Famous five: Why The Traveling Wilburys are the ulimate supergroup
By Andy Gill
The Belfast Telegraph - Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Rock history is brimming with supergroups. But none can match the pedigree of The Traveling Wilburys. As they top the charts yet again, Andy Gill tells the story of the band that's got the lot
One of this year's more surprising and impressive music-biz successes is surely that of The Traveling Wilburys, whose 2CD/DVD compilation The Traveling Wilburys Collection entered the album chart this week at No 1, outselling the likes of Bon Jovi, Paul McCartney and Queens of the Stone Age, and turfing the lissom R&B diva Rihanna off the top spot. Indeed, it may be the only album this year to reach this level of success without the assistance of MySpace, YouTube or any of the internet-associated aids which, we are constantly told, are vital promotional tools in today's pop marketplace.
But then, what might be on their MySpace site? "Hi kids, we're The Traveling Wilburys! We're old enough to be your grandads - in fact, two of us are so old we're dead, and the rest aren't feeling too good at the moment. We make the kind of music you probably hate."
Their MySpace friends, however, would number in the hundreds of millions, comprising as they would the combined fan-bases of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, ELO and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. (Of course, this reissue has sparked both YouTube and MySpace activity, though judging by the usual parade of sad self-publicists who attach themselves to such sites, the Wilburys are not vetting those who claim their friendship.)
With hindsight, however, it's possible to discern the factors underlying the Wilburys' current success. Since the release of their debut album in 1988, the "dad rock" phenomenon has become a force in music sales as ageing baby-boomers and Sixties kids refused to abandon their interest in rock, bringing the weight of their huge disposable income to bear on both the charts and the media.
The rise of mature music magazines such as Mojo, Uncut and The Word has been paralleled even in the staid world of BBC radio by the re-branding of Radio 2 as a sort of Sixties' oldies station, whose regard for pop heritage and roots is balanced by its eye for what's currently hip. And The Traveling Wilburys, Vol 1 may be the perfect Radio 2 record, featuring as it does five well-known, respected talents of a certain age, each wielding serious industry clout and historical weight, peddling a bunch of jaunty, singalong songs rooted in the mulch of rock'n'roll heritage and performed with the minimum of synthetic studio assistance and the maximum amount of harmonies that can be crammed into 10 tracks.
It's a sort of Sing Something Simple formula for another generation, except that these Wilburys are also songwriters skilled enough to write new songs that promptly take up residence in one's memory like old friends, whether you want them to or not. Hearing songs such as "Handle With Care" and "End of the Line" for the first time, many listeners were struck by just how familiar they sounded, as if they were cover versions of classic hits.
And of course, in a sense they were: to ears that grew up on Dylan, Orbison, ELO and The Beatles, not to mention the wealth of influences, from Buddy Holly to The Byrds, that course through Tom Petty's work - their chord changes, intervals, harmonies and melodic tropes tapped into a host of comforting memories, like endorphins slotting into an addict's neuroreceptors. The result was pure pleasure, unmediated by the constraints of fashion or duty. The album went on to sell some five million copies, making it the most successful "supergroup" album of all time.
The pop supergroup has something of a chequered history, which helps to prepare one for the disappointment that often attends the actual music. The idea derives from jazz, where individual players would combine and re-combine in different aggregations for purely exploratory purposes, to see how they might push each other's performances in new directions. The most famous are probably Miles Davis's two quintets that aligned the trumpeter with the likes of John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley and Wayne Shorter, and the great bebop summit of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach that produced the legendary Massey Hall concert of 1953.
The first rock'n'roll supergroup was undoubtedly the impromptu meeting of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Studios, the off-the-cuff recordings of which were released under the bullish - but ultimately undervaluing - rubric of The Million Dollar Quartet.
Through the Sixties, supergroups hatched, flew briefly and then died, like mayflies seeking mates. Session musicians like Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield were elevated to serious player status by their "supersession" jams, while authentic stars like Clapton, Baker, Bruce and Winwood became global icons through the success of Cream and the deeply underwhelming Blind Faith project. For a while in the Seventies, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were the biggest-selling group in the world.
Even the more marginal music genres threw up their own supergroups, most notably the Pentangle aggregation, which combined virtuoso folk guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourn with singer Jacqui McShee and the jazz rhythm section of Danny Thompson and Terry Cox.
But the rock supergroup quickly became a byword for ego, excess and interminable soloing, most spectacularly in the case of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, a prog-tastic alliance whose stodgy, quasi-classical music filled stadiums, but not souls.
With the advent of punk, the supergroup's days were numbered; the notion became not just musically dubious, but a representation of the morally reprehensible separation of artists from their audiences. Now, as Andy Warhol and Sly Stone had claimed, everybody was a star, and to profess one's superiority was just about the only form of bad manners recognised by the punk movement.
