There never was a supergroup more super than the Traveling Wilburys. They had Jeff Lynne, the leader of ELO; they had Roy Orbison, the best pop singer of the '60s; they had Tom Petty, the best roots rocker this side of Bruce Springsteen; they had a Beatle and Bob Dylan, for crying out loud! It's impossible to picture a supergroup with a stronger pedigree than that (all that's missing is a Rolling Stone), but in another sense it's hard to call the Wilburys a true supergroup, since they arrived nearly two decades after the all-star craze of the '70s peaked, and they never had the self-important air of nearly all the other supergroups. That, of course, was the key to their charm: they were a group of friends that fell together easily, almost effortlessly, to record a B-side for a single for George Harrison, then had such a good time they stuck around to record a full album, which became a hit upon its 1988 release.
As the story goes, the four initial members went to Dylan’s home studio to record, wshen Harrison suddenly realised he had left a beloved guitar at Petty’s house nearby. The two had incidentally become friends while Petty and The Heartbreakers were on tour in Europe with Dylan himself in 1987.
When Harrison arrived at Petty’s house he asked him if he’d like to attend the session, after all, it would be rude not to—it would be even ruder for Petty to say no given the talent in attendance. Thus, with that Petty was on his way to the studio. Thereafter, he almost immediately slipped right into place.
The group were still working on the barebones material of the B-side ‘Handle with Care’ that Harrison had offered up. As legend has it, Dylan was attending to the barbeque for the group when Harrison asked, “Give us some lyrics, you famous lyricist.” When Dylan subsequently asked for the title to at least give him something to go off, Harrison looked left towards the folk troubadours garage and as though the man mystically offers up poetry, the first thing Harrison spied was a sign saying, ‘Handle with Care’.
That turned into the album Vol. 1. It's loose and funny, even goofy. It's clearly a lark, which makes the offhanded, casual virtuosity of some of the songs all the more affecting, particularly the two big hits, which are sunny and warm, partially because they wryly acknowledge the mileage on these rock & roll veterans. "Handle With Care" and "End of the Line" are the two masterworks here.
The rest of the album just overspills with good vibes, whether it's Tom Petty's lite reggae of "Last Night," Jeff Lynne's excellent Jerry Lee Lewis update "Rattled," or Dylan's very funny "Dirty World," which is only slightly overshadowed by his very, very funny Springsteen swipe "Tweeter and the Monkey Man."
The Traveling Wilburys built upon Harrison's comeback with Cloud Nine and helped revitalize everybody else's career, setting the stage for Dylan's 1989 comeback with Oh Mercy, Petty's first solo album, Full Moon Fever, produced by Lynne (sounding and feeling strikingly similar to this lark), and Orbison's Mystery Girl, which was released posthumously.
As Petty would later joyfully conclude: “The whole experience was some of the best days of my life, really, and I think it probably was for us all … The thing I guess would be hardest for people to understand is what good friends we were. It really had very little to do with combining a bunch of famous people. It was a bunch of friends that just happened to be really good at making music.” If that isn’t nice, what is?
Allmusic and Far Out Magazine