In early 1987, Jeff Lynne of ELO was producing George Harrison’s Cloud Nine album, and a couple of months into the work Harrison made mention of the two of them starting up what was, according to a later interview with Tom Petty, “the perfect little band.” Petty went on to say that the primary criteria for inclusion in the group wasn’t to be who was the best musician or anything, but “who you could hang with.” It has to have been through God’s own design that those five men were cool enough to make the coolness cut required to be among The Traveling Wilburys.
Harrison, of the Beatles; Lynn; Petty; Roy Orbison; and none other than Bob Dylan were the five members of The Traveling Wilburys when they recorded their debut album, 1988’s Volume One. (Orbison died of a heart attack shortly after and was not replaced for 1990’s Vol. 3.
Treating genres from folk to rockabilly to island music and even beyond the islands, Volume One gives us ten songs in which each of these five musical legends at least share lead vocals on a track.
Harrison and Dylan carry most of the vocal weight, but this unit’s strength rests in the fact that all five of these men are/were excellent singers and guitarists with excellent breadth of knowledge and ear for great music.
It is no wonder that these men put out one of the most listenable album in the history of rock and roll. Just pause for a moment and look at those names. The least legendary among them is Tom Petty, for crying out loud. You’ve got Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, a Beatle, and a guy who, if being the leader of ELO wasn’t enough, was so respected in the music industry that both George Harrison and Bob Dylan asked him to produce their albums.
And what about these ten songs that those five men put out on that initial release in 1988, what can we say about them?
Well, to think a collection of human beings could take 36 minutes and 32 seconds and turn it into this collection of songs is proof of just what amazing and adroit beasts we are. When you take an album list and say that “Congratulations” might be the weakest cut, you know you have something good on your hands. Then, you listen to that track and realize that surely it can’t be the weakest thing out of these ten. It must be “Rattled,” Lynne’s rockabilly crack at the mic or the island feel of “Margarita,” which boasts Petty and Lynne sharing Dylan’s lead vocal, but then you listen to those, and there’s no way that either of them could possibly be the weakest.
So, you think maybe it’s the raunchy Dylan rockabilly meets folk rock number “Dirty World,” or either of the two songs that sound like they could have come from Orbison’s golden era, “Last Night” and “Not Alone Anymore,” but listening to those tells you there’s no way that any of them is the slack on the album. Maybe it’s the quintessentially Harrison sounding “Heading for the Light”? Nope, that’s not it either.
That leaves us with only three songs, two of which are the album’s two singles, “Handle with Care” and “The End of the Line,” and there’s no way it’s one of those.
So, maybe it’s the last song, the only song we haven’t touched on is “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.” Could that be it? Could that be the weakest track on this list? Well, if you’re asking me, it can’t be. In fact, I believe that if this song had more radio friendly lyrics, it would have been an even bigger hit than “The End of the Line” and maybe even as big as “Handle with Care.” When I think of the good faces that rock music can take, this is one of the first that come to mind.
Starting with the first couplet “Tweeter and the Monkey Man were hard up for cash; they stayed up all night selling cocaine and hash,” the boys kind of resigned themselves to having the song only be heard by people who sought out this music specifically.
I’m glad I was such a person. When thinking of music as a friend, this is one of the albums I think of. It’s such a nice collection of songs to be around, and these are some of the nicest musical men to be around when you have a device designed to play music. I’m putting a link to the album here, and, if you have the time, I highly suggest you check it out.
In a musical landscape where we love to tout our super-groups, here we have the most super of them all, yet I think they would all cringe to think of themselves that way; rather, they were just five guys you could hang with.
They still are.