The ’80s Rock & Roll Revival and How the Traveling Wilburys Took It to the Mainstream

I am borderline-obsessed with the Traveling Wilburys, the late-eighties supergroup with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan. And not just because they’re a fictional band, complete with goofy alter egos and an origin myth penned by Monty Python’s Michael Palin (though that obviously helps). No, I’d say at least half the reason I’m a Wilburys fanboy is because they wanted so badly to improve the job prospects of a host of rock & roll pioneers. It’s really kind of endearing.

I know what you’re thinking. Pioneers? With an “S”? Everyone knows, of course, that the Wilburys ushered in a late-career resurgence for Roy Orbison, the “Caruso of Rock” and a 1950s Sun Studios alumnus. Orbison joined the Wilburys while working on a comeback album, Mystery Girl, with Jeff Lynne and others in the proverbial producer’s chair. And by early 1989, both Mystery Girl and the Wilburys’ Vol. 1 were among the Top 5 albums in America. It was a remarkable feat for an artist who had scored his first hit more than three decades before. But tragically, Orbison didn’t live to see it. He died of a heart attack in December 1988, when he was only 52 years old.

Anyway, my point is that Orbison wasn’t the only rock & roll icon to get an assist from the other members of the Wilburys. In late 1985, Harrison, along with Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Dave Edmunds and a host of others, backed Carl Perkins in a performance for a television special that would introduce the rockabilly hero to a new generation of fans. And in 1987, Harrison and Lynne hooked up with guitarist Duane Eddy, the “King of Twang” from the late fifties and early sixties. They recorded three songs together for Eddy’s upcoming LP, his first album of new material in over a decade.

A year or two later, Lynne and Petty teamed up with “Runaway” singer Del Shannon to record his final release before his death in 1990. (Harrison dropped by the sessions but his contributions were relatively muted.) Petty had also produced Shannon’s 1981 album Drop Down and Get Me and given Del a lyrical shout-out in “I Won’t Back Down,” a song from his own, Lynne-produced album Full Moon Fever.

Finally, in 1991, the ever-present Lynne produced Little Richard’s remake of his 1958 hit “Good Golly Miss Molly,” recorded for the soundtrack to the now-forgotten John Goodman vehicle King Ralph. Here, again, Starr played drums.

Everywhere You Look, Another Pioneer

If you zoom out a little, you will see tons more examples. Take Dave Edmunds, the guitarist and rock & roll revivalist who joined Harrison for the Carl Perkins television special and later introduced the former Beatle to Jeff Lynne. Edmunds was all over the place especially in the first half of the eighties. He produced two post-reunion Everly Brothers albums (Lynne contributed to one of these). In early 1985, he oversaw the soundtrack to Porky’s Revenge!, a teen sex comedy set in the fifties. Highlights of the soundtrack included a new recording with Perkins playing his 1956 classic “Blue Suede Shoes,” backed by neo-rockabilly outfit (and Edmunds proteges) Stray Cats. Four years later, he produced a comeback album for doo-wop and rock & roll star Dion DiMucci.

I know this is all getting a bit dizzying but I want to mention two others. First is T-Bone Burnett, the roots rock artist and producer. Burnett not only oversaw parts of Orbison’s Mystery Girl, he also served as musical director for the star-studded concert and cable TV special that would make up the Big O’s 1989 album A Black & White Night Live. Also in ’89, he produced the soundtrack for the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire, with Lewis himself re-recording a number of his hits.

And finally we have the remaining surviving Beatle in the eighties. Paul McCartney duetted with Perkins on his (McCartney’s) 1982 album Tug of War, produced the Everly Brothers’ version of his own “On the Wings of a Nightingale” on their EB 84 record (the same album with a contribution from Lynne), and produced a track on Duane Eddy’s 1987 self-titled release (the same album with contributions from Lynne and Harrison). Not incidentally, in 1988 he released an album of cover versions mostly of classics from the rock & roll era.

And these are only the examples in the immediate Wilburys orbit. Once you start to dig, you’ll see this kind of thing everywhere in the eighties: John Mellencamp producing Mitch Ryder, John Paul Jones producing Ben E. King, etc., etc.

Tracing the Paths of Revitalized Careers

Initially, my fascination with the many Wilburys side projects was mainly to do with my near-obsession with the Wilburys as a fictional band: If the Wilburys were an originally stationary people who took to wandering down to the corner and back and wrote modern-day skiffle songs describing their adventures, then the side projects made up a broader narrative about those adventures. Or maybe Eddy, Shannon and the others were long-lost cousins they encountered during their perambulations.

In any event, my Wilburys research eventually homed in on what Harrison, Lynn et al. were trying to accomplish in working with the assorted rock & roll pioneers. This tapped into a theme of other writing projects I’ve launched over the years: the theme of trying to find one’s place in the world, whether because the world has moved beyond appreciating a person’s strengths and abilities or because the person never really fit in to begin with. With the side projects noted above, the members of the Wilburys were not only honoring their rock & roll heroes, they were helping revitalize their heroes’ careers — and in doing so, perhaps, creating a space for them in a world that had largely forgotten the enormity of their contributions.

In the coming weeks and months, I plan to take a closer look at the careers of rock & roll icons in the eighties and beyond, and in particular how they were helped along (or not) by the interventions of younger generations of musicians. Before I get to that, though, I’d like to explore where the pioneers were at the tail end of the seventies, just before the dawn of the new decade. Stay tuned for “Disco Roy Orbison” and oh so much more.

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