Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Loverboy: Poodle Rock

At the dawn of the 80s, 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 also revealed the band was more bark than bite.

Nevertheless, within a few months Loverboy 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. Above the din of video arcades like Circus Circus I used to hang out in, wafted the radio-friendly sounds of bands like Loverboy & The Headpins, who accessorized the sex-and-violence trappings of teen rebellion for this new breed. The brawny, muscular riffs, sweetened with the gloss of a Life Saver candy, appealed to young kids like us yearning to feel wild and turned loose, while allowing our 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. Later, I remember sitting in the backseat of my friend's older brother's Dodge Duster on a Friday night, stubby beer in hand and Loverboy blasting from the Boss speakers. I was that kid, hot and turned loose on my sleepy South Surrey town.

The cover art cops the aesthetic of the period: black-clad androgynous figure clipped at eye-level standing in front of a fiery-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 carelessly 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 leather/pleather 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, tuff 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. 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, nothing more than anemic affectations of punk. After all, the thriving punk and new-wave scenes in Canada that spawned Loverboy included such luminaries as the Forgotten Rebels, 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's debut 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.

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