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Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne Discuss the Long Road to Wilburys Re-issues
By Alan Light, Special for MSN Music
Re: Masters is a monthly interview column dedicated to exploring a veteran
artist's body of work
June 1, 2007
Over the years, countless musical gatherings have been referred to as
"supergroups." But what do you call a band that not only marked the only
extended collaboration between a Beatle and Bob Dylan, but also added a
couple of other Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and a mega-platinum
producer/songwriter to the mix? For reasons probably best left as an
elaborate inside joke, apparently you call it the Traveling Wilburys -- and
now the band's complete recordings are back in stores, after being
unavailable for over a decade.
It's kind of mind-boggling to think about Dylan, George Harrison, Tom
Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne working side-by-side for an album
project. But it's truly unbelievable that they actually did it twice (minus
Orbison the second time around -- he passed away soon after the first
album's release in 1988).
The creation of the Wilburys seems both entirely accidental and completely
fated. Electric Light Orchestra mastermind Lynne produced Harrison's smash
1987 album, "Cloud Nine" -- his first release in five years (and his first
U.S. Top 10 in a dozen years). Harrison needed a B-side for a single in
Europe, and he asked Lynne to help. At the time, Lynne was working with
Orbison on "Mystery Girl," his majestic comeback project. After Orbison
volunteered to lend his voice to the new song, Harrison had to swing by
Petty's house to pick up his guitar -- and, of course, Petty was eager to
join in the fun. By the time the group went in to record, Dylan had gotten
wind of the project and signed on to help.
The connections between these superstars ran deep. Harrison and Dylan's
friendship dated back to the '60s; Harrison had recently contributed to
Petty's Lynne-produced single "I Won't Back Down." Petty had spent the
mid-'80s touring with Dylan. And one thing they all shared was a love of
Orbison's incomparable voice.
The song they came up with together was an irresistible hard-luck lament
called "Handle With Care," and when Harrison played it for his label heads,
legendary record men Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker, they immediately urged
him to turn this into something more than an international B-side. Harrison
took the initiative and somehow convinced everyone to see where this whole
band idea might lead. The songs they created together ranged from the
classic Orbison drama of "Not Alone Anymore" to Dylan delivering what
seemed to be a spoof of Bruce Springsteen's Jersey-based epics on "Tweeter
and the Monkey Man." The resultant album -- "The Traveling Wilburys, Volume
1" -- sold five million copies worldwide, reached No. 3 on the Billboard
charts and won a Grammy.
Though the album's title seemed to be a joke about the impossibility of
ever pulling off this all-star team again, in fact Harrison was talking
about touring and keeping the Wilburys as an ongoing project. Orbison
passed away just two months after the album's release, though, throwing
those plans into disarray. But two years later, the four surviving Wilburys
reconvened and, against all odds, made another album. Given Harrison's
Monty Python-esque sense of humor, the title was probably inevitable --
"The Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3."
The record didn't sell as well as its predecessor, peaking at No. 11, but
truth be told, it's actually an improvement, more spontaneous and fun and
harder rocking. Again, there was talk of live performances and more
collaborating. But Harrison's failing health through the '90s and,
ultimately, his death in 2001, made any further Wilbury adventures
With the release of both albums as "The Traveling Wilburys Collection" --
complete with a handful of bonus tracks and a DVD collecting their music
videos with a documentary of unseen footage -- Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne
recently got together to discuss one of the most historic side projects
rock and roll has ever seen. "It was an amazing cast of characters," says
Petty. "Great friendships were made there. There was a lot of love in that
MSN MUSIC: To start with a mundane business question, why have these albums
been out of print for so long?
Lynne: That's a very good question. I have no idea why. People are always
asking me, why isn't that Wilburys stuff available?
Petty: I think our record deal ran out, and I guess we never got it
together to renew it.
I can sort of imagine all of these legendary musicians coming together for
one song as a lark, but it's really hard to believe that you were all able
to keep it together for a full-length album.
Lynne: When George played "Handle With Care" for (Warner Bros Records
chairman) Mo Ostin, he said, "That's fantastic, why don't you use that as
this new group you keep talking about"? I guess it was something he was
talking to Mo about, not to anyone else. And when George was involved, he
could do things that nobody else can.
