Forty years ago, Canadian rock band Loverboy hit it big with their self-titled debut album, and they’ve commemorated this anniversary with a limited-edition red vinyl version, released on December 1 (via Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc.). Their first single, “Turn Me Loose,” kicked off a long string of hits, but lead singer Mike Reno, calling from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, admits their whole career is based on an unlikely encounter while he was visiting the western Canadian city of Calgary.
“I met [lead guitarist] Paul Dean in the winter of 1978 – and we just met by chance as I was leaving a nightclub after watching a show,” Reno says. “The meeting place was a little strange because it was in a warehouse that they used to fix city buses in, and the windows were all blacked out with newspaper and paint. There was nothing in there except huge heater hanging from the roof. I poked my head in because there was some guy playing guitar.” Dean invited him in, and that same night, Reno recalls, “We wrote a song called “Always on My Mind,” which ended up on the first album.”
Reno had just arrived in town from Toronto, where he’d recently quit another band, Moxy, that had had moderate success but fell short of his expectations. “I had left a band that I didn’t think was working hard enough. They didn’t have the right stuff, I thought, to go the distance,” he says. Given that experience, he says he wasn’t looking to join another band right away.
Another complicating factor, Reno says, was the fact that “I had not planned to stay in Calgary.” He had only come there, he says, “to get my girlfriend a place to stay because she was going to study for a bachelor’s degree there.” After getting her situated, Reno intended to visit his brother in Los Angeles. To do that, though, he needed to earn some money. “I ended up taking a construction job – outdoors, in the middle of winter in Calgary, it’s forty below zero [temperature], literally. I worked it ‘til I raised $2,000, then I quit.”
When Reno went to tell Dean he’d earned enough to afford to continue on to California, Dean persuaded him to stick around to help him finish one more song. “So we started working on that. And it just turned into one of those things: I never left,” Reno says. “We started writing song after song. We were driven by the fact of the last song we wrote was better than the song before, and better than the song before that.”
Realizing they had something special, Reno and Dean began poaching the best players from local bands. “We would go to these concerts and eyeball the band to see if there was any good players – and I remember the leader of the band would go, ‘They’re going to steal our bass player!’ And it turned out, that’s what we ended up doing,” Reno says with a laugh. With a full lineup in place, Loverboy officially came into existence.
To improve their chances of success, the band moved from Calgary to Vancouver, British Columbia, the epicenter of western Canada’s music scene. Their shows in Vancouver went well, but things were harder when they played in smaller towns in the region.
“We’d go play a nightclub, and we were hired as a Top 40 [cover] band,” Reno says. Instead, they’d play only their own songs – but their repertoire at that time was limited. “We’d play the same twenty songs three times a night because we only had enough songs to play one set.” By the end of the evening, he says, they’d win over the crowd (and the club owners, who were often initially irate that they hadn’t gotten the covers band they’d been promised.) “That’s how it went at the beginning: everywhere we went, there was a bit of a following right off the bat,” Reno says.
They had a much more difficult time impressing record company executives, however. They brought in representatives from numerous American record companies – only to get rejected by every single one. “They’d go, ‘Nah, I don’t hear it. I think they’re just a bar band,’” Reno says. Finally, Columbia Records Canada, based in Toronto, offered them a deal.
When debut album, Loverboy, was released in 1980, it promptly sold 700,000 copies in Canada alone. Suddenly, record company executives in America had a change of heart, and Columbia Records in New York opted to take over their deal. The album then sold two million copies in the U.S. and reached #13 on the Billboard chart. When MTV was launched the next year, Loverboy became one of the most popular artists on the music channel, further solidifying their star status in the States.
“It was this big deal for Columbia Records in New York – and a big deal for us,” Reno says, “So we were on our way, for sure, right off the bat with that first album. Which very rarely happens.” To date, Loverboy has sold four million copies worldwide.
Although it may have been vindicating to get such enormous success after so much early rejection, Reno also recalls that “It was completely frightening – but being scared like that really made us aware of how important it was for us to get our shit together. So we just really did whatever we had to do.”
The band threw themselves into relentless touring, opening for Journey, Bob Seger, Cheap Trick, ZZ Top, Kansas, and Def Leppard. In every city, Reno says, “We’d go and do [appearances at] four record stores during the day and play the concert and then travel to the next town and do it all over again. We did that all year long. That’s what promoted the whole project to sell like that.”
For Reno, this success fulfilled a dream he’d had since he was a child watching things like The Beatles playing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Seeing that, he says, “You would just start dreaming about how crazy that was: ‘That’s what I want to do.’ When I was eleven [years old], I bought a set of drums and started playing.” Eventually, he realized his true talent was his singing ability, and he has gone on to have one of the most recognizable voices in the rock world.
After Loverboy, Reno and his bandmates enjoyed further success with their following releases: Get Lucky (1981), Keep It Up (1983), and Lovin’ Every Minute of It (1985) – in all, they’ve released nine studio albums so far. They remained popular on the radio and on the charts with singles such as “Working for the Weekend,” “When It’s Over,” “Hot Girls in Love,” and “Lovin’ Every Minute of It.” (Additionally, Reno had a hit with “Almost Paradise,” a duet he did with Ann Wilson of Heart for the Footloose film soundtrack in 1984.) In 2009, Loverboy were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
As for what has enabled Loverboy to have this type of career, Reno says, “I guess I had the fire to go the distance. Paul [Dean] had the fire. And the people we brought on in the band, we could tell if they had the fire.”
This work ethic and dedication continues: until the COVID-19 pandemic, Reno says they were averaging 90 shows a year. Frustrating as it is to be forced off the road, though, he says that it has actually given him a rare opportunity to reflect on his achievements: “I’ve had a chance to really appraise the last 40 years. It warms my heart, for sure, to think that’s what I’ve done. And that’s what I do.”
Reno says he looks forward to resuming touring, and he doesn’t mind being expected to play all the hits at every show. “When we see the audience dancing and jumping up and down and singing the words, it just all falls into place right then and there. We enjoy the fact that people like the songs. It couldn’t be better than that. It’s the ultimate experience,” he says.
Until they’re allowed to hit the road again, Reno is focusing on positive things like the vinyl reissue of Loverboy – and he remains optimistic about what will come next for the band. “Every time a challenge gets put in front of us, we tend to do it rather than run from it. It’s interesting: as a group of people, we’ve all done that together. We’re like a little battalion of rock and roll soldiers!”