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Review: Omnivore Goes New Wave with Lost Songs of “Billy Thermal”

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Billy Thermal“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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Written by Joe Marchese

August 14, 2014 at 12:46

Posted in Billy Thermal, News, Reviews

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Release Round-Up: Week of August 12

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Billy ThermalBilly Thermal, Billy Thermal (Omnivore)

Before Billy Steinberg co-wrote with Tom Kelly a host of pop classics (“Like a Virgin,” “True Colors,” “So Emotional,” “Eternal Flame”), he fronted a little-heard band on Richard Perry’s Planet Records: their original five-track EP is expanded to a 12-track compilation with demos and outtakes! (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Power in the MusicThe Guess Who, Power in the Music: Expanded Edition (Iconoclassic)

The final Guess Who studio album for RCA (and last with Burton Cummings) is remastered with two bonus rehearsal tracks. (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

DeesuEtta James, It Takes Love to Keep a Woman: The Allen Toussaint Sessions / Eldridge Holmes, Now That I’ve Lost You: The Allen Toussaint Sessions / The Deesu Records Story (Fuel 2000)

The Fuel 2000 label has three new titles celebrating New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint including a 2-CD overview of his Deesu label (sister label to Sansu), rare material from Eldridge Holmes and a retitled reissue of the 1980 LP he produced for Etta James, Changes! All titles feature new liner notes from Bill Dahl.

Etta: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Eldridge: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Deesu: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Down to Love TownThe Originals, Down to Love Town / Platinum Hook, Platinum Hook (Big Break Records)

Big Break Records has two more rare treats from the Motown vaults: The Originals’ Down to Love Town (1976) and Platinum Hook’s self-titled LP from 1977, all expanded with bonus tracks!

The Originals: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Platinum Hook: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Written by Mike Duquette

August 12, 2014 at 08:08

Omnivore Relights Billy Steinberg’s Eternal Flame with “Billy Thermal”

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Billy ThermalBilly Steinberg might not be a household name – but if you don’t know the name, you certainly know the songs: “Like a Virgin,” “True Colors,” “So Emotional,” and “Eternal Flame,” among them. But before Steinberg teamed up with Tom Kelly for those hits and more, he was signed to producer Richard Perry’s Planet Records as part of the band Billy Thermal. Though the band recorded an entire album for Planet in 1980, only a handful of tracks ever saw release. Omnivore Recordings has stepped up to finally deliver the original Billy Thermal album for the first time anywhere – plus bonus material!

When Perry formed Planet Records and signed its marquee act The Pointer Sisters, the producer was riding high from hit productions for everybody from Tiny Tim to Harry Nilsson to Barbra Streisand. Though he didn’t produce the sessions for Billy Thermal, ceding those duties to frontman Steinberg and guitarist Craig Hull, Perry was an early champion of the oddly-named group featuring Steinberg, Hull, Efren Espinosa on drums and future “Butterfly Kisses” artist Bob Carlisle on bass. (The moniker was reportedly derived from Steinberg’s first name and the city of Thermal, California to which his family had ties.) Billy Thermal was featured with a host of other young groups such as The dB’s, The Know, and Single Bullet Theory on Planet’s 1980 sampler Sharp Cuts – New Music from American Bands.

Steinberg’s big break, however, came when Linda Ronstadt heard Billy Thermal’s “How Do I Make You” and recorded the song for her new wave-flavored Mad Love album alongside tracks by Elvis Costello and Neil Young. “How Do I Make You” made the Top 10. Two other songs first recorded by Billy Thermal, “Precious Time” and “I’m Gonna Follow You” found fans in Pat Benatar. The rocker titled her third record after “Precious Time,” while “Follow You” appeared on her fourth LP, Crimes of Passion. Even Rick Nelson was hip to Steinberg’s songs; he recorded “Don’t Look at Me” on his final album of original material.

There’s more after the jump including the complete track listing!

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Written by Joe Marchese

July 10, 2014 at 14:05