Mike Reno of Loverboy – Photo by Ted Van Boort
By Keith Sharp
Former co-manager, the late Lou Blair called it the half-million-dollar review! A glowing review of Loverboy’s U.S debut single, “Turn Me Loose” in the U.S. tip sheet `Friday Morning Quarterback’ announcing that the lone surviving new single from the 1980 Christmas period is “Turn Me Loose” by Canadian band Loverboy.
This one-line review prompted Columbia U.S president, Dick Asher to open up the financial vaults and make Loverboy’s self-titled debut album, originally released in November 1980, his label’s main priority in 1981. A landmark event that has just been honoured with the re-release of a special vinyl edition of that ground-breaking album.
Literally on the strength of two singles; “The Kid Is Hot Tonite: and “Turn Me Loose” Loverboy went on to sell more than 700.000 copies in Canada, more than 2 million copies in the U.S and a further 4 million copies worldwide while logging a staggering U.S concert schedule which saw them chalk over 200 dates in one year, earning them a top-five position in Pollstar’s annual concert ranking.
The Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive may have been the first Canadian bands to make significant inroads into the U.S market but only Loverboy, Rush and to a lesser extent, Nickelback have historically established themselves as headline acts south of the 49th parallel.
Yet as lead vocalist Mike Reno recalled it, Loverboy’s conception was purely coincidental with him and guitarist co-songwriter Paul Dean initially having no intention of forming a band after coming off similar toxic experiences. Reno lasting only one album with Toronto-based Moxy, after being drafted in to replace the late Buzz Shearman while Dean had just been turfed out of Winnipeg’s Streetheart just as their debut album. `Meanwhile Back In Paris’ had gone gold.
“I was on my way to California to visit my brother in L.A. and had just stopped in Calgary, to earn some money,” Reno explained. “I thought this Canadian thing wasn’t happening for me, Paul felt the same way and neither one of us intended on staying together.” But, with a little guidance from Studio City Musical booking agency chief, Greg Thomas, Reno postponed his California trip because “We had some good songs going.”
Lou Blair, manager of Calgary music venue, The Refinery, took a shine to the pair and installed them in a deserted garage next door which served as their rehearsal spot. Further musicians were recruited as the pair developed their songs. Keyboardist Doug Johnson had been performing with local bands, Fosterchild and All The Rage In Paris “and was a real keener” according to Reno. As for a drummer, Dean wanted former Streetheart drummer Matt Frenette and after much cajoling from Reno, he finally consented to join forces. The move to Vancouver was prompted by Blair who knew the only way to get anywhere in the business was to group up with Bruce Allen at his home base……. So off we went….. completely broke with stars in our eyes.”
The band’s biggest problem was finding a bass player. This problem was compounded when new manager Bruce Allen landed the band their first gig, opening for Kiss November 19th, 1979 at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum “Their opening band, ‘The New York Dolls’ had been turned away at the border so Bruce called us and said, ‘Get your stuff together you are opening for Kiss tonight.”’ recalled Reno. “But we said, we don’t have a bass player, Jim Clench from April Wine had been practicing with us. `Great, said Bruce, bring him along as well'”
“I mean who wants to open for Kiss? So Jim is on stage and he has that deer in the headlights look so I’d go over to him and whisper `dum dum dum dum’ and he’d remember his part and jump right in,” Reno laughed. “I guess we did okay because we weren’t booed off stage.”
The bass player situation had been resolved when Lisa Dal Bello’s bassist Scott Smith was recruited during a June summer concert performance in Bentley Alberta, but due to prior University commitments was unable to join the band until after the Clench gig in Vancouver.
Allen, who had established a reputation as a top-notch manager who enjoyed success with Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Prism was insistent that the band needed a U.S. contract to succeed – yet initial showcases in Vancouver and Toronto with A&R reps from Epic and Columbia failed to impress. So Columbia Canada’s A&R chief, Jeff Burns convinced them to release their debut domestically.
Triggered by the debut single; “The Kid Is Hot Tonite”, their debut pop/rock album hit a commercial vein in Canada and was selling well, complemented by a tour opening for Prism. “There was so much luck involved, the stars definitely aligned for us. The fact that we got Juno-winning producer Bruce Fairbairn, engineer Bob Rock and second engineer Mike Frazer to produce it (recorded at Vancouver’s Little Mountain Sound and released March 1980) really helped the record, these guys were the best.”
Buoyed by a positive sales response in Canada, U.S Columbia chief Dick Asher gave the nod for the album to be released stateside in November 1980 and the glowing report in Friday Morning Quarterback sealed the deal for the band.
So what made Loverboy so special? Well, the timing could not have been better, launching at a time when commercial pop/rock bands like Aerosmith, Journey, Kansas, Boston and Heart ruled the airwaves. There was also that Loverboy fashion sense, Reno’s red leather pants and matching bandana although he claims all of that was accidental.
“Allison, our publicist was married to someone who owned Neto clothing store so she invited us to go and grab anything we wanted, put it on a tab and pay them back when we made some money,” reflected Reno. “So we just flew into that store, we were in heaven and I picked out a pair of red leather pants that I wore a lot.”
As for the bandana, “that came about because the house lights at Vancouver’s clubs were so close, I used to rip the sleeves and wrap them around my head to stop sweat from going in my eyes, it wasn’t a fashion statement, it was a necessity” he explained. “So someone said, instead of cutting up your t-shirts, why don’t you buy those $1 bandanas? So I wore a red one and it complemented my pants.”
Another prime factor was the involvement of Atlanta promoter Don Fox. He had been instrumental in booking Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s previous US tour for Bruce Allen. So he returned the favour by presenting Loverboy with key opening gigs for ZZ Top and Kansas which really impressed their U.S label. Loverboy proved to be the consummate opening band.
“Maybe it was a bit of Canadiana on our part that we were so respectful of the headliners,” Reno enthused. “We never went over our set time by one minute, we always finished with the best song we had and left the crowd high on their seats and we always talked up and praised the headliners. We were just so happy to have the show.”
Columbia was able to utilize Loverboy’s national exposure to sell records and the band obliged with a successful 1981 follow-up record, ‘Get Lucky’ which featured hit tracks “Working For The Weekend” “When It’s Over” and the title track to keep the momentum going. Loverboy released three more albums between 1983 and 1987 before they ran out of gas, took a brief hiatus, released `Six’ in 1997 and then produced three more albums between 2007 and 2014. Yet Reno notes he is not keen on recording any new material.
“I don’t feel like doing it anymore, Paul and I will write some songs and then throw them on our website,” Reno reflected.” The thing is, I could write the best song in my whole life but it still wouldn’t stand up to “Working For The Weekend” so what’s the point?”
The band also suffered a tragedy when bassist Smith was swept off his 11-metre Sea Major yacht by a big wave on November 30th, 2000 in San Francisco Bay and his body was never recovered. Former Streetheart bassist Ken “Spider” Sinnaeve was recruited as Smith’s replacement.
Managed by the Wolfson Entertainment Group out of Los Angeles for the past 12 years, (who also handle Hall & Oates) the winners of seven Juno Awards and inductees into Canada’s Music Hall Of Fame have been constantly touring in the U.S and Canada where a 1980’s renaissance has seen them continue to draw major crowds at festivals and theatres throughout North America.
“We get instant gratification when we are on stage and that’s where we get our satisfaction,” Reno concluded. “The crowd is singing along, we love it, they love it, the promoters are happy and then we are on to the next town. We just hope that we can play again next year, live entertainment is going to be the last faction to make a comeback.”