Imagine, if you dare, that you are back in the tail end of the 1980s. Some years ago it seems that Haley’s Comet, while passing earth and wreaking its usual apocalyptic havoc, managed to get itself stuck in orbit around the earth, causing all manner of heretofore inconceivably atrocious occurrences of a most bizarre and otherworldly nature for the better part of a decade. The hideous and the weird are now commonplace. Everyone has a perm. David Bowie and Jim Henson make a movie together and nobody seems to bat an eyelash. Popular music, with few notable exceptions, is awful. Unforgivably awful, even. Films are no better. The muses of fashion, art, and architecture seem to have drowned themselves in a sea of petroleum byproducts, its bed cluttered in twisted metal. Volcanoes have erupted all over the known world. Crows fly by in the thousands, sometimes swooping down on the young and impressionable, forcing them to wear spandex and swear (lest their eyes be pecked from their sockets by a thousand hungry beaks) that Van Halen is the best band, like, ever. Glossy makeup and giant earrings on what would've been attractive women! Tight, stone-washed jeans! Heavy Metal! Chaos! FLASHDANCE! Yuppies ran screaming through the front door of their suburban 3-bedroom homes yelling “YE GODS, why didst thou smite the world with the cruel blight that is the NINETEEN EIGHTEES? What was our offence?”
Somehow, in the midst of all this, something happened that was no less strange, but felt somehow less tainted by the filth and decadence of the age than the chaos which surrounded it. How exactly it happened no one knows, but somehow, drawn by some power unknown to them (or any other), Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison found themselves together in Dylan’s home recording studio, if Dylan could be said to have a home, somewhere in California. None could answer as to their purpose for being there, but as they were all there, in a recording studio, and seeing how they were musicians and all, they decided to form a band, write some songs, and lay them down on a record. So they did, as if it weren’t the strangest musical meeting of the minds that any of them had ever experienced, which it almost surely was. Imagine Tom Petty and Bob Dylan singing backup for, anyone, and then imagine them doing so for Roy Orbison, on a record also featuring, and produced by, the leader of the Electric Light Orchestra. And then throw in one of The Beatles. Weird. Of course, once you have that group together, inconceivable as it may be, it would be still more inconceivable if they didn’t have Jim Keltner play drums, seeing as he’s Jim Keltner and that’s what he does, so they did. Oh yeah, and Ray Cooper. That’s right. THE Ray Cooper.
Of course, being me, I had heard about The Traveling Wilburys (for so they were called) before. I was something of an insomniac during my first two years of college, and on those late nights when I couldn't sleep, I would often mosey on down to the television room of my dorm, inhabited in those wee hours by the nocturnal strain of that strange species that is the male college student. The guys there knew me only as "D," for so I had first introduced myself. I suppose that they fit a certain stereotype pretty well: They wore mostly dark colors, had better than a working knowledge of Magic: The Gathering, and more often than not it seemed as if a few of them could use a shower. They were pleasant enough, though. I suppose that I must've seemed as odd to them as they did to me. I would wander down in the middle of an Inuyasha marathon, dressed in my burgundy bathrobe and fuzzy pink slippers, with a mess of blond hair around my shoulders, and then I'd just sort of sit down and engage in conversation, as if they weren't watching telly. The most talkative of the group (to me, at least) was Erick, a tall fellow who you would probably peg as the quiet type, but who could (as it turns out) talk for quite a while, if you ask the right questions. I think I may be reasonably good at asking the right questions. Among other things, Erick seemed (or seems, rather) to have an encyclopedic knowledge of popular and even not-so-popular music (he could tell you all about Elvis or The Beatles, but preferred Alice Cooper), and being something of a music nerd myself, our questions often drifted towards that side of the lake. He's an interesting guy. At some point, actually after I had ceased to live in the dorm, Erick was sitting behind me in a music theory class, and asked me if I'd heard The Traveling Wilburys. I told him that I'd heard of them, in the way you heard about Bigfoot or space aliens at Roswell, but that I'd never been able to track down any of their music. "It's all out of print," he explained, "I'll burn you a CD." College is great. True to his word, the next time we met he handed me a CDR marked only with a green "X," drawn by a Sharpie marker. Some of the tracks wouldn't play on my computer, and the sound quality of the tracks that did work indicated to me that someone had ripped their cassette tape or LP. But hey, it was pretty good.
There are a few things that are important to keep in mind here:
1. This was the late 1980's. Dylan, whose career has had a lot of ups and downs, was in something of a low period here. George was also not producing his best stuff in 1988. Orbison was about to record a comeback album that would be hailed as his best work since the sixties, but tragically died before it was released (final production work was done by Lynne and several others, including Bono). None of these guys, except for maybe Tom Petty, were making their best stuff at the time.
2. This was, actually, an accident. They all happened to be in the same place at the same time, and they all, like many, many, musicians, were friends with George Harrison. They weren't attempting to make the best album ever here, and if they did, it wouldn't have worked.
3. Half of the appeal here is the sheer weirdness of it all.
What they did end up making, however, is pretty fun. They apparently wrote and recorded the first album in a matter of ten days, and then Lynne and Harrison cleaned up the tape and did some mixing and production work before releasing the thing. Here's a video of the lead single from the album, "Handle With Care." The rest of it is pretty much like that. As you can see, this isn't going to top any sane person's "Top Ten" list (although the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences nominated it for "Album of The Year," it lost to Bonnie Rait's "Nick of Time"), but it's pretty fun. I especially like the fact that everyone is very clearly in the late 1980s, and looks very goofy to prove it. The poofy hair and goofy clothing, combined with the group vocals, are more than vaguely reminiscent of The Muppets to me. Booyah.Oh yeah. I only thought to mention this because the Wilburys' two albums (the second, sadly, without Roy Orbison) have recently been re-mastered and re-released in a re-diculously, um, really remarkable box set. Of course, I just lose CD cases and what-not, plus it's all cheaper on iTunes, so I iTunes'd it instead. Fun.