The Traveling Wilburys

TrackAlbum
End Of The LineTraveling Wilburys Vol. 1
You're Not AloneTraveling Wilburys Vol. 1
Dirty WorldTraveling Wilburys Vol. 1
Handle With CareTraveling Wilburys Vol. 1
MargaritaTraveling Wilburys Vol. 1
Last NightTraveling Wilburys Vol. 1
Tweeter And The Monkey ManTraveling Wilburys Vol. 1
She's My BabyTraveling Wilburys Vol. 3
The Devil's Been BusyTraveling Wilburys Vol. 3
Wilbury TwistTraveling Wilburys Vol. 3

 

Contributor: David Lewis

Let’s put together a band led by a man who was considered no.3 in his original quartet – let’s forget he led bands for 20 years – leading four definite number ones. Let’s make the band defy expectations by not collapsing under the weight of its star power. Let’s put in five great songwriters, one rock and roll icon, and four legends of varying degrees of legendary – but all legends. Let’s call them Nelson, Otis, Lefty, Charlie T and Lucky Wilbury, sons of Sir Charles Truscott Wilbury, half-brothers. Or let’s call them Spike, Clayton, Muddy and Boo (after the death of Lefty)… and let’s not forget Buster Sidebury, known in some quarters as Jim Keltner, one of rock’s finest drummers… Let’s do a list, in no real particular order and regret some of our choices tomorrow (Why didn’t I choose…?) …

The Traveling Wilburys. The two albums and other miscellanea rank among the very best work of each man involved. Collectively, of course, this makes for an exceptionally high standard of work. Of course, the Wilbury name was fiction – taken after advice that ‘we’ll bury it in the mix’. George Harrison (see Toppermost #404) the quiet Beatle, formed them. He worked with Bob Dylan (see Toppermost #8), Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne (of ELO) and Tom Petty (who led the Heartbreakers). The story is well-documented: the best told version is on the Living In The Material World documentary on George Harrison, five (six if you count the essential Keltner, seven if you count Dave Stewart whose house the first album was recorded at) friends having fun, making music. No tours, not much promotion, no guaranteed followups… just music.

I start with End Of The Line. This rather positive song showcases all of them, with a lovely call and response. Note too, though it sounds ‘contemporary’, the fingerprints of rock and roll are all over it; Luther Perkins boom chicka on the guitar, a rather restrained rock and roll drumbeat, and of course the voice of the last great original rockabilly singer, Roy Orbison. The film clip has the beautiful touch of acknowledging Orbison tastefully.

You’re Not Alone removes any doubt that Roy Orbison’s symphonic, operatic voice was a great instrument: listen to those high notes in the last chorus. They all worshipped Roy, and his was a crucial presence in the Wilburys’ chemistry. Never overbearing, always appropriate, the band became a different outfit without him and his voice.

He loves your five speed gearbox, he loves your Tremblin’ Wilbury… It’s a … n’ Dirty World. Joyous, fun, marvellous – you can almost hear them corpse in the choruses. Given this next one appeared in the George Harrison toppermost, I struggled whether to add it, but it is just too good. Handle With Care sums up the Wilbury philosophy, and was a great manifesto.

The next one sounds more like new wave from the late 70s, early 80s. Sounding to my ears like The Boomtown Rats (see Toppermost #167) in parts, and also New Order or even the electronica experiments of the Who (see Toppermost #106), Margarita has a great (of course!) slide guitar riff, terrific lyrics and sounds different. The climax at the end is pure George, though the lyrics and vocals are Dylan. Shangalangs (a rock chant) followed by what sounds to me like Hindu, or at least Hare Krishna chants. I’d appreciate any adherent or scholar of Krishna confirming this. I don’t need the confirmation of the rock and roll chants.. But George’s roots, present and future, merged beautifully together, is just tremendous.

Last Night was clearly a wild time. Starting with Keltner drumming on a refrigerator’s shelves, it is lifted even further by Orbison’s vocals on the bridge. It’s like a ska track. But as the night deteriorates, its bathetic ending is quite brilliant – ‘she did me wrong/that’s the end of my song’. Perhaps this is representative of the lackadaiscal approach of the Wilburys: but then, perhaps it’s a demonstration that our narrator(s) hasn’t learned anything….

