There are pivotal moments in the history of every band that go on to help define what they become and the eventual success (or failure) that follows.
For Canadian rockers Loverboy, one such moment came early on when they were in the studio auditioning band members. As guitarist Paul Dean recalls in an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock to discuss the band’s self-titled debut, they were in the early stages of working on the song that would become their breakout hit, “Turn Me Loose.”
“I think we were auditioning a keyboard player or something, so I picked up the bass, and [singer] Mike [Reno] sat at the drums and the first thing that came to his mind, he started playing the beat and I went, ‘Okay, here we go’ and we came up with this progression,” Dean recalls. “I remember my manager at the time, Lou Blair, he was standing there as we were working on it. We were just demoing it and had a framework of the lyrics and a little bit of a structure. I think I was singing it and Mike was playing drums, and I was playing bass or something like that. I’d been shafted by so many managers and so many bands and just couldn’t get going.”
Loverboy weren’t Dean’s first venture into the music business. In fact, he had been a constant fixture on the Canadian music scene prior to the band’s formation. “I was in 13 bands before I met Mike, with countless singers and every band had a singer in it,” he says. “Most of them had a manager and I was so fed up with all of the BS, I went, ‘This time, I’m going to do it my way or no way at all.’ I’m not even going to bother — if I can’t do this the way I think it should be done, screw it.”
So Dean seized the moment, which became one of the key lyrics in “Turn Me Loose,” and voiced his thoughts out loud. “I remember looking Lou right in the eye when that line popped into my head and I went, ‘I’m going to do it my way or no way at all’ and he didn’t flinch,” Dean remembers. “We went back to ‘68, Lou and me, so we’d already known each other for 10 years, and we’d been through a lot of bands together and we’d been on the road together. That was a very heartfelt and meaningful, at least to me, line. I’m sure that Mike agreed with it too, you know? It’s about a relationship — it’s totally a kiss-off song. It’s like, I’m out of here — you’re so lame, I’m out of here. That was kind of the drive behind that song.”
For Loverboy singer Reno, the birth of “Turn Me Loose” had been a long time coming and he had nearly destroyed every last nerve that Dean had in the process. “Every time we would get together, I would pick up one of the instruments and start playing, [imitates the bass riff] and it would drive [Paul] crazy,” Reno says. “Finally, he looked at me and said, ‘If you play that goddamn lick one more time … ,’ and I said, ‘Well, let’s make a song’ and he said, ‘Okay, let’s do it then, because that’s all you play. You play it constantly!’
“It’s funny, because now we’re stuck playing it constantly,” Reno says with a chuckle, “because it became a big Loverboy hit! Isn’t that funny, how things work out? I had this lick and I really wanted to get it into a song, so every time I had a chance, because I can play bass and guitar a little bit and I can play drums very well, [I’d mess around with it]. We always had a set of drums somewhere sitting around a rehearsal area, so I’d get on the drums and I’d say, ‘This is the kind of beat that I’m thinking for that song’ and then I’d pick up a bass or a guitar and I’d play the bass notes and say, ‘This is kind of the thing.’ So we just took it from step to step to step until Paul looked at me and said, ‘Okay, you play that one more time,’ I think he was going to hit me with his guitar.”
Long before the song had been finished, the pair would get some helpful feedback that gave them a sense that they were heading in the right direction. “I remember that we were sitting at a party at Mike’s party a couple of months later in the summertime and we were sitting outside in his backyard and we had a little ghetto blaster over by the fence playing our demos,” Dean says. “We had a bunch of songs, half-baked songs, and ‘Turn Me Loose’ was not finished yet, but it had kind of the framework and we were playing [the tape] and it came on and my girlfriend looked at me and said, ‘That’s the hit’ and I went, ‘Oh, okay.’ She nailed it. It’s quite an evolution with that tune. It didn’t just write itself and pop out like some tunes that take five minutes to write. That one evolved and it took a long time to record and get it really great.”
