We’re talking big, very big. The Musical Event of the Decade or, maybe, Week. What else can you call it when five of the greatest rock and roll singers of all time—Nelson, Lucky, Lefty, Charlie T. Jr. and Otis Wilbury—cut an album?
Well, you could call it odd, very odd, when you learn that the Wilburys exist only on vinyl and in the minds of alter egos George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. The result of their collaboration, a folksy 10-song LP called The Traveling Wilburys, is due out this week. And the quirky quintet insist that the album is the work of the Wilburys, a group of musical half-siblings, survivors of an ancient and totally fictional tribe of troubadours.
“We didn’t realize for years that we were related,” says Nelson—er, Harrison—explaining how he and his “siblings” hooked up. “It was fate that brought us together.” According to the official group history—otherwise known as the album liner notes—the Traveling Wilburys are descendants of “a stationary people who, realizing that their civilization could not stand still forever, began to go for short walks.” As Wilburys strayed farther and farther from home, their music took on remarkable qualities, including “the power to stave off madness, turn brunets into blonds and increase the size of their ears.”
So much for the myth. The real history of the Wilburys began at an Encino, Calif., restaurant last April. Over Chinese food, Harrison, Orbison and Lynne, founder of the Electric Light Orchestra and producer of Harrison’s 1987 Cloud Nine LP, decided to work on a song together. First though, Harrison had to pick up a guitar at Petty’s house. “When he came by to get it I wasn’t doing anything, so I joined,” says Petty. At that point, Lynne had a brainstorm: “Why don’t we go to Bob’s house and lay something down?” “We called Bob,” says Harrison, “and that was that.”
They convened in Dylan’s Malibu backyard. “We just sat down and said, ‘Let’s write a song,’ ” says Harrison. “We didn’t spend forever.” They liked the result so much that they decided to try putting together an album. “We met again and wrote another tune,” Harrison reports. “We repeated that same process over the course of about nine or 10 days.” The entire effort took less than two weeks. “For people over 5’5″, that’s pretty amazing,” says Petty, who enjoys spinning a tall tale as much as the next Wilbury.
Not only are the Wilburys bona fide members of rock’s aristocracy, but they also got their name from a royal source, or so says Harrison. “Nelson” insists that after he and Lynne played in the Prince’s Trust concert last year, Prince Charles told them, ” ‘You chaps work well together. Why don’t you form a group called the Traveling Wilburys?’ It seemed a bit strange at the time,” says Harrison. “We had no such plans. Later, though, we thought, ‘Well, if he likes it maybe we should use it.’ ”
Expect the mysterious Wilburys to become quite public in the next few months. Harrison and Lynne are at work editing a video, and a planned TV special in February will elaborate on the clan’s history. “The film will include more of us doing our evil deeds…and a few surprises that haven’t yet been thought of,” confides Harrison. “Hopefully it will explain everything.” Somehow that doesn’t seem likely.
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