A long-shelved power pop gem gets its chance to shine.
Imagine a world without Madonna singing “Like a Virgin” or Cyndi Lauper singing “True Colors”. How about an American pop landscape where Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional” was never heard? Next, try imagining a world without Billy Thermal. Well, okay, that last one is easy, but, without that last, it’s probable that none of the former would exist, nor would other such well known songs as the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame”, Heart’s “Alone”, and the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself”. Had Billy Steinberg never gotten his shot to record an album with the band he formed in late 1970s Los Angeles, which he dubbed Billy Thermal, there’s every probability that the successful songwriting career he launched in that band’s wake would never have occurred. Steinberg co-wrote of all of the above with partner Tom Kelly, along with a healthy trove of other well-known cuts through the 1980s and ‘90s.
Billy Thermal, with Steinberg on lead vocals, Craig Hull on guitars, Efren Espinosa on drums, and Bob Carlisle (who would score his own mega-hit in the ‘90s with “Butterfly Kisses”) on bass, got together in 1978 and, on the strength of Steinberg’s songwriting skills, signed a deal with Planet Records. The growing marketability of new wave in the wake of The Knack’s success offered a further benefit to the band, but by the time the album they recorded in 1980 was ready for release, the bloom had faded from the power pop rose, at least as far as label president Richard Perry was concerned. The album was never released and the band broke up in the aftermath of the failed deal.
Excepting a five-song EP that vanished as quickly as it appeared, listeners have never had a chance to hear this album until now, with Omnivore’s release of the full 12-song version with three appended demos. Despite that, several of these songs will be familiar. Linda Ronstadt took “How Do I Make You” to the Top 10 in 1980, while Pat Benatar had a minor hit with “I’m Gonna Follow You” and used both the song and title “Precious Time” for her third album. Kind of makes one wonder what the label was thinking when they decided that this album lacked hit potential and wasn’t worth the gamble of release. Could it have been a hit? Impossible to predict, but it certainly would have fit comfortably into early ‘80s rock radio and a nascent MTV (at least during that oh-so-brief period when a good pop song trumped good looks – remember the Producers?).
Steinberg was an able enough pop singer, well supported by Carlisle’s and Espinosa’s backing vocals, and the band was tight. Hull’s choppy, angular guitar playing provided an edge while Carlisle’s and Espinosa’s full, bottom-filling sound drove the songs forward. Listening to these songs now, they evoke and equal their contemporaries in the Southern California pop scene of the time, acts like Greg Kihn Band and pre-SportsHuey Lewis and the News. The already mentioned numbers stand up to their better-known cover artist versions and songs like “I Tell You My Dream” and “I’m Your Baby”, while undeniable artifacts of their time (for good and ill), nonetheless demonstrate that there was promise in this band. “I Need You” even points to a harder rocking potential path the band would never get to explore.
The folks at Omnivore, with this release, continue in their stellar run of bringing unfairly overlooked or under-heard music to a new audience. Billy Thermal isn’t a “lost classic” by any definition of that oft-overused term, but it is a damn fine album that deserves to be heard. And the fact that a couple of its members did go on to create some arguable classics adds an additional level of merit to this particular aural excavation. Fans of late ‘70s / early ‘80s new wave and power pop will want to add this album to their collection.