At the dawn of the 1980s, a change was afoot that would dramatically alter the coming decades. It wasn’t the inauguration of Ronald Reagan or the U.S.-supported Iraqi invasion of Iran. Something far more distressing was about to occur. Birthing itself from the detritus of new wave and flaccid power chords was a spandex and bouffant atrocity known as poodle rock. As Canadian as poutine or the mullet, poodle rock created its own distinct breed of bands that as its name suggests, were tamed and groomed for maximum household appeal. Released in the summer of 1980, Loverboy’s self-titled debut is arguably ground zero for the poodle genre. With the clenched guitar-riffs of an already balding but poodle-headed Paul Dean chaffing alongside the neutered yelps of front man, Mike Rynoski (a.k.a. Mike Reno), the album conveyed a level of preening usually reserved for spoiled canines. Coated with synth splashes more reminiscent of the Cars than the Attractions, it revealed that Loverboy was more bark than bite.
Nevertheless, within a few months the band would storm the Canadian charts on the success of singles, “The Kid is Hot Tonight” and “Turn Me Loose,” eventually achieving multi-platinum success in North America. With such anodyne hits as “Working for the Weekend” and “Hot Girls in Love,” they would eventually strike a chord among masses of pre-pubescent teens gathering in burgeoning mall scenes throughout North America.
The soaring divorce rate and recession of the early 1980s drove parents into the workforce, leaving behind “latchkey children” seeking comfort from peers at the local shopping mall. The West Edmonton Mall, still the largest in North America, opened in 1981 and other indoor malls were replacing the aging outdoor strip malls of previous decades. These were fast becoming the hang-out shelters for legions of suburban kids, soon to be disparaged as mallrats.
This period was also the golden age of the arcade, a time when teens were being lured into neon-lit chambers to spend their weekly allowances or paper route earnings on such pleasure boxes as Space Invaders and Pac-Man. By 1982, the scene had even generated its own top ten hit, “Pac-Man Fever.”
Above the din of the video arcade wafted the radio-friendly sounds of bands like Loverboy, who accessorized the sex-and-violence trappings of teen rebellion for this new breed. Its brawny, muscular riffs, sweetened with the gloss of a Life Saver candy, appealed to young males yearning to feel turned loose and wild, while allowing their puffy mullets to remain unspoiled.
My introduction to the band came on a chilly November evening in 1979 at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver. Loverboy opened for Kiss, and I thought they rocked the house. I was barely 12, which says as much about Loverboy’s juvenile appeal as your correspondent’s taste. I can still remember sitting in the backseat of my friend’s older brother’s Dodge Duster on a Friday night, stubby in hand and Loverboy blasting from the Boss speakers. I was that kid, hot and turned loose on my sleepy South Surrey town.
A terrible trio of Canucks lay behind Loverboy’s success: manager Bruce Allen, producer Bruce Fairbairn, and engineer Bob Rock. Allen had made his name previously with Bachman-Turner Overdrive (B.T.O.), famous for their 1974 mullet classic, “Takin’ Care of Business”. Headed by former Guess Who founder and Canadian icon Randy Bachman, B.T.O. was the Canadian answer to mid-1970s touring bands Grand Funk Railroad and Foghat. Allen went on to manage Bryan Adams in late 1979 before hooking up with Loverboy. His rep for being a hard-nosed and at times crude promoter preceded him, and Loverboy’s crass commercial appeal fit his demeanor perfectly. Today Allen has mellowed, following kindred spirit Robert “Mutt” Lange into that post-poodle genre, “country pop,” managing currently another Canadian musical icon, Anne Murray. Bruce Fairbairn, originally a horn player with Vancouver synth-band Prism, eventually became one of the most successful producers of the 1980s. The sonic architect behind Bon Jovi’s late-1980s hyper-success, he also helmed Aerosmith’s 1987 comeback Permanent Vacation and their huge 1989 follow-up, Pump. Fairbairn died in 1999 at age 49. Bob Rock went on to produce Metallica’s 1991 mainstream breakthrough, The Black Album and St. Anger.
But back in the hurlyburly days of the early 1980s this trio was honing their skills at the cauldron called Mushroom Studios in Vancouver, renowned at the time as the site where 1970s rockers Heart had concocted their feather-haired debut, Dreamboat Annie. By the late 1970s Mushroom had become a focal point for Vancouver’s vibrant punk and new-wave scenes, and the cover art for Loverboy’s debut cops the aesthetic of the period: black-clad androgynous figure clipped at eye-level standing in front of a red background. Is it a man or woman? The blood-red lipstick and nail polish over cuticles as sharp as switchblades suggest the latter. But the muscular biceps suggest otherwise. Look closely, just left of the cigarette raised to the lips, beside the eye at the cheekbone—there’s a smudge of rouge or is it a bruise? Then there’s that long-fingered hand splayed across the thigh precariously close to the crotch. A cross between Pat Benatar and Stiv Bators, the figure is a tacky embodiment of sex, violence and rock ‘n’ roll.
The font, recklessly typed over the cover, vaguely recalls Guy Debord and the Situationists and reaches for the street cred of the late-1970s punk scene. Inside the album, the five band members are arranged individually in various poses, dressed in 1980s chic attire of red, black and yellow (!) tight pants. Mike Reno, however, is missing the bandana that would eventually become his trademark, even before Springsteen rolled one on for his Born in the U.S.A. tour.
Despite its claims of being turned loose, the album remains forever linked to an era defined by its technicolor hedonism. “The Kid Is Hot Tonight,” fast, tough fluff, the very epitome of early teen preening, was destined to be the “brand new wave” it proclaimed to be. “Turn Me Loose,” another pitch-perfect radio staple, still sounds fresh today. Cymbal rolls and icy synths float over a simple bass-line while guitar clashes and smooth background “whooo-whooos” revamp the song’s peculiar Sinatra ethos (“I gotta do it my way / or no way at all!”) for an entirely new breed: the suburban mallrat. “DOA” and “Teenage Overdose” are gratuitous nods to death and violence, revealing an affectation of punk. After all, the thriving punk and new-wave scenes in Canada that spawned Loverboy included such luminaries as the Forgotten Rebels, the Pointed Sticks, and D.O.A. In a year that witnessed the suicide of the Joy Division’s Ian Curtis and the assassination of John Lennon, Loverboy remains a testament of an era that would see its music retreat into the safe, carny atmosphere of MTV. Who was listening? Mallrats such as I, bobbing with Galaga down at the video arcade.