“Supergroups” are always a good topic to throw to an assemblage of rock nerds if you’re in the mood for a really esoteric debate. Which is the best supergroup of all time? What, exactly, defines a supergroup? How famous do the component members have to be in the first place? Why are these projects generally so short-lived, and why, with some important exceptions, are they so mediocre?
One of those important exceptions is a band that could never be mistaken for anything but a supergroup even under the most stringent definition. The Traveling Wilburys is the kind of group that might just be impossible today, if only because that amount of concentrated star power simply can’t be matched in the 21st century. I don’t mean to say that we don’t have our share of pop galacticos these days, but the stratum of rock royalty that each member of this band occupies — each is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — is at a level that can only be ascribed to rockers from the foundational decades of the genre’s history.
The titular Wilburys credited on the debut album Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 are Nelson, Otis, Lefty, Charlie, and Lucky. No, wait a minute, let me read those credits again. Make that, respectively, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan. If this seems like an unlikely constellation, consider that it was formed in 1988 entirely on a lark. Harrison needed a B-side for a single from his Cloud Nine album (1987), and, being George Harrison, solicited his “mates” Lynne, Orbison, and Dylan for help. Petty got involved when Harrison forgot a guitar at his house. The resulting record was immediately declared too good to be a B-side, and soon enough the Traveling Wilburys were recording their eponymous first album.
The would-be B-side “Handle with Care” actually opens the album, and the joyful defiance that will define the rest of the work is immediately apparent. These (relatively) aging rockers have been through a lot of crap, but have seen enough to know that, if you just shut up and find a body to lean on, it’ll all be just fine. There is some poignancy to hearing Orbison, the oldest member of the group and just starting to emerge from decades-long career doldrums, croon in a voice as smooth as it’s ever been, “I’m so tired of being lonely / I’ve still got some love to give / Won’t you show me that you really care.” The legend would pass away shortly after the album’s release in 1988.
That poignancy is incidental, however, and is not the domain of this album. It’s abundantly and delightfully clear over the record’s quick 10 tracks that the Wilburys are here to screw around and have a good time.
The music is a straightforward combination of heartland rock and twangy jangle-pop. You might think there are an awful lot of lead guitarists comprising this band, and you’d be right; this is entirely guitar-centric rock, but no one is jockeying for position. Petty takes up the bass duties, and what keyboard or synth there is to be found here is unsurprisingly played by Lynne. The unadorned beats are provided by renowned session drummer Jim Keltner.
The lyrics are uncomplicated and often pretty funny. Each song is credited to the band as a whole, and indeed, by their own telling, each member contributed something to the composition of every track. “Handle with Care” was apparently written line by line at a barbecue as members took turns shouting out improvised lyrics.
The stamp of a primary songwriter is unmistakable on many of the tracks, however. “Heading for the Light” has all the semi-classical jaunt and bounce of the Electric Light Orchestra. “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” sounds purely like a latter-day Dylan track that was misplaced on another act’s record (with a bevy of Bruce references thrown in to boot). But by far the most enjoyable songs to listen to on the album are the ones where multiple Wilburys get a turn at the mic. As is the case with any great ensemble, it’s just a fun listening experience to pick out who’s singing when, and why.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than the album’s knockout closer, “End of the Line.” With its defiant exuberance, it plays like a mission statement even more than the opening track, as members take turns singing lines like “Well it’s alright, as long as you lend a hand” (Harrison) and “Well it’s alright, as long as you’ve got somewhere to lay” (Lynne). While the other members delineate the principles of living a cool life in the ever-changing chorus, Petty’s verses are a bit more nostalgic until he concludes he’s “just glad to be here, happy to be alive.” The fact that three of the five Wilburys have now passed away is far less sad knowing they must have followed these rules on their way to the end of the line. If nothing else, you know they had a helluva great time traveling there.