For a decade or so, the supergroup fell out of favour, along with the idea of virtuosity. Outside America, the accent in the Eighties was more on amateurism and unashamed artifice, whether as ironic commentary on the business of pop, or as celebration of its sleek, flimsy surfaces. The only significant supergroup projects were charity one-offs like Band Aid's " Do They Know It's Christmas?", in which the participants' names mattered rather more than their musical abilities. Save for the Wilburys, that has remained the case ever since, as each new disaster prompts its own charity record.
So, when the Wilburys got together in 1988, few notions were as utterly discredited as that of the supergroup, which may be a contributory reason for the players' pseudonyms: Nelson (George Harrison), Lucky (Bob Dylan), Lefty (Roy Orbison), Otis (Jeff Lynne) and Charlie T Wilbury Jr (Tom Petty). The group's genesis came when Harrison was trying to come up with a new B side to "This Is Love", the single from his Cloud Nine album. He contacted his chum Lynne, who was working with Orbison on the latter's Mystery Girl album, and persuaded both of them to lend a hand. When George visited Tom Petty to reappropriate a borrowed guitar he wished to use, Petty was roped in, swiftly followed by Dylan.
"And so everybody was there," Harrison recalled later, "and I thought, 'I'm not gonna just sing it myself, I've got Roy Orbison standing there - I'm gonna write a bit for Roy to sing.' And then as it progressed, I thought I might as well push it a bit and get Tom and Bob to sing the bridge. "
When Warner Brothers head Mo Ostin and A&R chief Lenny Waronker heard the resulting "Handle With Care", complete with the contributions from George's heavy friends, they realised that it was too good to languish on the flip side and manoeuvred for an entire album by the group.
With all members bar Orbison contributing songs, the album was completed within three weeks in a makeshift studio erected in Dave Stewart's kitchen in Los Angeles. Its relaxed, genial tone is indicative of the low-pressure nature of the sessions. Harrison's "Handle With Care" and " End of the Line" were the obvious standout tracks, both charting as singles. Dylan's trio of songs highlighted his various strengths: " Congratulations" was a melancholy heartbreak anthem and "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" a typical shaggy-dog-story street-life narrative, while "Dirty World" offered a surprisingly serviceable variation on the standard rock'n'roll automotive sexual metaphor, the tangle-haired bard indulging in saucy flattery such as "You don't need no wax job/ You're smooth enough for me" before the rest of the band chipped in their cryptic commendations.
Lynne's production nous ensured that none of the individual players was favoured, and Petty's talent for cementing styles together proved invaluable throughout. Orbison, meanwhile, was a magisterial presence, his operatic grace lending a classy, high-gloss finish to performances that were, in effect, enthusiastic and affectionate celebrations of the musicians' roots in rockabilly, hootenanny and skiffle.
Like the album packaging and parodic sleevenotes (by "Hugh Jampton, the EF Norti-Bitz Reader In Applied Jacket, University of Krakatoa", aka George's Pythonic chum Michael Palin), the band's name was a light-hearted trifle, deriving from a studio in-joke of Lynne and Harrison's, referring either to effects devices they dubbed "wilburys", as in " trembling wilbury", or to the use of such devices at a project's mix-down stage, as in "we'll bury it in the mix". Trembling, it was subsequently decided, was a less attractive prospect than Traveling. Advance promotion, meanwhile, was restricted to little more than a few postcards proclaiming "The Traveling Wilburys are coming!" over sepia photos of eccentric modes of transport, an understated campaign that gave no hint of the project's genealogy, nor its ultimate sales success.
Despite the minimal promotional work, and the lack of live performances to support it, the first album shifted five million units, a considerable improvement on the individual members' flagging sales profiles at that point. A follow-up was unavoidable, but shortly after the debut's appearance, Roy Orbison died. Rumours that Del Shannon was to replace him proved unfounded, and any prospect was ultimately dashed by the singer's suicide; in the end, the four remaining Wilburys - now re-named Spike (George), Boo (Bob), Clayton (Jeff) and Muddy (Tom) - dedicated the second album, Vol 3, to their late pal Lefty.
This follow-up album was both heavier and more refined than the debut, while the participants were less afraid to damage their individual reputations: Dylan, for instance, incorporated a hilarious scatted refrain in "You Took My Breath Away", and his doowop-styled "Seven Deadly Sins" employed the same kind of nursery-rhyme counting-song lyrical simplicity that he featured on his contemporary Under The Red Sky album. "Cool Dry Place " included an offhand reference to Jeff Lynne's old band The Idle Race, while the opening "She's My Baby" was by far the toughest item in their slim repertoire.
But the lacklustre dance-parody closer "Wilbury Twist" confirmed that the joke was getting rather thin by this point, and Vol 3 proved to be substantially less successful than its predecessor.
Until now, that is. With both Wilburys albums having been deleted with what, considering their lineage, seems indecent haste, a groundswell of interest has built up over the subsequent years. George Harrison's plans to reissue remastered versions of the albums were scuppered by his passing, but his widow Olivia has helped to ensure that his wishes have finally been realised.
Ironically, the albums sound less out of step with current trends than they did on their original release, suggesting that the Wilburys have perhaps exerted a much greater influence in the intervening years than had ever seemed likely on their first appearance.