How the Traveling Wilburys Transformed Our Concept of Supergroups
Mention the word "supergroup," and many rock fans think of big music manufactured by even bigger egos – like, say, Asia's early-'80s hits. But one of the all-time greatest supergroups started out as a refreshingly low-key accident.
They were so super, in fact, that at first blush the Traveling Wilburys sounded like a cruel hoax. Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty in the same band? That couldn't happen, right? But it did – and on Oct. 18, 1988, we heard our first full-length proof of their union.
Aside from those famous faces peering out from the cover, nothing about the simply titled Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 looked like it had the cumulative weight of some of rock's greatest legacies behind it. With artwork deliberately designed to give the appearance of a found relic and liner notes that referred to the band members only as Nelson (Harrison), Otis (Lynne), Charlie (Petty), Lefty (Orbison) and Lucky (Dylan), it came across as more of an in-joke than a summit of songwriting geniuses.
Once the music was released into the wild, however, there was no obscuring how special Vol. 1 really was – particularly the album's lead-off single and opening track, "Handle With Care." Although it wasn't a huge chart hit, it was just about perfect – as a single, as an encapsulation of what drew the Wilburys together and as a representation of what each member brought to the band.
Fittingly, that song is where the album started: George Harrison needed to cut a B-side for a European single, and happened to mention his plans to Jeff Lynne (who'd produced his previous record, Cloud Nine) and Roy Orbison (who was in the studio with Lynne for his 1988 Mystery Girl LP). Needing a studio, the trio called Bob Dylan to see if his was available. On the way to the session, Harrison stopped by Tom Petty's house to pick up a guitar.
It was all one big happy accident, but it led to an outpouring of some of the most popular rock records of the late '80s and early '90s, with the band members chipping in on one another's projects during a run that included Petty's Full Moon Fever (produced by Lynne, with appearances by Harrison and Orbison), Lynne's Armchair Theatre (featuring Harrison and Petty), Mystery Girl (Lynne, Petty and Harrison) and Dylan's Under the Red Sky (Harrison). Clearly, they'd all found a set of kindred spirits.
Sadly, their musical blend was irrevocably altered just weeks after the release of Vol. 1, when Orbison suddenly succumbed to a heart attack on Dec. 6, 1988, passing away at the age of 52. His absence was keenly felt across the rock community, and it took a lot of the wind out of the Traveling Wilburys' sails.
Although it's easy to imagine the band being a temporary thing anyway, given how casually it came together, Orbison's death shadowed the label's promotional efforts for the record – and when they reconvened as a four-piece to record 1990's cheekily titled follow-up, Vol. 3, there was obviously something missing.
It's tempting to imagine what might have happened had Orbison lived longer, but on the other hand, some things simply aren't meant to last. For the Traveling Wilburys – and rock fans – Vol. 1 remains a near-perfect document of a wonderful moment in time.
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