When the Traveling Wilburys Tried to Write a Prince Song
Free from the pressures of their respective careers, the Traveling Wilburys wanted to have fun making their first record.
While all five artists contributed songwriting talents across the album, the most animated and mischievous track on 1988's Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, "Dirty World," came from the band's seemingly least humorous member, Bob Dylan, who announced one afternoon: "Let's do one like Prince!"
"Bob's just very funny," George Harrison said in a 1990 interview, two years after the release of the first album and the death of fellow Wilbury Roy Orbison.
"I mean, a lot of people take him seriously ... and if you know Dylan and his songs, he's such a joker, really. And he just sat down and we said, 'Okay, what we gonna do?' And Bob said, 'Let's do one like Prince!' And he just started banging away, 'Love your sexy body. Ooh, baby.' And it just turned, you know, like into that tune. It sounds nothing like him. But that track, I mean, I love that track. It's just so funny, really."
Listen to the Traveling Wilburys' 'Dirty World'
Though the song may have missed the mark in terms of sounding like Prince, Dylan gave the lyrics his best shot. Perhaps intentionally, he even name-dropped a Prince album in the second line of the song. "He loves your sexy body, he loves your dirty mind." Prince's third LP, Dirty Mind, was released in 1980.
"It was about as much fun as you can legally have," recalled Tom Petty in the 2005 book, Conversations With Tom Petty. "I'm sure it was some of the best times in my life. It was really a joyous time. Everyone was so up. The energy level, as far as creativity, was so high. And it was just so much fun."
To close out the Prince-inspired tune, the band took turns picking amusing lines from magazines and plugging them into the lyrics.
"I just picked up a bunch of magazines and gave everybody a magazine," remembered Harrison. "And Roy Orbison had Vogue magazine or something like that. I had some copies of Auto Sport, which I think I gave to Bob Dylan. And then we just started reading out things like 'five-speed gear box' and stuff like that. And just wrote down a big list of things. And then we reduced it down to about 12 ones that sounded interesting. We just wrote this random list and had it on the microphone. And then we just did the take. And whoever sang first sang the first one. And then we just sang 'round the group until we'd done 'em all."
None of the members knew it at the time, but Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 would be Orbison's only album with the group. His death in December 1988 came just two months after the record was released. His memorable and dramatic voice got the last line in the carousel of random wordplay featured in "Dirty World."
"Every time it came 'round to Roy Orbison, he always got the 'Trembling Wilbury,'" said Jeff Lynne in a 1990 radio interview with Roger Scott. "And it was just the funniest thing. [Roy's] got the big, operatic 'Trembling Wilbury.' And we always collapsed every time. And no matter how we rearranged it, he always ended up with 'Trembling Wilbury' on the end."
Prince would end up sharing the stage with two Wilburys, Lynne and Petty, and Harrison's son, Dhani, at the 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. In the years that followed, Prince's guitar solo on a live rendition of Harrison's Beatles classic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" has become one of the most hailed live performances of the century.
Watch Prince, Tom Petty and Others Pay Tribute to George Harrison
Whether or not he knew about the Wilburys' song, Prince's exuberant attitude come through as the supergroup recorded "Dirty World."
"I think everyone was grooving on the fact that the whole thing didn't lay on any one person's shoulders," said Petty. "We were all in the position of having to carry the whole thing. Being in this group, where we were sort of equal contributors, all of a sudden, was a great relief. And I think everyone really enjoyed that."