It seems fitting that, when you read about the creation of The Travelling Wilburys in 1988, it's hard to sort out which stories are true and which are apocryphal. After all, the five megastars who made up the supergroup went by pseudonyms and claimed to be half-brothers: Nelson (George Harrison), Otis (Jeff Lynne), Lefty (Roy Orbison), Charlie T., Jr. (Tom Petty) and Lucky (Bob Dylan). Other legends abound: Did the name “Wilbury” come from Lynne telling George Harrison, during sessions for the former Beatle's comeback record Cloud Nine, that “we'll bury mistakes in the mix”? Did the four other members ask Orbison to join the band right before he went on stage? Did George Harrison announce the project for the first time during a radio interview?
The answers are no, kind of and maybe — at least according to Jeff Lynne, who recalls the group’s formation as quick and simple. While working on Cloud Nine, he and Harrison started throwing out names of people with whom they’d love to be in a band. “Whenever we asked somebody, they would join immediately, so the group was formed in about 15 minutes,” he tells Billboard.
When their debut album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, was released thirty years ago today on October 19, 1988, it became an instant hit in an era that was oriented more toward pop groups and hair metal bands than five guys in their 30s, 40s and 50s singing folksy rock songs. It also won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group.
But the record did more than prove their staying power — it also rejuvenated the careers of Dylan, Orbison and Petty. Petty went on to release his magnum opus, Full Moon Fever, produced by Lynne, the following year, and Dylan's Oh Mercy, also released in 1989, became his biggest hit in years. Orbison, sadly, didn't get to reap the benefits for long; he died of a heart attack in December of 1988, shortly after Vol. 1 and before his own comeback album, Mystery Girl, was released.
Lynne and Dylan are now the last remaining Wilburys following Petty's shocking death in 2017. Below, Lynne — who’s currently touring with ELO and prepping a new studio album — tells Billboard about the process of getting the Wilburys together, how they kept egos at bay and just what the heck “Tweeter the Monkey Man” is about anyway.
I've read a lot of different stories about how the band came together. What's your recollection?
I'd just started working with George, producing [Cloud Nine], and we'd been working on it for a couple of months probably, and George said, “You know what? Me and you should have a group.” And I said to him, “Oh, that's a great idea.” What a lovely thing to be asked to be in a group by George Harrison. And I said, “Who should we have in it?” I don't know what I was expecting, but he said, “Bob Dylan.”
And then I said, “Can we have Roy Orbison in it as well?” 'Cause it was still a fantasy, really, at the time for me. I didn't realize that this was about to happen. And luckily, we both said “Tom Petty,” because we both loved Tom, and it all came together just like that.
Did it feel like a challenge to get all these people together? Or did you think, “He's a Beatle, so he knows everybody, and I know a lot of people myself, it won't be that hard”?
It seemed like it was doable. I didn't have to wait too long to find out whether it was doable. They all said yes immediately, so that's how it started out. It was just on the phone, basically, and then we got together in L.A. at Bob's house.
Did George announce that he was forming this group on a radio show? From what I understand, that's how the public found out about it.
He may well have done, but I don't know. I didn't hear the radio show, so I didn't know about that particularly. What I remember mostly was George had half a song done, and then we all convened at Bob Dylan's garage, which is kind of wacky in itself. He had a little miniature studio in there, and [the song] was called “Handle With Care,” and that was the first one we did.
Who knew whom at the time?
I didn't know Tom that well. I'd met him a couple of times, I'd met Bob a couple of times. I'd never met Roy, but that was my dream, to meet Roy Orbison — and to be in a group with him was just ridiculous. I couldn't possibly believe that. We weren't close pals, but it was meant to be, because when we did all meet up together, we got on great.
Is it true that some of the group went to one of Roy Orbison's shows, and right before he got on stage, you asked and he said yes?
We went down to a show in Orange Country somewhere — I think it may have been Anaheim — and we actually watched his show first, because we got there a little bit late. Then afterwards, we were in his dressing room and asked him to join the group, and he [said] yes. There was never any long, big thought about it. Everybody thought it was a good idea.
