Firstly a brief recap of the real story of the Traveling Wilburys. George Harrison while recording some new songs went to his record company with a song which he and some of his famous musical mates had recorded. The plan was for it to be a B-Side to his next single. However, the record company were more than enthusiastic and urged George to return with an album’s worth of material. The Wilbury’s are made up of Nelson Wilbury (George Harrison), Otis Wilbury (Jeff Lynne), Lucky Wilbury (Bob Dylan), Charlie T. Jnr (Tom Petty) and Lefty Wilbury (Roy Orbison). Together they recorded an album’s worth of material, released as Traveling Wilburys Volume One in 1988. A second album, bizarrely called Traveling Wilburys Volume Three, appeared a couple of years later after the passing of Roy Orbison. Volume One was a popular success selling more than five million copies when it was released.
As I write this review, the package has gone to the top of the charts in the UK, Australia and Ireland. This is quite a bizarre state of affairs. The CD had long-since been discontinued, and they were appearing at over-inflated prices on Ebay, up until only a few months ago. George Harrison’s wife, Olivia announced that the Wilbury’s would return with this re-issue. She spoke to Rhino, who are masters at the repackaging and re-issue format, and the result of their hard work is what I have to review today.
Volume One has been faithfully restored with modern re-mastering techniques used. Outtakes, ‘Maxine’ and ‘Like a Ship’ have been included in this package. The album is pretty much feels as if all of this greats of musical history have decided to sit around and have some fun. ‘Handle with Care’ is possibly one of Harrison’s greatest vocal performances and is a classic pop-rock tune. It has since been covered by Jenny Lewis on her album Rabbit Fur Coat. ‘Dirty World’ sees Dylan front the song which ends with many ridiculous double entendres. It’s another great pop-rock tune which can’t fail but bring a smile to your face.
Other highlights include ‘Congratulations’ a bitter-sweet Dylan-former-lover-put-down song, and the truly brilliant ‘Tweeter and the Monkeyman’. What at first appears to be a serious up-beat ballad on love, deceit, crime and murder is infact a brilliant wind-up or tribute to Springsteen. Taking place in New Jersey there are many references to Springsteen, not least in the lyrics which name-check many of the Boss’s song-titles (‘Thunder Road’, ‘The River’, ‘State Trooper’ and there are many more… it’s a great drunken party game). But what Dylan has written and the Wilburys produced is an epic and cinematic song about a transsexual drugdealer and an undercover cop. ‘End of the Line’ is another brillant pop-rock song.
However, Volume Three is a more patchy affair. The playfulness of the songs and recordings seems forced here. ‘Wilbury Twist’ is the highlight, a wonderful dancing rock and roll tune. ‘She’s my Baby’, the first single from the album is also worth mentioning. However, I have difficulty in appreciating the other songs, or indeed enjoying them as much as the tracks on Volume One. As I said before, it’s very playfulness seems forced and rushed. It just doesn’t ring true. ‘Nobody’s Child’, released as a track on a Romanian orphanage appeal record and ‘Runaway’ are the two bonus tracks here.
Accompanying the two re-masters is a documentary about the recording of Volume One. With appearances from all the Wilbury members, it is a nice tribute to Harrison and Orbison. What prevails from this documentary is the light-hearted and relaxed atmosphere in which the album was recorded. The best part in this documentary is when the stars all arrive at the recording studio (Dave Stewart’s Californian home). Tom Petty turns up in a typically American 1980s sports car. Dylan turns up in a battered brown van. Brilliant stuff and footage which fans of any of the Wilburys would be interested in seeing. The DVD also contains videos of some of their songs including, ‘Handle with Care’ and ‘Wilbury Twist’. It’s a lovely addition to the CDs and along with the detailled booklet is probably worth the price of the package.
One of the best re-issues in recent times, Rhino have done the memory and legacy of this band no harm at all. Despite some very eighties production values which have not stood the test of time (read, “synthesiser”), this is a package which should appeal to many. At the time, critics were viewing these musical stars as past their prime and finished in an early 1990s world. What the band did was to ignore this completely and just go back to doing what they knew best – enjoying themselves with the recording process and the writing of songs. This is Harrison, Orbison, Dylan, Petty and Lynne at their most playful and something which all fans should listen to at least once, if not own this package.