Clinton Heylin, in his ‘Still On The Road’, pretty much dismisses all of the Wilburys’ tracks, except this one. Putting aside that I think he is in this case, rarely, mistaken and has underrated the songs, he makes a correct exception for this one. The strange and compelling tale of Tweeter And The Monkey Man ranks with any other song written by Bob Dylan. Tweeter, a transgender – or is Bob just playing with gender? – Vietnam veteran, the tragic figure of the unnamed Undercover Cop, the Undercover Cop’s sister Jan, who loves the evil Monkey Man. It’s drawn like the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, where a lot of the action happens off stage – just how does Monkey Man end up on the ‘river bridge/using Tweeter as a shield’? It’s also a tribute to the greatest, or at least most successful of Dylan’s heirs, Bruce Springsteen. They live in Mansions on the Hill, drive on Highway 99, go to abandoned factories, meet police at a ‘River’ bridge and on and on. Jan knew Tweeter before she became a Jersey Girl… (I know, Tom Waits, but Springsteen covered it…)

The first album was widely admired and did exceptionally well. It meant that Roy Orbison, who’d laid mostly forgotten in obscurity for some time, was able to release a new album which was his best work in decades. Lynne produced it, and it sounded Wilburyesque. The extreme bad luck that hit Orbison in his career came one last time, and at the top of his game, and at his most successful, he had a fatal heart attack.

The Wilburys did reform without Orbison, and while there is something missing, they were still able to put some good songs together. Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 (no officially released Volume 2 – ‘George Being George’ was the official explanation) is a bit sadder. And it showed just how important Orbison was to the mix. There were rumours that Del Shannon was going to join, but these proved unfounded, and then impossible with Shannon’s suicide. Possibly as a tribute, there is a rather bland cover of Runaway on the album. But there are a few spots where Vol. 3 sparkles. Its opener is a good one – the raucous rock of She’s My Baby did show there was a bit more the quartet could say. Some incendiary guitar by Ken Wilbury, also known as Gary Moore, ties the ribbon of a terrific track.

Dylan took a bit more of the writing responsibility of Vol. 3. The Devil’s Been Busy, but so has the band; all take a lead in this rocker. Dylan’s ‘amnesia’ either had lifted or was lifting, and this is a fine addition to the canon. But the best track on Vol. 3 is Wilbury Twist. Fun, whimsical, joyful and subversive “lift up your other leg/fall on your ass”. Everybody’s doing it! Why don’t you? The box set bonus track, Nobody’s Child, is pretty decent too …

Sadly, though inevitably, the Wilburys faded away into the sunset after this. Rumours of tours, further collaborations and all circulated, but any chance they’d get back together was dashed by the death of the guiding light and leader, George Harrison. Nonetheless, without these bits and pieces, each of these men’s careers would be slightly lesser. I’ll bet, that if you like this style of music, you’ll keep a smile on your face for the rest of your day after listening to it. And really, what more can we expect from any entertainer?

The Traveling Wilburys official website

Traveling Wilburys Ultimate Information Resource

The True History Of The Traveling Wilburys on youtube

The Traveling Wilburys biography (iTunes)

David Lewis has written several posts for Toppermost. He lives in Sydney and lectures in Popular Culture and Contemporary and Roots Music at the Australian Institute of Music. He writes on music here.

TopperPost #413

5 Comments

  1. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Feb 21, 2015

    It is no secret that I am a huge Bob Dylan fan. Like many, I had concerns in the second half of the 80s that there was a problem. The Wilburys seemed to shake things up a lot. Fun led to productivity and productivity led to a progressive return to form in the 90s, culminating in a superb record and a Grammy recognizing excellence. Did Dylan need the Wilburys at that point? Who can say? I do think that being with friends and relaxing when things aren’t going so well had to have a positive effect. I loved the 2 albums and played the cds incessantly. For me, Tweeter was a hint that all would be well and that the phoenix would rise. One cannot underestimate the major influence of Jeff Lynne and his impact on the overall production and sound. To me, he was the glue.

  2. Ilkka Jauramo
    Mar 6, 2015

    Thanks David Lewis for this Toppermost. It was only natural to beginn with End Of The Line. It has the sound of an old VW Bubble finally starting in freezing cold in the North of Finland or the sound of a fishing boat returning to the harbour early in the clear morning with seagulls following it. – I have a question about the pseudonyms. My spouse who was a member in Nelson Piquet Fan Club tells the story about the friendship between Gordon Murray and George Harrison. He was not only Chief Engineer in their F1 team, but a keen guitar player also and that is why George Harrison is NELSON Wilbury. As always I believe in my dear spouse but is there anyone who can tell about other pseudonyms?

    • David Lewis
      Apr 26, 2015

      Thanks Illka: I didn’t know that, but it certainly rings true.

    • Damien Spanjer
      Apr 28, 2015

      The pseudonyms changed for each album. George was both Nelson Wilbury(V1) and Spike Wilbury (V3). It’d be great to find out the stories behind each pseudonym. I’ll ask a couple of people I know who might know and report back soon.

  3. David Lewis
    Oct 3, 2017

    Vale Muddy and Charlie T Wilbury

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