Petty: We were all hanging around together, anyway. We didn't go out and
hand-pick everybody -- we were just friends, spending a lot of time
How did the actual writing of the songs happen? Did people come in with
finished songs or unfinished parts, or did you actually sit and write
Lynne: We either sat there and somebody started a chord sequence and
somebody else joined in and it just went from there, or, in some cases,
people would have a bridge in their pocket, something finished that they
didn't know what to do with. So it came from both ways.
Petty: Everybody sat in the same room. It was all collaborative, working
together as songwriters.
What about the riffing on Springsteen's lyrics in "Tweeter and the Monkey
Man"? How did everyone respond when Bob sang the lines about "thunder road"
and "Jersey girl" and all those little quotes?
Petty: I don't think we knew that music well enough to rip it off. "Thunder
Road," that goes way back beyond Bruce, that was that old Robert Mitchum
record. Bob and I wrote most of those lyrics together and I don't remember
that ever coming up.
Was Roy Orbison's participation part of the reason that everyone felt so
committed to this project?
Lynne: Roy was the missing link -- having the best singer in the world in
your group. It was an unbelievable thrill. His presence was the icing on
the cake, and really made it the best group you could ever be in.
Petty: Jeff and I had written "You Got It" for Roy. We had just done "Free
Fallin'," and George was with us for "I Won't Back Down." I had been on the
road for two years backing up Bob. So we were all in the same circle and
the group just naturally materialized. It was George's band, really. He was
the leader; the whole idea for the band was his idea.
Lynne: It was always his plans that got it going, his connections at the
label, and what he could do was like no one else.
Petty: He said all the time that he wasn't comfortable out front, that he
wanted to be in a group, that he really did best as a team player. All of
us were solo artists, and so it really took the pressure off of us to go
into it this way.
I gather that there was some talk about a tour, or at least doing a single
show somewhere. How seriously was that pursued?
Lynne: George had great ideas for a tour. He wanted to get an aircraft
carrier and go around the world and we'd pull up and play in the docks or
whatever in different places.
Petty: He wanted to paint a different sponsor's name on it each day, and
we'd call it the "sponsor ship." We talked about doing a tour most every
day, but by the time we sobered up, we didn't want to do it anymore.
Orbison passed away soon after the album's release, right? How much did he
participate in those conversations about the future?
Lynne: Roy was gone very early on. He got to be there for some of it, but
after that first rush of success, he wasn't there.
There was talk at the time that you were considering adding Del Shannon,
who Tom was working with, after Orbison's death.
Petty: We never considered adding anyone else. That was just rumor and
The big surprise for me has been going back to the second album. It's
actually looser and more raw than the first one.
Petty: Yeah, the second one is rougher, more rough and ready, maybe a
little more deep lyrically. We were really like a working band by then. We
wrote the same way, all together.
Was the writing experience different on the second album? Was there more
expectation about how it would go, after you'd already done it once before?
Lynne: We really didn't think that deeply about it. We just sat down around
a table and strummed our guitars until the songs came.
Petty: We just showed up and played music together, there wasn't any more
thought than that. We'd hammer out a song and then record it. Then work on
it some more from there.
Do any songs on the second album stand out to you now as favorites?
Lynne: "You Took My Breath Away" -- Tom and I did that vocal together,
live, in one take.
Petty: Yeah, on one mic. There was a lot of live playing on that record,
with the drums -- Jim Keltner, who played on all of it -- the drums weren't
far away from the guitars, so there was a lot of leakage, but the good kind
I like "You Took My Breath Away," "New Blue Moon." That's a really fun
album. There's a lot of great lead guitar on that record from George, too.
The second album didn't sell as well as the first, didn't seem like it
captured the public imagination quite as much.
Lynne: I don't remember -- it sold pretty good, but I guess the novelty was
Petty: I don't know, I remember getting a great check for that record!
It's pretty astounding that you did this more than one time -- that you
actually got all these rock legends, with their own careers to worry about,
to sign on for a whole second album.
Petty: Well, we didn't want to do anything else! Once you're in a band like
the Traveling Wilburys, what else are you going to do? You don't get in a
band like that every day. We all considered doing another one after that,
too. Bob was very enthusiastic about it; he was right out front in the
And was there more talk about playing live after the second album?
Petty: There was always somebody trying to do it. We'd get all liquored up
and talk about it, but when the morning came, we thought better of it,
thought it would be too much trouble. George would keep bringing it up, and
I feel really guilty that we never got around to it. I think we all thought
we had all the time in the world.