May is the gateway to summer, which means it is time to prep for the upcoming Lost in the ‘80s Beach Party. The weekend is full of incredible bands and over the two days, you can catch sets from A Flock of Seagulls, English Beat, Missing Persons, The Untouchables, Oingo Boingo Former Members, Annabella’s Bow Wow Wow, Dramarama, Wally Palmar of the Romantics, Tommy Tutone, Stacey Q, Trans-X, Naked Eyes, Josie Cotton, Shannon, Musical Youth, Kon Kan, and Burning Sensations.
OC Music News has been talking to the bands involved and this week, we chatted with Burning Sensations founders Tim McGovern and Morley Bartnoff, and ended up getting quite the history lesson on the music business.
Singer and songwriter Tim McGovern started Burning Sensations in Los Angeles after leaving The Motels (and the end of his relationship with its front-woman, Martha Davis). While Burning Sensation’s time was short, they produced an incredibly memorable ‘80s track, “Belly of the Whale,” and got themselves in pop culture history with their cover of “Pablo Picasso” on the soundtrack to the cult classic film, “Repo Man.”
Traci: So Tim, “Belly of the Whale” puts you in the ‘80s music lexicon, and now we get to experience it on the beach. You did Catalina last year, right?
Tim: Yes, it was a lot of fun. I did a few dates last year for the first time and the promoter welcomed me to the family and now I’m doing Catalina this year again.
Traci: Are there other artists on the Lost ‘80s shows that you enjoy hanging out with?
Tim: Yeah, I made some new friends. Mike Score (A Flock of Seagulls) and I kind of hit it off. We had a lot of fun hanging out in Catalina and sort of became friends.
Traci: You’ve got your ‘80s stuff, but will you be playing your Knucklehead stuff?
Tim: Oh, no, that’s something I do up here (Pacific Northwest). We just kind of jam on covers at casinos and stuff like that. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a completely another genre.
Traci: Is that what you were doing before COVID hit?
Tim: Yes, we’ve been together about 20 years. We were working quite steadily up here before COVID hit, and then we took a couple of years off and kind of parted ways. Then we had an agent inquire about us who was looking for good, classic-rock style bands to book in casinos and other venues. So we reformed based on that. And just like that, our first show back was last Saturday night.
Traci: How did it go?
Tim: Oh, great. Awesome. Got some videos up on my page. Yeah, it was fun.
Traci: I’ve never seen you perform “Belly” live, but this has got to be an amazing live song because of the chorus. Surely the crowd yells the “Oh Oh Oooooh” back to you?
Tim: Yeah, they did back in the day. It’s hard to tell when you’re up there. I’m concentrating on trying to sing the damn thing. (laughing) But yeah, usually the crowd jumps right in on that part.
Traci: My other thought was it is just such a great beach song; perfect for Catalina.
Tim: Yeah, I wrote it when I was living in Venice Beach, so it’s definitely oceanic.
After two albums, McGovern found himself ousted from The Motels, but had an ally in the then-president of Capitol Records. He told McGovern, “Anything you put together, you come straight here and I promise you, you won’t have to go through the usual bullshit.” McGovern explained, “And he kept his word. He was good.”
But due to a company restructuring, Burning Sensations was handed off to another rep and a limited number of records were pressed. With airplay on KROQ, the song was getting crazy attention and records sold out. While that sounds like good news, it is not best for bands that want fans to actually own the album and therefore, sales dropped due to lack of supply.
At the same time, Capitol Records gave the newest Duran Duran single to the newly created music video station, MTV. This caused tension with radio stations who felt passed over for MTV, and caused a rift with Capitol Records. Guess who the next artist from Capitol was…
Tim: The only place we got any radio play at all were KROQ and KROQ sister stations, but we cut the video and that cracked the top 10 in the first annual MTV Viewer’s Choice Awards. We were right up there with Duran Duran and Michael Jackson as far as our video.
The interest in the band was there, even if fans could not buy the record.
Tim: We were opening up for Madness on a riverboat, and there’s about 3,000 people on this riverboat. It was a really fun gig. We’re playing and everybody’s digging us. They don’t know who we are, but they’re digging it. Then we start playing “Belly of the Whale” and all of a sudden, out come the people, they’re singing along and girls are up on guys’ shoulders. We finished the song and I go, “How do you guys know this song?” In unison they go, “MTV!” Here we were; we’re a hit, but nobody knows it. The record company screwed the pooch. It was just a bizarre, odd turn of events that basically destroyed the whole thing. It’s kind of sad, but the video and the song live on and people still remember it.
Traci: It is such a fun song though.
Tim: I rereleased it recently on iTunes and Amazon, and I put it up on Spotify.
Traci: I know streaming is required, but I also know artists don’t really benefit from it.
Tim: Yes, I think I get $.0075 per stream and that’s just nuts because they’re raking in all kinds of advertising money; billions.
Traci: How can fans support bands in the way that you’re going to make the most money?
