While Billy Thermal was an album recorded in 1980, don’t feel bad if you never heard of this self-titled release or the group’s lead songwriter/guitarist Billy Steinberg. It was never released in full. Instead, several of the songs were successfully recorded by other artists including Linda Ronstadt (a Top Ten version of “How Do I Make You?”), Pat Benatar (“Precious Time,” “I’m Gonna Follow You”) and Rick Nelson (“Don’t Look at Me”). Other than five songs released as an EP by Kinetic Records in 1979, Billy Thermal will be available August 12 for the first time for listeners who either really love new wave rarities or might be interested in an unusual rock artifact.
In some ways, Billy Thermal was a project that served as a way station for musicians on their way to other things. For example, it was producer Richard Perry (Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr) who became interested in the songwriting of Steinberg and signed his group Billy Thermal to his Planet Records (home of the Pointer Sisters). After Perry opted not to release this debut album from the band, Steinberg (along with fellow songwriter Tom Kelly) went on to pen The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional,” Heart’s “Alone,” Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” The Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You” and The Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself.”
Other Thermal members also made their mark in rock history. Reportedly, vocalist and drummer Efren Espinosa had played drums and sang with Motown’s Edwin Starr. Bassist and vocalist Bob Carlisle later had a hit in 1997 with “Butterfly Kisses.” Guitarist Craig Hull, credited along with Steinberg as co-producer of Billy Thermal, played the guitar line on Kim Carnes’ 1981 number one hit, “Bette Davis Eyes.”
So, with all this talent and potential, why didn’t Billy Thermal make it? One story has it that Perry decided, by 1980, the new wave wave had crested and Billy Thermal was too late to ride it. Perhaps so. Perhaps he listened to the final tracks and determined the band just wasn’t in the same league as Blondie, The Cars, Television, the Talking Heads, or other bands that had more meat on their bones than the short, happy tunes of Billy Thermal.
In the main, most of their songs just didn’t stand out from the pack. For example, the original “How Do I Make You?” was very rhythmically similar to “My Sharona,” a tune by another rather well-known band (The Knack). Few listeners would miss the comparison. True, a song like “Precious Time” would have made for a perfect AM single, hence Pat Benatar jumping on the chance to cover it. Others like “They Didn’t See It” had the sort of lyrical imagery of intriguing storytelling but, well, no one heard them.
One wonders what might have happened had another label been involved. In particular, Beserkley Records, known for their power pop releases by Earthquake, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Greg Kihn, and The Rubinoos might have served as a good home for Billy Thermal. If any other band of the period had a poppy, bubblegum sound close to Billy Thermal, it was The Rubinoos. In particular, Thermal’s “I Need You” and “Julie” are the sort of throwback melodies in the tradition of, say, Tommy James and The Shondells that The Rubinoos re-energized for a brief time. Hmm, never mind. A small label wouldn’t need two bands so much alike.
Whatever might have been, who would be interested in Billy Thermal now? In the main, those most interested in early power pop of the Beserkley variety should enjoy the innocent, fun-loving riffs. If you’re into that period, give Billy Thermal one try and see if there’s anything of value for you in this rock and roll footnote. Billy Thermal tried their best to be infectious, and they just might be for some listeners.
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