The Traveling Wilburys were an English-American supergroup made up of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty. The band recorded two albums, Traveling Wilburys (Vol. 1) (1988) and the mischievously and misleadingly titled Traveling Wilburys (Vol. 3) (1990). Orbison died in December 1988, two months after the release of the first album.
Harrison had first mentioned the Traveling Wilburys during a radio interview with Bob Coburn on the Rockline Radio station in February 1988. In answer to Coburn asking Harrison what he planned to do as a follow up to his 1987 album, Cloud Nine, Harrison replied: “What I’d really like to do next is … to do an album with me and some of my mates ,,, a few tunes, you know. Maybe The Traveling Wilburys … it’s this new group I got: it’s called the Traveling Wilburys, I’d like to do an album with them and later we can do our own albums again”.
The band’s name derived from a slang term first used by Harrison during the recording of Cloud Nine with Lynne as producer. ‘Wilbury’ referred to any small mistake in the performance, with Harrison saying to Lynne, “We’ll bury ‘em in the mix”. Harrison originally suggested the name Trembling Wilburys for the band but Lynne suggested Traveling Wilburys, to which all members agreed.
The band name uses the American-English spelling, ‘Traveling’ in order to compliment the American / English membership of the band. The ‘Wilbury’ joke was extended to the pseudonyms used by the band. Taking on the guise of the Wilbury brothers, Harrison became Nelson Wilbury; Lynne became Otis Wilbury; Orbison became Lefty Wilbury and Petty became Charlie T. Jr. Wilbury. Harrison had already used a number of pseudonyms in the past. Take for example on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).
Additionally, as a session musician, he had gone under names such as L’Angelo Misterioso, George O’Hara and Hari Georgeson. The five men stated that they were half-brothers and sons of the fictional Charles Truscott Wilbury Sr. The real names of the band members never appear anywhere on any Traveling Wilburys release.
The band began with a meal between Harrison, Lynne and Orbison. Shortly afterwards, they convened at Dylan’s home in Malibu, California to record a B-side for Harrison’s single, This Is Love (Cloud Nine, 1987). Petty’s involvement came by chance due to Harrison leaving his guitar at Petty’s house. When Harrison went to collect it, he took Petty back with him. The resulting song was Handle with Care. Those involved in the recording and Harrison’s record label felt that the song was too good to be thrown away on a single flipside and the five friends set out to record an entire album. Recording took place in the home and garden of Eurythmics member, Dave Stewart. Handle with Care is the opening cut on the resulting album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1.
The theme of travelling in the music of the Traveling Wilburys is most prevalent on the band’s second single and closing track of Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, End of the Line. The single was released in January 1989. The riding-on-the-rails rhythm of the song compliments the travel by train themed lyrics and the on-the-move nature of the band. The whole band take on main vocal duties on the song, with the exception of Dylan. Harrison, Lynne and Orbison take turns in singing the chorus whilst Petty sings the verses. By the end of the song, the riding-on-the-rails rhythm has expanded into a freight train style rhythm. Due to the video for the single being shot after the death of Orbison, the band opted to pay tribute to him with a single shot of a guitar sitting in a rocking chair next to a photo of their late friend. The video shows the band members in a carriage of a steam train playing the song.
The song’s title refers to the train’s last stop whilst the lyrics contain the folk style wisdom derived from the band members’ past experiences. As the song starts, Harrison takes the lead vocal with backing vocals from the other Wilburys. The opening chorus sets the scene for the song, portraying the band members as free spirits: “Well it’s all right, riding around in the breeze, Well it’s all right, if you live the life you please, Well it’s all right, doing the best you can, Well it’s all right, as long as you lend a hand”.
In the first verse, with lead vocals by Petty, the band tell of how they are unconstrained by every day things: “You can sit around and wait for the phone to ring, Waiting for someone to tell you everything, Sit around and wonder what tomorrow will bring, Maybe a diamond ring”.
