Entry for October 03, 2006

by

 

Hot Nights In Puerto Rico:

CANADIAN LOVERBOYS WORK FOR THEIR WEEKEND

 

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO–I am deplaning in Puerto Rico and my baggage is not. Everybody here speaks Spanish and I am being told to expect my suitcase at 9 p.m. at the earliest. My tape recorder is in it. I am not pleased, because I may want to use it before then.

I am in Puerto Rico to interview Loverboy.

Loverboy! The name alone inspires…what? A guy raised in a town full of Cubans comes to an island full of Puerto Ricans to interview some Canadians. Makes no sense. Loverboy: the band that CBS Records has chosen to perform at their 1982 convention, handily being held in mid-January at the El San Juan Hotel, with its average outside temperature of 85 degrees.

In the warmth of the P.R. (irony everywhere) sun, Loverboy have gathered their Canadian concept together to demonstrate why several higher execs at CBS hold the band to be the company’s great new hope for ’82, this year’s Journey or Foreigner-type who will linger for months at the top of the Billboard charts and keep the company and its employees in the green for another year, soaking up airplay like scented suntan oil. Loverboy: I had no real opinions about them one way or another, kept their albums in the to-be-played file for many months, thought they sounded like Foreigner and maybe Cheap Trick. My CBS pal Mark, who’s got the best radio ears of anyone I know, tells me the band is hot stuff and that they’ll be as big as the current FM axis: Styx, Journey, J. Starship, Foreigner and the whole Paul Rodgers-school-of-vocalist subdivision. My CBS pal is intelligent enough to discern what is great and airplayable from what is merely airplayable;  long before I would keep my ABBA or Carpenters albums, he was telling me they were great and that I was missing something. He knows what Blondie tracks will be the hits and which ones won’t. And when he gave the nod to Loverboy, he got me thinking about Loverboy and today’s state-of-the-art FM rock.

The biggest-selling records of 1981-1982 are the ones that can be played on every format of pop radio, from hard rock to MOR: Journey’s “Who’s Crying Now,” Foreigner’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” Styx‘s whatever, even Air Supply–who airplay art notwithstanding I’d still like to strangle–all of them create music that sounds uncannily familiar and soothing in its familiarity. First time I heard Paul Davis’s “Cool Night” I was absolutely transfixed–it was Todd Rundgren’s chord changes filtered through Christopher Cross arrangements and the entire England Dan & John Ford Coley school of snooze, the actual prototype of the computer generated song: Take everything that’s popular and blend it into something “new.” I once read a story about a time in the near future when all fiction was written by computer exactly the same way; book sales went down until an almost-bankrupt publisher named Eugene took an axe (cf. Pink Floyd) to the computer. It still worked, albeit somewhat randomly, and sales zoomed, which was the moral of the story.

But Loverboy haven’t done anything with that axe, really. They’re artists in the 1982 sense; in their own words they sound like “a cross between Led Zeppelin and the Cars.” They are nice people, and they’ll be very successful, because they are very good at what they do.

***

Paul Dean is the guitarist in Loverboy; he writes a large portion of their material and occasionally sings. He’s about 35. Loverboy is his 14th band.

What do you say to critical accusations that your band is “bland corporate fodder” for the FM masses?

“Three million people can’t be wrong. I don’t think they were bludgeoned over the head to buy our records. I think they probably heard something on the radio and said, ‘Gee, I like that. Maybe I’ll go out and see what else is on the record.”‘

How do you feel about Loverboy’s success?

“I think it’s great.”

***

Loverboy became a real band when guitarist Dean departed band number 13, Streetheart (one U.S. LP on Atlantic, sans Dean) and eventually teamed up with former Moxy (several U.S. LPs, one with) lead vocalist Mike Reno to become pre-Loverboy. They were joined by keyboard player Doug Johnson, later former Streetheart drummer Matt Frenette and bassist Scott Smith, and they recorded Loverboy, the currently platinum debut disc. That LP featured radio hits “Turn Me Loose” and “The Kid Is Hot Tonite,” among others, and launched them on a massive touring blitz that lasted 14 months. Sometime during those 14 months they broke away to record Get Lucky, their second set, which featured “Working For The Weekend,” currently played on every FM station you’ve ever heard of. Which I guess is the point.

There has been much talk of “faceless” FM bands, and while Loverboy may initially seem to fit the bill, there is an ethical question that need be answered: Is faceless bad? Let’s ask Loverboy’s Paul Dean, who must have an opinion about his facelessness:

“I don’t think I’m out there like David Lee Roth is. I’ve read a lot of hype on him that was great press. That’s why I think Loverbov may remain a bit faceless, and Foreigner, and all those bands. Because we’re reasonable, we’re hard-working and we make the best music we can. We go into the studio, we enjoy it, we write, we tour, we party but we’re not out there.”

