CSFTD #35: The Traveling Wilburys – Handle with Care

Over the years the term ‘super group’ has been coined about quite a few musical collectives. Back in the 1960s and 70s there were those that  truly deserved the accolade – Cream (the first); Blind Faith, which arose out of it; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Derek and the Dominoes;  Emerson, Lake and Palmer and later (1980s onwards) Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Foo Fighters probably deserve a mention. There was a classical one as well of course, the Three Tenors.

You’ll find a list of about a hundred of them mentioned on Wiki and most of them are in the dreams of the fans that put them on that list. A feature common to most of the genuine ones was their lack of longevity. With few exceptions they tended to come and go quite quickly, the members probably unable to live alongside each other’s ego.

Today’s classic track is from a band that ticks all the super group boxes.  The Traveling Wilburys comprised some massive names – George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison – and were only active for three years, recording just two albums. And there were only four of them for the second album as Orbison had succumbed suddenly to a heart attack. Harrison jokingly entitled it ‘Traveling Wilburys Vol 3’ “to confuse the buggers.” That Scouse humour eh? Marvellous.

Handle with Care is from the correctly titled Traveling Wilburys Vol 1, which was released in October 1988. The band had formed on a Harrison whim after he’d completed his own Cloud Nine album and yearned “to do an album with some of my mates.” Originally called The Trembling Wilburys the Wilbury part was a slang term Harrison had used when recording Cloud Nine with Jeff Lynne when referring to recording errors, as in “we’ll bury ‘em in the mix.” It was Lynne who proposed ‘Traveling.’

The ‘Wilburys’ joke was perpetuated with the band members credited under various pseudonyms and pretending to be half-brothers, all sons of a fictional Charles Truscott Wilbury, Sr.

Those pseudonyms were:

  • ‘Nelson Wilbury’ – Harrison
  • ’Otis Wilbury’ – Lynne
  • ‘Lefty Wilbury’ – Orbison
  • ‘Charlie T. Wilbury, Jr’ – Petty
  • ‘Lucky Wilbury’ – Dylan

Jim Keltner, a session drummer and percussionist who played on the track, was not listed as a ‘Wilbury’ on either album but he is seen in all of the group’s music videos, and on a DVD released in 2007 he is given the nickname ‘Buster Sidebury.’ (He’s on the video, below).

Handle with Care was recorded at Bob Dylan’s Malibu home as a B-side for Harrison’s single ‘This is Love.’ The record company, Warner Brothers, decided it was too good to be filler and it actually led to the band recording Traveling Wilburys Vol 1 as they enjoyed working together so much. So it is a good choice for a classic song as it is essentially the one that cemented the working relationship of these five musical geniuses. That recording session was also famously the entrée for Petty into the band as Harrison had left his guitar at Petty’s house and went to retrieve it, asking him to join the session. The track was also released as a single in 1988, getting to #2 in the Billboard Chart as did two of their other three singles. It managed to chart only at #21 in the UK, their highest singles entry here though it did rather better down under in Australia and New Zealand.

While the single didn’t set the charts on fire the album turned out to be a critical and commercial success, eventually reaching triple-platinum sales status in the US. The album was also nominated for several awards and won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group in 1989.

Despite its lack of single success Handle with Care has been described as “one of the most memorable records of the 1980s.” Musically, it is built around a descending, folk-rock chord pattern and some major key chorus movements. George Harrison handles the verses, and the two bridges feature first Bob Dylan and then Roy Orbison, allowing Orbison to demonstrate his signature operatic tenor vocal pipes.

The band broke up in 1990 although various members continued to work with each other afterwards, especially Harrison until his death in 2001. They never toured as they agreed amongst themselves that a tour would ‘formalise’ the band and require them to be responsible, which was not in the group’s ‘character.’ Harrison though had often mused what a Wilburys tour would be like, whether they would have played a solo set each and finished with a Wilburys medley, or just played Wilburys songs, or sung their individual songs with a Wilburys flavour. Alas, we never found out.

Another reason I chose this track is that there is a cracking cover of it (one of few covers) on Jenny Lewis’ 2005 debut solo album (with the Watson Twins), Rabbit Fur Coat, with Conor Oberst and M Ward taking the Dylan and Orbison parts. In what is a noticeably faster version she changes ‘I’ve been fobbed off,’ a very English phrase, to ‘I’ve been f***ed off.’ Jenny, tut tut.  Naughty girl.

(See also CSFTD #15 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, American Girl and CSFTD #31 Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone. Harrison, Orbison and Lynne haven’t featured in CSFTD – yet).

© D J Bentley, 2016