What was the biggest hurdle you faced in getting everyone together?
Believe it or not, there wasn't one. Because we had the studio, we just planned for ten days, to write ten songs for the album. Which is what we did: getting together around lunchtime, strumming five acoustic guitars. We'd all share chords, ideas for the chord changes, just to get the backing track, and then we'd lay those down. Sometimes we'd double-track those five acoustics, so it'd become ten acoustics. It was rather extravagant, but the rest of it was very, very simple. We would then have dinner and write the words at the same time we're having dinner. We'd be sitting there at the table, throwing out lines.
Bob got a lot of the lines, just because he's such a great writer of lyrics. And it was just fascinating, really — the whole thing was done at dinner time. We'd then go back in the studio and sing them. We'd sort out which parts would suit everybody, and then me and George produced it. It was a marvelous time.
When we’d done the ten songs, they were just basic tracks, really — acoustic [guitars], bass, a couple of drum beats, and then we took it home to to England to really finish it off. Tom came over to play, and Roy came over to finish them off — to make them into what you'd call proper records, rather than demos.
On Vol. 1 it does feel like some of the songs sound like Bob Dylan songs, some sound like George Harrison songs, some like Tom Petty songs, Orbison songs, Jeff Lynne songs. How did that process happen?
Usually the guy who had the most to do with the lyrics would sing most of it. And other people would get choruses or a bridge to sing. We'd do different parts that would suit their voices. It was just a matter of trial and error, really.
Getting Roy Orbison in the studio, it was just magic to me. As well as doing the Wilburys at that time, I was doing three tracks for his own album [Mystery Girl]. I was just producing him, and I was knocking these tracks out between the Wilburys sessions. If there were a few hours left in the day from the end of a Wilburys session, I'd go back to work on the Roy Orbison songs. I got the privilege of recording his voice, which to me, has always been the greatest thing ever.
Was there any concern at all that egos would get in the way during the sessions?
It never did get in the way. I never thought that it would. I mean, we had met up before we all started thinking about doing the work, and [it was just] a bunch of guys having fun.
Tom came up with loads and loads of words for the songs as well, and Tom… [his death] really knocked us about, that one. Three of them gone now — I can't believe it still. It's one of those things: “No, it can't be true.”
Where do you think that lack of ego came from?
I think it just came naturally, because George was a bit of a name on his own. I think that they were all totally in tune with this idea that George had originally. Everybody saw what everybody did, and I was mainly the producer of it, trying to get it all as good as it could be. They all knew that everything was covered. Nobody thought that they were better than anybody else, really. I actually made up the name Traveling Wilburys. I don't think Bob was that keen — he wanted to call it Roy and the Boys.
There’s a story out there that George called the mistakes during the recording of Cloud Nine “Wilburys,” because you said, “we'll bury them in the mix.”
That's totally a fabrication. Somebody invented that just to make it sound good, but no there was nothing subtle at all about The Wilburys. What you saw [was] what you got. That was it.
What was it like to collaborate on producing with George on that album? That partnership must have laid the foundation for the Wilburys.
George wanted to be sure we would get on, because we didn't know each other, but he liked my ELO records. I'd just been working with Dave Edmunds on a song, and [George] asked Dave to ask me if I'd like to work on his new album. I said “Of course!” So I went around to his house, and there he was, on the boat on the lake. We had a few beers and a laugh, and after a couple of days of just talking about me producing him, he asked me if I'd like to go on holiday to Australia.
I said, “Oh, I'd love to,” and so we did. We went through Hawaii and then to Australia to watch the Grand Prix in Adelaide — that's where it was in those days — and we became really great friends and had really good fun. I even co-wrote one of the songs with George — “When We Was Fab” — off Cloud Nine. It was just a wonderful opportunity to use some really good sounds, some nice, '60s kind of sounds.
Was there a desire on some of these guys' parts to just be someone in a band for a while?
