New Kids on the Block: From Puberty to Platinum

For the teen sensations, success is child's play – and the Kids are alright

November 2, 1989
new kids on the block 1989
Jordan Knight, Danny Wood, Jonathan Knight, Joey McIntyre and Donnie Wahlberg of New Kids On The Block.
Larry Busacca/WireImage

As the New Kids on the Block tour bus passes a gaggle of squealing young fans lying in wait outside the Worcester Centrum, in Worcester, Massachusetts, the teen dreams themselves are in the vehicle's cluttered lounge area, tossing around a stuffed bear and talking with Freud about the psychological origins of the group's appeal to young girls.

"Hey, Freud, tell us why we're so popular again," shouts Danny Wood, 19, still pumped up from the brief bench-pressing session he squeezed in at the hotel gym.

Freud is the Kids' nickname for Mark O'Dowd, a bookish adult-in-residence who travels with the group as tutor to the youngest member, Joe McIntyre, 16, but who in fact works with all five Kids in their various academic and intellectual pursuits.

An exhausted-looking O'Dowd pops out from the bus's sleeping area and begins to explain his pet theory one more time to his multiplatinum charges. "At eight months," he says, "a baby is weaned away from the mother's nipple and reacts by crying hysterically. The two-year-old screams uncontrollably when it can't find its blankey; and when teddy's missing at four years, kids can be totally obnoxious. And my theory is that these girls have attached themselves by the thousands to you guys as transitional objects of love. Dad figures. That's my professional opinion."

"So that's why they want to jump on us," says Jordan Knight, 18, in the thick Boston accent that all the Kids share. (On the curtain behind Jordan – who forms a sort of holy trinity of current teen hunkiness with Donnie Wahlberg, 20, and Joe McIntyre – is a button that reads, SEEKING MEANINGFUL OVERNIGHT RELATIONSHIP.)

Just then a group of girls from the crowd gathered outside the bus catches sight of Jordan's older brother Jon Knight, 19, peeking out of a back window. The girls break into a frenzied series of orgasmic screechings.

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"Hold it," says Donnie, the brainiest and most outspoken of the Kids, who suddenly seems concerned with the implications of Freud's analysis. "If we're just transitional objects, then they might just drop us eventually, right?"

Lately, Donnie, Danny, Jordan, Jon and Joey haven't had much time to think very far into their future and ponder such deep questions. They've been too busy being young, cute and talented for fun and profit. The Kids' second album, Hangin' Tough, an infectious if derivative collection of street-smart dance pop and soulful crooning – produced, arranged and largely written by Maurice Starr, the man who brought you New Edition – has sold over 4 million copies in America alone. After a slow start, the record has now spawned four Top Ten singles: "Please Don't Go Girl," "You've Got It (The Right Stuff)," "I'll Be Loving You (Forever)" and the title track. At press time, another single, "Cover Girl," was climbing the Top Forty, and the group's version of the Delfonics' 1970 hit "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind)" – a track from the Kids' debut album and the flip side of "Hangin' Tough" – was close behind.

If you somehow haven't had the opportunity to acquaint yourself with the Kids, chances are that your daughter, kid sister or niece has already had the pleasure. And she probably owns their poster, too. In addition to the astronomical sales of Hangin' Tough (which has generated more than $30 million, helping save CBS Records from what many predicted would be a dire fiscal year), many more millions are coming in from the endless succession of sold-out concerts at state fairs and arenas (the Kids went from opening for Tiffany to having her open for them), the sale of T-shirts and other merchandise at shows (roughly $100,000 at each performance, or $ 15 per audience member), the hugely successful line of retail posters and T-shirts by Funky Enterprises, the smash Hangin' Tough long-form videocassette and the hundreds of thousands of calls coming in every week on the group's 900 phone lines.

The Fab Five's faces have also become popular fixtures in such distinguished teen bibles as Bop, Wow!, 16 and Tiger Beat, which promote the Kids' clean-cut brand of funky teen heartthrobbiness with a seemingly undying vengeance. And though MTV's love affair with the Kids seems to be dying down of late, the Kids' videos were staples on the network through the summer. Most recently, the Kids have hit the market with Merry, Merry Christmas, an album of danceable season's greetings, including the appropriately titled single "This One's for the Children." Still in the talking stages are an animated Saturday-morning cartoon series from Hanna-Barbera and a feature film, possibly from Disney.

But nowhere is the hysteria for the Kids stronger than on the road, as they work the crowds into a frenzy all over the United States and in such particularly New Kid-friendly countries as Japan. At a recent concert at the York Interstate Fair, in York, Pennsylvania, the Kids' set – a short but sweet hour-long show complete with bumping and grinding and a ten-minute routine on the concept of funkiness – made all 12,000 folks in the packed raceway grandstand forget, at least temporarily, about the fair's other cultural offerings: the hog-calling contest, Pennsylvania's largest pumpkin, even the 5-H Ranch Racing Pigs.

The next night, before a sold-out crowd at the Nassau Coliseum, in Uniondale, New York, it was clear that while the Kids' tour is the hottest piece of family entertainment around (backstage guests included the children of CBS Records president Tommy Mottola and Columbia Records president Donnie Ienner), it is also one of the most sexually charged shows on the road, a happy marriage of the Chi-Lites and the Chippendale dancers.

Just as each Kid will soon have his own poster available for sale in a mall near you, each Kid has his own palpitation-producing persona: Donnie is the hunky rocker who knows how to work the crowd. "Little" Joey is everyman's adorable kid brother ("I get most of the six-year-olds," he says) who breaks hearts belting out the ballads. Jordan is the gorgeous Tom Cruise look-alike with the dreamy highflying falsetto. Danny is a sexy regular guy and perhaps the fivesome's coolest dancer. Finally, Jon is the adorable shy one – call him the reluctant Kid.

And as the Kids do their stuff – and do it well – the crowds go berserk. At the Nassau Coliseum, between screams, twelve-year-olds wearing too much makeup offer hundreds of dollars for backstage passes. In other cities, mothers approach the group's security crew, offering to trade sexual favors for the opportunity to get their own kids closer to the Kids.

People who care for the Kids are comparing all of this commotion to the outbreak of Beatlemania, or at least to the peak periods of the Osmonds or the Jackson 5. The naysayers are more likely to draw comparisons to the huge and brief paydays of such flash-in-the-pan electric-youth creations as Menudo or the Bay City Rollers.

But whatever you think of the Kids, for the moment, at least, they are big – bigger than Tiffany, bigger than Debbie Gibson.

"I've never seen anything like what's going on with this group," says Dick Scott, the manager of the Kids and a man who encountered his share of sensations during his long tenure as Berry Gordy's right-hand man at Motown. "I've seen the Jacksons, I've seen the Supremes. These kids are the ultimate crossover group."

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