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Billy Thermal

Billy Thermal were a new wave power pop band who had a brief fling with success in the early ’80s, though fate had bigger things in store for several members of the group after they broke up. The Billy Thermal story began in 1978, when songwriter and musician Billy Steinberg was eager to record demos of a handful of new tunes he’d written. Steinberg’s friend Mark Safan, a fellow singer and songwriter, put Billy in touch with guitarist Craig Hull, and Hull in turn brought in bassist Bob Carlisleand drummer Efren Espinosa for the sessions. The foursome cut several tracks at a friend’s home studio, and they were pleasantly surprised at how well they worked together. In 1979, the four decided to form a band, and coined the name Billy Thermal — Billy from Steinberg’s first name, Thermal from his hometown of Thermal, California.

Playing upbeat, rocking tunes with a clean pop surface and a nervy undertow, Billy Thermal began playing Los Angeles clubs like Madame Wongs, Club 88, and the Troubadour, where like-minded pop bands (typified by the Knack) were packing the house night after night. Mark Safan passed along a copy of Billy Thermal’s demo tape to Richard Perry, one of the most successful record producers in the business who had worked with everyone from Ringo Starr to Barbra Streisand. Perry had recently launched his own label, Planet Records, and he signed Billy Thermal to a record deal. Impressed with the sound of the band’s self-produced demo tape, Perry allowed Steinberg and Hull to produce the sessions, which took place in the spring of 1980. A song from the album, “I’m Gonna Follow You,” appeared on a Planet Records compilation devoted to new wave acts called Sharp Cuts: New Music from American Bands. However, when the Los Angeles power pop boom began to fade (and albums by Planet artists the Plimsouls, the Cretones, and Sue Saad & the Next failed to sell up to expectations), Perry and his staff lost faith in the Billy Thermal project, and dropped the band, giving them the rights to the album. The independent Kinetic Records label released a five-song EP drawn from the unreleased album, but by that time, the group had already broken up. However, the unreleased album helped launch Steinberg’s songwriting career when four of the songs were adopted by major artists; Linda Ronstadt recorded “How Do I Make You,” Pat Benatar cut “Precious Time” and “I’m Gonna Follow You,” and Rick Nelson covered “Don’t Look at Me.” In 1981, Steinberg met Tom Kelly, and the two became songwriting partners, penning major hits for Madonna (“Like a Virgin”), the Bangles (“Eternal Flame”), Cyndi Lauper (“True Colors”), the Divinyls (“I Touch Myself”), and many others. Guitarist Craig Hull went on to work withthe Motels, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, and Kim Carnes, playing the distinctive lead guitar on the latter’s hit “Bette Davis Eyes.” Efren Espinosa remained active as a musician and songwriter, and Bob Carlisle enjoyed a successful career as a songwriter and session vocalist before becoming a top-selling contemporary Christian artist who crossed over to the pop charts with the 1997 smash “Butterfly Kisses.” In 2014, the Billy Thermal album finally received a belated release from the noted reissue label Omnivore Records.

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