Tim: That would be CD or iTunes. Right now, everybody listens on Spotify and has it on their radio playlist. Somebody sent me a video the other day. They were at a shipyard and people were working on the boat, and the song came on. He videoed it and sent it to me and I thought, “Wow, that’s great. I just made 0.01!” and my friend posted, “Overpaid.” (laughing)
Traci: (laughing) Nice friends! Hopefully they support you on tour. You did a few Lost ‘80s shows last year, right?
Tim: I was shocked and pleasantly surprised that I was even remembered and put up on the tour last year. Kind of fun, especially playing The Greek because I hadn’t played The Greek… Well, the last time I was there was with The Motels and that was early ’81, so it was over 40 years since I’d been there.
Traci: Well, it’s not The Greek, but we will enjoy seeing you live on the beach in a more relaxed style.
Tim: That’s kind of what we’ll be doing, but people don’t seem to mind vocal.
Traci: Exactly. As long as you sing for us, we’ll be happy!
Tim: Hopefully I’ll sing well! (laughing) It’s a hard song; it was a hard song back then to sing.
Traci: I have faith in you!
Tim: Thanks! I appreciate that. (laughing)
Traci: Thank you for chatting, Tim. I am also going to talk to Morley and see what kind of dirt he can give me.
Tim: Well, we were actually quite a genteel outfit! We were not throwing TVs out the hotel windows or anything. We played happy music. It was a really fun time. I really enjoyed it that year; 1983 was a great year.
Traci: We’re going to act like it’s 1983 in Catalina!
Tim: Yeah, I got my beach shoes! I’m ready! (laughing)
Morley Bartnoff, another founding member of Burning Sensations, is referred to as the band’s librarian. He was there for all the ‘80s drama, plus last year’s Lost ‘80s dates. Bartnoff has also sat in with Dramarama over the past 20 years and was on their latest album.
Bartnoff confirmed the band history McGovern shared with me, and we discussed how record label loyalties to The Motels put Burning Sensations in a bad spot. The Motels were very popular and selling albums, but as already stated, Burning Sensations was out of stock.
Morley: MTV gave that video a lot of play, and KROQ was so supportive, and I actually heard Martha Quinn say, “Burning Sensations, where’s your next song? We loved you, what happened to you?” There was a disconnect, I think, between our local and our regional connection. They did not put the records in the stores. Maybe they thought it wasn’t as big of a hit, and the EP was very eclectic sounding. Outside of “Belly,” it’s kind of Afro-Caribbean fusion Hendrix music. It was not commercial.
Bartnoff and I discussed how so many musicians in the Los Angeles area know each other and have played together. In addition to Burning Sensations, Bartnoff ended up playing with Dramarama as a fill in one night, but then it kept going.
Morley: That led to me playing and recording with them on and off for 20 years, and I’m really good friends with everybody that’s in the band or no longer in the band. They’re like my extended family even to this day.
During the pandemic beginnings, Bartnoff was able to work on his own music, plus the Burning Sensations Lost ‘80s shows.
Traci: Hopefully we will have more Burning Sensations in the future.
Morley: Without a doubt, I hope Sensations continue. Tim and I have spent the last six months… he will send me mixes and ask me for feedback on tracks. When I tell him things, sometimes he’ll get mad and think he’ll argue with me. Then he’ll come back in two weeks and he’ll say, “You know, you were exactly right. And I redid it again, what do you think about this?”
Traci: Sounds like a normal band relationship. When I told him I was going to talk to you, he only had good things to say.
Morley: Yeah, I think we’re closer now in a lot of ways.
Traci: How did KROQ get the album back then?
Morley: My girlfriend, at the time that the EPs came out, had worked with Raechel Donahue at KROQ. When we got two copies of the EP, she said, “Raechel wants to say hi; bring the EPs.” I handed two EPs to Raechel at 12 noon at KROQ, and that afternoon, Jed the Fish played “Belly” for the first time. Then they added it. I’m a big fan of the band. It was a magical time to be able to have a song on the radio and have MTV play it. I was so happy.
Traci: That KROQ and MTV era was so great. It was just so good.
Morley: Incredible. We had incredible tours opening for Fun Boy Three and Madness. That Roxy Music tour happened because of that, and we sold out the Hollywood Palace. It was just a magical time. Disney Television in the late ‘80s or ‘90s, released an animated version of “Belly,” and that introduced the song to another audience. The other cool thing is we wound up with the song on “Repo Man,” the soundtrack, a cover of “Pablo Picasso.” If there wasn’t a naughty word in there that probably would have gotten more airplay! That was such a great experience of going to the Universal screening room, and Emilio Estevez grabbed me and shook my shoulders. He said, “You’re Burning Sensations!” It was just a magical time from ‘82 to ’85. Just a window where it’s like everything you kind of would have wanted to happen in a band happen.
So many amazing memories, which we can relive together Memorial Day weekend. Catch Burning Sensations on Saturday May 28th, plus the other bands and entertainment all weekend. Tickets are on sale now for the May 27-29 event.