Once upon a time, in the spring of 1988 in fact, George Harrison’s record company asked him to write a song for a B-side. Opinion is divided as to what the A-side was to have been, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Now, George was in LA at the time, and he had a go at writing the song, but he got stuck; and, happening to bump into Jeff Lynne (World’s Self-Proclaimed No. 1 Beatles Fan), he mentioned his difficulty and Jeff said: “Well, I’ve had a bit of success in the past helping people with this sort of thing – why don’t you and I sit down together and see whether we can sort it out? How’s tomorrow for you?” (That was what Jeff was saying, and of course it may have been that what he was thinking was “hmm, and then I’ll have composer credit on a George Harrison single.” But let us be charitable.)
And George replied that tomorrow was fine, thanks, only he’d have to retrieve his guitars from Tom Petty’s house first. You see, George didn’t have a house in LA so he’d taken to leaving a couple of guitars at Tom’s house, and that way he didn’t have to go lugging them around on aeroplanes. So he rang Tom, and Tom was at home; and George asked whether it would be OK to come round the next day and pick up the guitars, and Tom said it would be perfectly fine.
So the next day George and Jeff rolled up at Tom’s house, and Tom was at home, and George explained that he and Jeff were going to sit down together and sort out a song, and he asked Tom whether he’d like to join them and Tom said he would. Then the next problem was where this sitting-down might take place. They wanted a studio, so that they could make a demo of the finished song; but not a commercial studio, which in any case they weren’t going to be able to get at such short notice.
Now, if all this had taken place before Tom’s house burned down, the answer would have been simple: they would all just have gone downstairs to Tom’s studio and done the sitting-down there, and the Traveling Wilburys would have been a much smaller band. But it was after the fire, and Tom was living in a rented house with no studio. So they thought about who they knew who had their own studio; and they thought of Bob Dylan, who had a studio in his garage. And they rang him up, and Bob was at home, and he said “Sure, come right along – and I’ll sit in with you, if that’s OK.”
Which it was (OK, that is). So they all got in the car and went over to Bob’s house, and they all four sat down in the garage to finish the song; and while they were working on it Bob suddenly said “What’s the name of this song?” and George glanced round the garage and he saw a box in the corner with a Handle With Care sticker on it. And he said “Oh, it’s called Handle With Care.” (Only he pronounced it Handle With Curr, because of being Liverpudlian.) They recorded the demo, and by then it was dinner time, so they all went and had dinner together and George told them about his idea.
Seems that ever since the Beatles broke up, George had been wanting to be in a band again. He’d tried it out a few times already, but it just hadn’t seemed to gel. So he asked the other three whether they’d be interested – not in working together full-time, but as a kind of mutual side-project – and, because they all liked each other and had had such fun working together that day, the others agreed that they’d give it a go.
Then someone mentioned that Roy Orbison was playing that night in a nearby town, and they decided (having finished dinner) that they’d like to go and see his show. So they all got in the car and drove over to see Roy, and after the show they went backstage to Roy’s dressing room and told him about their new band, and asked him whether he’d like to be in it, and Roy said he would.
And that is the story of how the Traveling Wilburys began.
PS George’s record company said Handle With Care was too good for a B-side. Which was just as well really, because George had decided the Wilburys might as well all get back together and write another 9 for an album, and that’s what they did – in ten days flat, because Bob was due to go out on tour.