Following this, the second chorus, with lead vocals by Lynne finds the band telling the listener not to take any notice of what anybody else says: “Well it’s all right, even if they say you’re wrong, Well it’s all right, as long as you got somewhere to lay, Well it’s all right, everyday is Judgement Day”.
Verse two, with lead vocals from Petty, finds the narrator thinking of somebody he has left behind: “Maybe somewhere down the road aways, You’ll think of me, wonder where I am these days, Maybe somewhere down the road where somebody plays, Purple Haze”. “Purple Haze” refers to the Jimi Hendrix song, Purple Haze. Purple Haze was released as the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s second single in 1967 and was the opening song on the North American edition of his debut album, Are You Experienced?, also released in 1967. Here, Petty is expecting his muse to associate the song with him whilst she is thinking of him.
The third chorus, with lead vocals by Orbison, continues the joyous celebration of being unfettered by worrying about the troubles of life: “Well it’s all right, even when push comes to shove, Well it’s all right, if you got someone to love, Well it’s all right, everything’ll work out fine, Well it’s all right, everything’ll work out fine, Well it’s all right, we’re going to the end of the line”. This verse is poignant due to “the end of the line” being an analogy for death as well as the end of the railway line.
The third verse, with lead vocals by Petty, tells of how the narrator cares little about material possessions and states that he doesn’t even mind if anybody is “by his side”, perhaps meaning a loved one or those who criticise him in general: “Don’t have to be ashamed of the car I drive, I’m glad to be here, happy to be alive, It don’t matter if you’re by my side, I’m satisfied”.
The fourth chorus, sung by Harrison, begins with the lines, “Well it’s all right, even if you’re old and grey, Well it’s all right, you still got something to say”. When the band formed, Harrison was 45 years old Dylan and Orbison were even older. Whilst traditional societies have often emphasised the wisdom of older people, modern rock music usually considers even the relative middle age of 45 as being too old to be relevant. This verse is notable for being adapted as the theme tune for the BBC series New Tricks (2003 – present) and sung by cast member Dennis Waterman.
As the fourth chorus continues, we find the line “Well it’s all right, remember to live and let live”. “Live and let live” was the name given to the strategy used by soldiers of both sides in World War One to avoid killing each other if it could be helped, often via the negotiation of truces between low-ranking soldiers. The war was essentially a pointless one, with the common man not having much to gain or a cause to fight for. As a result, these truces were quite common. The most famous truce occurred on Christmas Day, 1914 when the opposing sides took part in a football match. Unfortunately, such truces were easily broken with high ranking officers organising raids to encourage the violence to start again or disciplining soldiers for cowardice if they objected to killing. The punishment for cowardice was death. In the context of this song, however, “live and let live” means something akin to “let sleeping dogs lie”; i.e. live your life without harming others if necessary. The final line of the fourth chorus, “Well it’s all right, the best you can do is forgive” suggests that we should forgive those who have wronged you in order to be free of bitterness and therefore, happy.
The song comes full circle with the final chorus, with lead vocals by Harrison, which starts with the same two lines found in the first chorus. The verse continues with the line, “Well it’s all right, even if the sun don’t shine”. The sun and clouds were reoccurring metaphors in Harrison’s songs, representing peacefulness and clarity. For the best examples of this, see All Things Must Pass (All Things Must Pass, 1970); …
… Blow Away (George Harrison, 1979) …
… and Here Comes the Sun (The Beatles, 1968).
The song and the journey are neatly brought to a close with the line, “Well it’s all right, we’re going to the end of the line”.
In 2000, End of the Line was used at the close of the last episode of BBC television comedy One Foot in the Grave, Things Aren’t That Simple Anymore. The song was played over a montage of clips from the lifetime of the show, following the death of its main character, Victor Meldrew. Interestingly, Eric Idle, who provided provided the liner notes for Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 under the pseudonym Prof. Tiny’ Hampton, wrote and sang the theme tune for One Foot in the Grave.