“Eternal Flame,” “So Emotional,” “Like a Virgin,” “True Colors” – the songs of Billy Steinberg not only nearly defined the sound of eighties pop, but have endured to the present day. Yet before Steinberg joined with Tom Kelly to pen those songs and so many others, he was fronting a power pop/new wave quartet with the unlikely name of Billy Thermal – Billy for Steinberg, Thermal for the city in which his father’s vineyards were located. The group, consisting of Steinberg, guitarist Craig Hull, drummer Efren Espinosa and bassist (and future “Butterfly Kisses” hitmaker) Bob Carlisle, received a featured spot on a compilation of up-and-coming artists for Richard Perry’s Planet Records and subsequently self-released one EP, but no other music ever surfaced…until now. Omnivore Recordings has just unearthed the lone LP from Billy Thermal (OVCD-95), the shelved 1980 album from which the five-track EP was sourced. If this cool little record may not change your world, it just might rock it for 45 minutes or so.
Billy Thermal’s tight, energetic, three-minute-or-so power pop nuggets fit squarely into the new wave genre of the day with just enough variety in the tempi and arrangements to make the album a compelling listen. The lean, compact, take-home tunes on this fresh, fun time capsule sound as if they were composed to be played onstage at maximum volume by the crack, take-no-prisoners rhythm section, combining a smidgen of punk attitude with a heaping helping of pop know-how. Though he wrote all of the music and lyrics for Billy Thermal, Steinberg found his truest calling later as a lyricist, penning the words to Tom Kelly’s melodies which were of a much more sweeping nature than the compositions here.
In the liner notes, Steinberg describes the band’s songs as “intensely personal,” and indeed, many of the relationship songs here have intimacy and honesty despite being firmly rooted in pop territory. Some are less distinctive and less keenly-observed such as “I’m Your Baby” (“And I’m your baby/I’m your baby/I’m your baby/I’m your baby/I’m your ooh!”) with its eighties-meets-Peter Gunn feel, but it’s clear that Steinberg the embryonic songwriter was well on his way.
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A handful of the tracks on Billy Thermal will be familiar to many. Linda Ronstadt latched onto the Beatle-esque songcraft of “How Do I Make You,” taking the song to the Top 10 in 1980. Pat Benatar also took an interest in the early songs of Steinberg. “Precious Time” here sounds almost like a well-produced demo for the Benatar recording, so perfect were Steinberg’s lyrics for Benatar’s persona. The eighties rock queen also snared the dark shuffle of “I’m Gonna Follow You,” imbuing its acerbic lyrics with even more cool confidence than Steinberg does here. (“I’m Gonna Follow You” is the only track on Billy Thermal that wasn’t solely written by Steinberg; it’s a collaboration with Ralph McCarthy.)
A dry sense of humor is present in the lyrics – i.e. the assertion that “You sucked the sap out of my life” in “Control,” or “They tell me you’re the devil/But I can’t believe you’re evil” in the catchy, melodic and deliciously poppy “The Price I Pay.” Another peppy piece of vitriol is “No Connection,” with its handclaps, sing-along melody and upbeat chorus insisting, “I want no connection with you!” Steinberg’s pinched, disaffected lead vocals have the right edge and attitude for the era, while the harmonies and occasional Beatle-style “Whooooos” happily lend the retro flavor often associated with power pop. Special mention must be made, too, of the jagged, often-tough guitar licks played by Craig Hull which contributed mightily to Billy Thermal’s sound; Hull sometimes sounds as if he’d rather be playing for a harder-rock outfit! (Hull also co-produced the entire album with Steinberg.) The combined forces of the band add muscularity to the updated bubblegum melody of the ode to the reticent “Julie,” while the sound throughout recalls other power-pop practitioners like The Rubinoos, The Knack, and even late-period Utopia.
Indeed, there’s a touch of The Knack on “Don’t Look at Me,” one of three demo recordings appended here. Rick Nelson recorded the song in an arrangement very similar to that on the demo heard here. Nelson clearly latched onto its classic, amped-up rockabilly sensibility. All three of the bonus demos feel of a piece with it, including the quirky “Chez Metz” and “Fa-Fa Feelings.”
Omnivore has packaged Billy Thermal with its customary flair. The booklet, superlatively designed by Greg Allen, includes a reminiscence from Billy Steinberg along with complete lyrics and a few period photographs. Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen have nicely remastered the album produced with evident care by Steinberg and Omnivore’s Brad Rosenberger, who was working at Planet Records during the time of Billy Thermal’s signing. It’s hard to imagine why Planet never released the Billy Thermal LP; perhaps, as Steinberg writes, the time had passed for “new wave.” The songwriter, of course, went on to greater, more influential and more distinctive accomplishments. But Billy Thermal is a promising and often potent dose of pure pop well worth your “Precious Time.”