I think so. Tom loved not having to be the big front guy. But he always looked great anyway — he looked like the front guy. Roy Orbison — what a lovely man, one of the nicest guys I've ever known, just a real sweetheart. He'd come to the session, and in his car he'd have a bunch of cakes, which he wasn't supposed to have anyway, because he had a bad heart. He'd call me Jeffery and say, “I've got some really nice cakes in the back, come and have a look.” So he'd invite me down to the back of his car, show me them and say, “You can have first pick.” I thought that was so sweet.
What was Dylan like in this sessions? Did anything about him surprise you?
Obviously I knew all his work, but what struck me really was how he did it the same way we all do it, but only ... better words? I don't know how to explain it, but he'd get right to the point, right to the “What's this about?” [conversation]. We'd have to say, “What's this about, then?” after we got lines in.
Hearing you say that makes me think of “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.” I'm still not 100 percent sure what it's about.
I think it's about some visions that Bob Dylan had that night. Who knows? Tom helped a lot on that one, too. It's all over the dinner table, don't forget, so we're just talking and saying sentences, and sometimes they fit perfectly, and sometimes they don't, so you move them down a bit so it fits in the next verse.
There was no premeditated thinking about it. It was not what you'd normally do on an album: You’d keep going over it, time after time after time after time, to edit the song to make it as good as it can be. But Bob very much [felt] the first take is the one, and that's it — you don't touch it. The first take is Bob's favorite, usually.
Many people think that song is a hat tip to Bruce Springsteen, given the imagery of New Jersey, a factory and other references. Is that the case, or was it just a coincidence?
I think he liked talking about Bruce. You should ask him about that, really, because I know they sound [like] little bits of “Thunder Road.” We all loved Bruce Springsteen, obviously; you could say it was an homage to Bruce.
When you guys are record a song like “End of the Line,” where no one is really sing lead and you're going back and forth, what's the atmosphere like? Is it as fun as it sounds on the recording?
Oh, absolutely, because we knew we'd got a great tune there, and everybody loved singing it. Everybody loved to have a part, because it was such a catchy and sentimental song, and when Roy comes in, he just blows my mind. Of course, Roy died just when we finished it and the record was coming out, which was the most sickening thing to me. I was devastated for ages because of that. Me and Roy had had plans to do much more together, and his voice was in really good shape. It was just so sad for that to happen.
Where did the idea of giving yourselves different Wilbury names and saying you're half brothers come from?
Oh, that was George's idea.
Was the idea, “Yes, we're five huge names, but we're just part of a band”?
Of course everybody knew who it was, but that was the idea — making it more like a real group that's been together for years.
What is your fondest memory of doing Vol. 1?
I think my fondest memory is Roy Orbison singing on the [tracks]. When he's laying it down, and I'm egging him on a little bit as the producer, just going, “Oh yeah, just like that!” He was such a brilliant singer, and a lovely guy. I had all the time in the world for Roy. My favorite thing of all was being pals with Roy Orbison.
Were you surprised at the success of the album? Or did the success of Cloud Nine give you a little bit of an idea that the Wilburys album might be successful?
The main thing is that [Warner Bros.] thought it would be successful, so they put a lot of faith in it. And it was very popular. I still do one song onstage on the new tour: “Handle With Care,” just to remind you of the Wilburys and show them a little bit of the Wilburys footage on the screen in the back. The crowds always love that. They love to hear that one.
You're in the middle of your ELO tour right. How’s that going?
It's been fantastic. It's unbelievable. Absolutely outrageous. They're all sold out to the roof, so it's shocking and fantastic.
Well, I haven't been on the road ever since the Wilburys.
Is it interesting to you that songs that are forty years old are getting such a positive reception? They hold up very well.
I'm shocked. I've got a really good band now, and I can finally reproduce on stage what I couldn't do before with the old group. The new group has 13 including me, and we can finally cover all the string parts, the harmony parts. I get a copy of the show afterwards, just to check how it's going, so I'm just thrilled with the way it sounds, and the audiences are too. I don't mean to sound like a big head, but they go mad for it.
What’s the status of the new ELO album?
I'm already halfway through it, really. So when I finish the rest of this tour, then I'll be back in my studio.