Dean speaks into my now-recovered tape recorder less than an hour after his band has performed for the 700 CBS employees gathered in Puerto Rico. He is in a cabana. 

“For whatever reason–I don’t know whether Roth is out there trying to make a name for himself or else…I figure it’s just the way the guy is. And I think it’s great, let him be as crazy as he wants to. Therefore he gets the hype, he gets the National Enquirer and People magazine and all that. I love to read about it–Mick Jagger, they’re all very colorful people.”

I do not like to generalize along these lines, but please, somebody correct me: When I think of Canadian rock groups I do not think of the terms “charisma,” “derring-do” or “consummate sexuality.” Instead I think of CREEM photos of a fat Randy Bachman wearing a Michigan State football jersey and of the following bands: Rush, April Wine, Red Rider, Triumph, Prism, Trooper, Chilliwack, Max Webster, Hammersmith, and of course the original Bachman-Turner Overdrive. And Burton Cummings, for that matter, and the Guess Who. And Bruce Cockburn. And Gordon Lightfoot.

In short, I do not think of glamor when I think of Canadian bands; I think of function. Loverboy are not glamorous, but they are extremely functional. Their picture has not been on their album covers, but the suggestion of controversial, implied sexuality has. Think of the Cars, think of Led Zeppelin, and think of Loverboy.

“It wasn’t a matter of saying ‘What’s popular today?’” says Loverboy’s Paul Dean. “‘Let’s see, Foreigner’s got a real good album out, why don’t we put one out just like them and maybe we can capture some of their audience.’ There was never any of that, or the Cars. There was always the subtle influence in the back of our minds–maybe the sound of a tune or the overall picture of a song…”

What do you go home and listen to?

“Foreigner. Their new album. Journey. The new Cars album, I thought that was great. The Police. ZZ Top. Who else?…The Stones. Zeppelin. The Beatles.”

You have pretty mainstream tastes, then?

“Sure. I mean, I can take a bit of punk if I want to, ya know? The B-52’s are a riot, I love ’em. But yeah, pretty mainstream tastes, kind of easygoing and smooth. But–I still love AC/DC, too. I think they’re great.”

***

In a sense, Loverboy represent a personal dilemma for me: they’re not my cup o’ tea, but, like I said, they’re very good at what they do. I can’t convince myself that they’re any less sincere than, say, the Cars; both bands obviously function with the masses’ taste in mind. Is that bad? Hell if I know. There is, as the argument goes, Band On The Run versus Life With The Lions. The band is aware of the public, attempting to grow, bringing the audience along with it gradually. It is the safe course. Loverboy want to make money; so do the Cars and so do the Clash. If the Clash listens to reggae and Mott The Hoople and formulates the merger, is that any more hip than the Cars mixing Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground or Loverboy mixing Foreigner and the Cars? It’s obvious who’s more hip at the bank. Who’s fooling who?

“I heard a great one the other day,” says Mike Reno. He’s Loverboy’s lead singer, the one who wears the headband onstage. “This guy, I think he was working for a Miami newspaper. He said ‘It’s been heard, and sometimes read, that Loverboy seems “too polished.”’ If that’s the worst complaint we could have…

“To be accepted as an artist while you’re alive is a big thing with me. A lot of people aren’t accepted until they die, or ’til they’re old and gray. I’m young and happy and really excited about the whole project. And to be played on the radio is what I really wanted–it’s like acceptance. And the funny thing is, we do what we want and it gets played on the radio. It’s not like we’re doing what somebody else wants. And that’s the honest truth.

“Nobody’s twisted our arm. I guess that’s why we have such a clear conscience: we’re not baiting the hook, we’re doing what we want and that’s why it’s so natural. I don’t know if everybody can say that, but I think we can say that with total honesty. And that’s the greatest feeling–to be accepted.”

***

Who’s to say what’s what? Loverboy–separately, and certainly collectively–have labored so that you will find them ultimately appealing and lacking in rough edges. They approach the rock perfection that Paul Davis now only perversely suggests. They are the opposite of the Least Common Denominator, and if I could remember my math I’d tell you what that was.

“We were very fortunate to come this far this fast,” says Reno. “I don’t think it’s gonna turn us into jerks or anything, if you know what I mean. We really haven’t had a chance to sit and smell the roses.

“We wanted to do it and we did it. And now it’s history. And now we want to go and do some more… “

Ideals grow and grow and get twisted and remade until what might have made sense at one time is now meaningless. In other words: were I in a rock band in 1982, wanting to express myself while still earning a living, should I form Loverboy and maybe become extremely rich? Or should I form Throbbing Gristle? Would the world then be poorer? Would our culture be richer?

“We can’t go out there every night,” says Paul Dean, “and just because it’s selling, it’s popular, figure ‘Jesus, we sure pulled the wool over their eyes.”‘ …We’re not into that, we do it because we like it.”