Reno’s famous scream that comes midway through the song was a moment that Dean says kind of came out of nowhere. “We got to that high note, ‘Fly my way,’ and Mike nailed it, like he’s never nailed it since. It’s just one of those things. It was unrehearsed and I don’t know what was going through his mind, it was like, ‘I think I’m just going to try this note, it should be here.’ So he does this perfect rendition of it, and of course, he made his bed that day, unfortunately. Now he has to do it every night!”
But it took a while to get it in the studio, as Dean recalls, “because it was such a freak thing, just don’t think about it, just go for it. Then you go to do it again and you’ve got to think about it and you go, ‘Oh, okay.’ But that was a magic moment when he sang that. I’m sure that everybody in the band was like, Wow, including him. He probably went, ‘Wow, how did I do that?’”
As Reno reveals, the scream was a last minute addition that came after he thought he was already done with the song. But something was nagging at him about the vocal that he had done and he wanted to give it another shot.
“I actually had put the song to bed, sung it and it was done,” he notes. “I think at that point they were taking the reels and putting new reels on and doing some guitar work. I came in and it was kind of a day off for me and I was roaming around town looking for something to do. I pulled in the studio and I begged them to put ‘Turn Me Loose’ back up, because I wasn’t completely satisfied with my take on the song. They all looked at me like I was crazy. You’ve got to remember, this is back when you had to take the tape off, find the other tape, realign the tape machine, put the tapes on, run it back and change the whole board around completely. Every track, you had to dial it in exactly.
“It was a two-hour deal, so it wasn’t just like, ‘Hey, can you play that song? I want to show you something.’ I asked them to put the tapes on and go for it, so it took them two hours to do that and for me to talk them into that was huge,” Reno continues. “Then for some reason, I re-sang it again with all of this different energy and I threw in a bunch of different words, and I had a whole different attitude. I was really skipping along that night. I was really on something that it just felt like I was on fire and then I threw the scream in, and I could see the control booth was kind of throwing their hands up in the air, going, ‘Holy s—! This is great!’ The song was light years ahead of what I had already done and it was just a whim.”
Listen to Loverboy’s ‘The Kid Is Hot Tonite’
Finishing up work on that day, Reno remembers that he was happy and he got a sense of why things had perhaps gotten a bit weird. “At the end of it, I walked out the front door of the studio and it’s dark out and I look up and there’s a giant full moon,” he says. “I looked up at the full moon and I smiled and I went, ‘Goddamn full moon, don’t ya know?’ Because people kind of go a little nutty on full moons. So that’s my perspective on ‘Turn Me Loose’ and how it got to be the way it is now on record. I re-sang it and just really nailed it and gave it a whole different perspective.”
The dream team of album producer Bruce Fairbairn and his assistant engineers Bob Rock and Mike Fraser — three individuals who would all become very well-known for their own production work individually — came in as producers for the debut album. Reno, for one, was happy to have the assistance.
“Loverboy didn’t really need to be told musically to change a lot,” he says. “We just needed to kind of get the attitude on tape and get the right take. A lot of it comes from the drummer, so [Fairbairn] had a really good way of getting our drummer all jazzed up and ready to rip. Once that started, it would bring everybody up to the proper levels. I remember also that he was very organizationally [together]. He had a board and he would check off things that we had to do, which kind of helped me later in my life about organizing things, keeping track of them and getting the job done and checking it off. So a lot of people remind me that Bruce Fairbairn was one of those guys that kept a big sheet of paper besides the wall, with what was done and what needed to be done and what was good and what was okay. He would kind of gold star the paper and it was like a big sheet, taped on the wall. So I learned a lot from him — he was a great guy and became a great friend.”
Dean calls Fairbairn “a great diplomat” who sometimes helped him communicate his own ideas and suggestions to the rest of the band in regards to how he thought they should approach the recording of the songs. “I co-produced with Bruce,” he explains. “I sort of produced a lot of it through Bruce. Because when it comes from your bandmate, it’s like, ‘Well, just shut up and play guitar, man!’ Which was just the way it was. It’s not the way it is now, but at the time, it was like, ‘Who the hell are you telling me what to play in the studio?’ So I would duck down behind the glass and say, ‘Hey, Bruce — can you get him to try this?’ And this is not to take away from Bruce — it’s not like I drove the whole thing. Bruce had a lot of input into it. But a lot of times, if I had an idea, as opposed to just mentioning it directly, it was just the most diplomatic and the easiest way to do it.”
