Gunn’, with the rest of the Wilbs “whoah-a-ohhing” for all their worth. Marvelous!
Brother Jeff’s ELOesque synthesised bass pulse and wash bring in the guitars, barely audible to begin with, but surging to a symphony of synchronised strumming. Percussion, vocal, action! ‘Margarita’ unfurls her petals and, with a pistol shot, bursts into full-bloom fever. Another lovely lady who just upped and “danced away”.
The wonderfully idiosycratic falsetto backing vocals of the chorus (“cawanga langa-langa-shoe box soup”/ “tala mala shayla jaipur dhoop” [-honest!!!]) are echoed by the equally obscure and incongruous final line: “she wrote a long letter on a short piece of paper”. That’s Margarita for yer: as the opening synthesisers return for the fade-out, “she danced away”.
9. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”
Tweeter and the Monkey Man were hard-up for cash
So they stayed up all night selling cocaine and hash
To an undercover cop who had a sister named Jan
For reasons unexplained, she loved the Monkey Man
So we are introduced to the main protagonists of this screen-shattering ‘Late Show’ feature: an everyday tale of vendetta, betrayal and vengeance, which unfolds along the length of Thunder Road. Bob out-Bosses Bruce in one of his strongest compositions — and vocal performances — of the whole of the ’80s, a five and a half minute mini-epic: “In Jersey anything’s legal — as long as you don’t get caught!”
Scouser and the Brummie Man were finding an ‘Americana’ conversation between Dylan and Petty completely incomprehensible, but recorded it onto a cassette. The song was built from the transcript, and Bob recorded the vocal in two takes, before heading off on tour. The massed guitars, together with the understated percussion and sax compound the sense of urgency, whilst Jeff Lynne’s keyboards have the tyres squealing and sirens wailing. “And the walls came down: all the way to hell!”
A must for any self-respecting late-night driving compilation.
10. “End Of The Line”
If you do include the album’s previous track, ‘Tweeter’, on your car-tape, this has to be the final track! George’s jangling (and very Beatley) intro gives way to the lazy chugga-wugga rhythm that takes us through “to the end of the line”.
By the time it was released as a single, Lefty Orbison had indeed come to “the end of the line”. In the promo video, his surviving half-brothers sing to his guitar, lovingly perched in an old rocking chair.
“Well it’s alright”, as every chorus begins, especially when each verse is passed from Wilbury to Wilbury. There are too many goodtime affirmations to list ’em all: I’ll limit myself to Harrison’s:
It’s alright, even if you’re old and grey
It’s alright, you still got somethin’ to say
Sing along, make up your own lines: “it’s alright”!
Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 by The Traveling Wilburys
“Handle With Care”
“Not Alone Anymore”
“Heading For The Light”
“Tweeter And The Monkey Man”
“End Of The Line”