They do it because they like it.

***

I am talking to a guitarist who has been in the rock biz for many years. I ask Paul Dean: You’ve been in this so long you really don’t wanna fuck up, do you?

“I knew that I had a feel for it back in ’72 or ’73, like there was always something fucked up about it–the record company wasn’t behind us, we didn’t have the right song at the right time…I’ve been in bands with lots of good singles, lots of good albums. Potentially, ya know? The management just wasn’t there, we were fighting in the band…but I always knew what the pacing had to be–just a kind of inherent feel for it, a rhythm between touring and recording and doing videos and interviews…just whatever it takes to get out there.

“And I’m just continuing on out there. We’re playing the rhythm as I’ve always felt it–but now we have the label, we have the writing ability. Mike and I…there’s a magic there, it’s kind of a lucky situation. He’s a great singer, and I can back him up with the guitar…and explain to the rest of the guys if I have to.”

The rest of the guys: I talk to them the next afternoon. They’re swimming, enjoying the hot sun, coming up to share their views one by one. And they have nothing but very pleasant things to say. Says Reno:

“People want interviews where bands say, ‘Our record company is driving us to the ground…we can’t handle it…we just can’t go on…’ We can’t say any of that–they pick us up to do interviews in nice cars, in limousines, they take us out to dinner…Even when we have to go to a radio station, they even have coffee or donuts or something. I mean we are working hard; we’re not complaining. It’s…you know, a job.”

Are Loverboy the year’s biggest success story? Are they “symptomatic of the times?” Are they a bunch of nice, hard-working guys very pleased to be doing well? Yeah, I’d say so.

“Exposure is the key,” says drummer Matt Frenette. “We’ve had a lot of exposure. When we first started we did American Bandstand and Solid Gold, and both those shows went out to over 20 million people each. It was right in January, when ‘Turn Me Loose’ was starting to kick in. For a year we were on the road so much, playing with so many people.

“We played with Kansas, ZZ Top, Journey, April Wine–through the year we’ve probably played to just about anyone who’d go to a concert. Kansas drew the college kids; it was our first tour and we really learned a lot. Then we went out with ZZ Top, and that kicked ass. That was a totally different audience–they’re like Rush, they draw a mostly male audience that chucks Jack Daniels bottles and really gets down. We really had to get our shit together to pull that one off.

“All that exposure has really done it, ya know? ‘Cause then they call the radio stations and say, ‘We wanna hear a Loverboy song.”‘

***

Sometimes at CREEM we have arguments about music; aside from the standard Lennon versus McCartney debate and relative merit of Neil Young’s Re-ac-tor album, we discuss the concept of  “evil” in music. Bill Holdship here actually called Journey “evil” once, though he didn’t mean the band members so much as their music. I couldn’t make that logical leap, and I still can’t. But I think the reasoning behind it could play a part in your perception of Loverboy. If you think Journey, Foreigner and Everybody-Like-That aren’t good–the fact that they sell millions of records notwithstanding, they’re at least good for something–why even let it bother you? Loverboy do not pretend to be something they’re not.

“We think we have a sound that is accessible to many people,” says keyboard player Doug Johnson, who’s extremely rational about it all. “We could grow to the point where we’d be playing over everybody’s heads, but you’ve got to realize the tastes of the people you’re playing for. We sort of write according to what we anticipate the tastes to be at the time…”

Drummer Frenette objects. Johnson continues: “We keep it interesting and progressive in a way–but we also realize that you can’t go too far above everybody’s heads. I mean, Ultravox and U2 are all exceptional bands, but they’re not really commercially huge. We’d like to play anywhere in the world and get a huge response.”

I mention that Get Lucky didn’t get its best review in CREEM recently. Johnson says: “Critically, we didn’t expect to get much.” Bassist Scott Smith: “Let’s face it, we’re not exactly avant-garde.” Johnson: “We’re not a critic’s band.” Smith: “We’re not Spandau Ballet.”

***

PAUL DEAN, AFTER THE SHOW: “We don’t necessarily want to take an audience’s bucks–we just want to give ’em a real good time, either from the record or from the stage. So when I sit and arrange a song it’s gotta feel good to us, first of all.”

MATT FRENETTE, ON THE PRESS: “They slam Foreigner like you wouldn’t believe–and who’s Number One right now? And they slammed Journey, they gave ’em the worst hatchet job I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think it was justified. They do things like that just to draw attention to themselves.”

***

CONCLUSION: Loverboy are a very professional outfit, very good at what they do and very nice people. Like I said. They will prosper, they will have hits, and they will be around for a very long time. There’s nothing you can do about it, and if you want to do something about it, my question is: WHY?

When you figure it out, let me know.

 

(CREEM, April 1982)

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