He admits now that “it’s probably chickens— of me to do it that way, but whatever, at least it got the job done. Everybody respected everybody else and I didn’t have to get in anybody’s face. Because I was there for every second of everything along with Bruce and the engineers, whereas the other guys would come and go. Like [Loverboy drummer] Matt [Frenette], for instance, he would be gone in two or three days. He’d do his tracks and say, ‘See ya on the road in four months!’ We’ve always been great friends, Matt and me — we lived a block from each other in Vancouver for 10 years. We’re still really tight. But in the studio, it was a different thing at the time. It’s way easier now. Now everybody’s totally easygoing.”
“We were just recording songs,” Reno says, discussing the process of laying down the material for the first album. “We thought, ‘Let’s record a bunch of diverse stuff.’ I mean, we had a set list where we’d play live and to keep everybody dancing, we had some dance music and we had some heavy stuff and we had some trippy stuff and we had some interesting stuff, and we always thought we had some stuff that would sound great on the radio. We were just trying to cover all of our areas. If you listen to the first album from side to side, you’ll find that it’s got a bunch of different kinds of music on it, which is kind of interesting. You know, we took a chance and we said, ‘Well, somebody’s going to like some of this stuff.’ Because there’s about three or four different kinds of music. There’s a bit of a reggae thing, [for example].”
“I really liked the simplicity of the Doors,” Dean notes. “They were a huge influence on me, because their instrumentation was so sparse. It was like, guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, singer. Even though the keyboard bass was an afterthought most of the time, although they probably had some of the hottest session guys come in to play bass. I really liked that simplicity. I mean, as much as I loved Foreigner at the time and the Cars, who they were pretty obvious influences for us, that was really the sound. Mike is really good friends with Eddie Money, but long before he met Eddie, he was a big fan of his stuff. Not me so much — I didn’t really hear it.”
Dean also loved the melodies of groups like Cheap Trick. “You can hear some of that, I think, in things like ‘Working for the Weekend’ [from the band’s 1981 album, Get Lucky] and “The Kid Is Hot Tonite,” with the way the melodies work against the guitars and keyboards. Of course, the Cars with the quirky keyboards, [Loverboy keyboardist] Doug [Johnson] he can be as quirky or classical or anything in between. But we never sat down and went, “Okay, let’s write a Foreigner song.”
As Reno points out, the way Dean’s guitar work interacted with Johnson’s keyboards was something that developed very early on. “Between Paul and Doug, we’d do like a point/counterpoint,” he says. “We developed that style, and you’ll hear a point/counterpoint through almost all of our songs. And then we developed into writing themes where it was either a guitar intro theme or a keyboard intro theme and then it just became part of our DNA.”
Dean cops to a very specific influence when remembering the writing process for “Teenage Overdose,” another track from the debut album. “I was listening to AC/DC and it really got me into the riff mode as opposed to the play a kind of acoustic guitar and then sing a melody to it, which I wrote most of my tunes on,” he admits. “This one was based around riffs. I just got that hard-edged vibe going and that’s when I wrote ‘Teenage Overdose.’
“It’s funny, because that same day that I wrote ‘Teenage Overdose,’ I started “This Could Be the Night” [eventually released on the Lovin’ Every Minute Of It album in 1985], which is a really sensitive ballad on the other hand of it,” he continues. “That was a magic day, to write two cool tunes. I think there might have been another one too, but those two tunes, within an hour of each other, they kind of just came to me.”
Listen to Loverboy’s ‘Teenage Overdose’
While some of the songs came quickly for Loverboy, a record deal would take quite a bit longer to acquire.
“I remember how nervous we were,” recalls Reno. “Our manager brought up people from the States to listen to us and to try to sign us, and everybody said no. We were just getting so disappointed. We never lost hope, but it was a battle. Because we really wanted to get this done and in order to do that, we had to go in the studio. And back then, in order to that, we had to sign with somebody who not only wanted to pick up the tab for the studio, but also had the wheels in motion to get this thing out of the warehouse into the stores — this is back when people still went out and bought records and then also, [had the power to get it] on the radio and all of the TV shows and just get you going. So we were super-nervous for this first album, as you can well imagine.”
Columbia Records of Canada eventually signed on, and the band began recording the album on March 20, 1980. By the summer of 1980, the album was a huge Canadian hit, going on to sell more than a million units in Canada alone. But a U.S. release for the Loverboy album wouldn’t come until fall of that year.
“Record companies weren’t the smartest bunch,” Reno says. “They just had hits and misses, and they had more hits than misses for a while with records. But it was the bands that made the radio. It wasn’t the record company ever on the radio once. Record companies were all business and they didn’t think they could make any money off of us. So it never even made it to New York. The only reason that it did is because we had scoured the United States, I think, starting off with Kansas, playing every city in America thanks to our management company, Bruce Allen and Lou Blair, who took us and gave us the position to play. Because they knew from their days with Bachman-Turner Overdrive, all of these connections with promoters and stuff.”
Loverboy’s management was able to call in some favors and get the band out on various tours as an opener. “So we were everywhere and we were smart enough to decide to go and do all of the radio stations everywhere we went,” Reno says. “We’d split up the band and go to every radio station in town and cover our bases and do interviews everywhere. So people were playing the record and they were spinning it when we were in the studio. People started paying attention to this thing. When we played live, people would give us an encore and they hadn’t even really heard us yet. Then they started trying to buy the record and they couldn’t find it anywhere.”
Eventually, the group attracted the attention of Rolling Stone, which did an interview with Reno. “After a two-hour interview, the tape was turned off and he said, ‘Off the record, why can’t people get your record in this country?’ and I said, ‘Well, off the record, we caught CBS with their pants down. Loverboy caught CBS Records with their pants down. They had no clue we were even there.’ That was the end of a two- or three-hour interview and he told me it would be off the record. Well, my door gets kicked open about a week later, an advance copy of Rolling Stone got sent out to my management and the door gets kicked off the hinges.”
According to Reno, he got a rude surprise when he started paging through the magazine. “You open the Rolling Stone up to the middle pages and across two whole pages, it says, ‘Loverboy catches CBS with their pants down’ in big red f—in’ letters. It was true, but you don’t really want to jab your record company in the belly with a sharp knife, you know? It would just piss everybody off. I had no intentions of that ever hitting the airwaves or being public, because the guy promised me that it was off the record. So I learned a few lessons there, that nothing is really off the record and people will do whatever they want to get ahead, if it’s a big interview like that, to rile up a record company. As it turned out, I got severely chastised and punished by the record-company heads.”
Reno says “the president of CBS wanted to talk to me for an hour, and we did. I let him yell at me and then I turned it around on him and I said, ‘Well, what’s the purpose of us even being on the road, if you don’t even print records in this country?’ And he went, ‘Touche — you got me there.’ He said, ‘I tell you what, we both learned something from this meeting, Mike.’ This is the president of the record company, talking to a little Canadian guy. I said, ‘Well, thank you for the call — I guess we both learned something here, and he said, ‘You’ve got that right.’ The next thing you know, there’s records in every store. It’s just one of those things.”
Nearly four decades later, Loverboy have survived many trends and changes in the music industry and they can still tour behind the stack of hits they racked up. And it all began with the release of their debut album and hit singles like “Turn Me Loose” and “The Kid Is Hot Tonite.” Reno summarizes the experience of recording their debut by saying that, “the whole thing was just like the start of something, and we never knew.”
When discussing the band, Dean makes it clear that they’re positively bulletproof. “We have been heckled and pummeled and everything through our career, and a lot of it has to do with the name Loverboy,” he notes. “We were in Japan in ‘82 supporting Get Lucky and one of the interviewers said, ‘So, do you like boys?’ ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, you’re called Loverboy.’ ‘No, no, no, no.’ [Laughs] Something got lost in the translation there. I really thought the name was cool because it would stick in people’s minds and people would take notice of it, you know? But a lot of people went, ‘Oh man, that is so not cool.’ But whatever, here we are.”