New Kids on the Block: From Puberty to Platinum

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

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

And to think it all might never have happened if New Kids on the Block had stuck with Maurice Starr's original name for the group – Nynuk, as in Nanook of the North. Though the name could very well have helped the group break big in Alaska, the Kids still shudder whenever it is uttered.

Of course, Starr (whose own real last name is Johnson) has had his share of much better ideas when it comes to the Kids, including his initial stroke of music-marketing genius – marrying his own streetwise blend of pop music with a group of five talented, good-looking white kids who can sing and dance. The result was a commercial if somewhat familiar package: Imagine a white New Edition or the Osmonds with real grooves.

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In fact, Starr, 35, and his brothers (including Michael Jonzun, a recording artist who now remixes many New Kids singles) had moved from their native Florida to Boston's tough Roxbury neighborhood in the Seventies and become local celebrities. Starr made his first big national splash in 1983, when the tiny independent label Streetwise managed at great cost to break New Edition, a group of five young guys from the low-income Roxbury area who gave us such tasty Jackson 5-inspired radio treats as "Candy Girl" and "Popcorn Love."

"Maurice was always into making very commercial, very derivative music," says Arthur Baker, the famed producer who ran Streetwise. "But the records were always really good. Maurice had a great sense of turning chords around and creating classic pop records out of other classic pop records. The stuff worked, and it wasn't close enough for him to get sued."

Unfortunately for Starr and Streetwise, soon after the hits started coming, New Edition decided to jump from the small label to MCA. What followed was an ugly, extended lawsuit regarding the legitimacy of Starr's contract with the band (especially complicated since all the group members were still minors) and the ownership of the New Edition name.

Largely because the contract satisfied Massachusetts's but not New York's legal standards, Starr lost the case and was, by many accounts, devastated. It was, Starr confesses, "a legal education," and associates indicate he has been careful not to repeat it with New Kids. (New Edition, meanwhile, has gone on to score numerous hits for MCA, although in the last year the group has been overshadowed by the tremendous solo success of former member Bobby Brown.)

Dick Scott says having New Kids become even bigger than New Edition was "the sweetest revenge" possible for Starr, but Starr himself isn't anxious to put it that way.

"I have no revenge in my heart for New Edition," says Starr as he sits backstage in Worcester, the sound of the crowd cheering for his Kids in the background. "Sometimes it was tough for me to listen to New Edition on the radio, especially when they were Number One and New Kids weren't on the charts, when the Kids were Number Zero. But it's much easier now."

It wasn't long after losing New Edition, and having Streetwise collapse in the wake, that Starr and Mary Alford (who went on to become one of the Kids' managers through their first album) met Donnie Wahlberg. Wahlberg then recruited some other musically inclined friends from Dorchester, a middle-class Boston neighborhood not far from Roxbury, and thus New Kids on the Block (or at least Nynuk) was born.

They were not, stresses Donnie, a group of wimpy, spoiled showbiz kids, but rather a bunch of average young guys – all of them come from families with six or more siblings – who know their way around the streets. When a recent People magazine article descibed the Kids as "excruciatingly wholesome," Donnie says he got a mocking call from one of his brothers who was in jail at the time. (On the other hand, Jordan and Jon's father is a clergyman.)

Of course, even Kids have to pay dues, and for the group, that meant doing its share of unglamorous gigs (many of them singing to taped backing tracks at tiny clubs and social halls, as well as special appearances at Starr's Broadway Talent Shows in Boston) and having its 1986 debut album for Columbia Records die a quick death after it was rejected by black radio. "I think the first record failing was good for us," says Donnie. "We tasted failure and maybe learned how to avoid it."

Last year, Starr and the ever-maturing New Kids on the Block – particularly the trio of Donnie, Jordan and Danny, who call themselves the Crickets – came up with Hangin' Tough, the ascent of which has caused even the Kids' first album, like everything else they touch, to turn to gold.

Star says the Kids are now even bigger than he imagined they'd be, and he's certain they'll go even further – together. "After New Edition, I said I'd never trust another artist in my life," says Starr as another scream from the crowd is heard backstage, "But these guys I trust. I love these kids."

Dear Jordan:
Hi, What's up? You become smarter looking still more. It exciting. I really feel, I love you long time. You never chenger you attuitude even though you become big musician.

—Letter from a fan

Maurice starr is obviously not the only one who loves these Kids. And he's certainly not typical of New Kids on the Block fans – call them Kidophiles or Blockheads for short – most of whom are significantly younger, whiter and more feminine than he is. The above mash note, for instance, came from one-third of a trio of Japanese girls who fell in love with the Kids during the group's recent tout of the girls' homeland. They turned up for a show at the Washington State Fair, in Puyallup, Washington, on September 11th and have been showing up at every hotel and gig since. The girls have spent their time, and no doubt lots of their parents' money, showering the Kids with gifts, crying when they get a hug from a group member and figuring out how to get from gig to gig and hotel to hotel before they regretfully have to head home in a few weeks.

All around them, the Kids encounter a particularly contagious strain of pubescent idolatry – all of it focused on five young men who've barely pulled themselves out of their own adolescence while making their mark in the music biz. If the Kids do not fully appreciate the surreal nature of the madness that surrounds them, neither do they seem to have let it go to their heads.

Donnie attributes some of this level-headedness to the Kids' relatively humble origins. "My family had a bad reputation when I was growing up," he says. "I was a pretty wild kid myself. But people can't put me down by saying, 'You used to steal. You were a bad kid when you were young.' I never said I wasn't. But I'm good now. We're clean, but we're clean by choice. We grew up with this stuff in our faces. Now I'm being positive, trying to educate kids."

In fact, one secret of the Kids' success could be that they are that rare pop phenomenon that comes complete with a significant amount of parental approval. The Kids' G-rated image and antidrug stance have helped the group win the hearts not only of America's daughters but also of their mothers.

Talk to some of the hundreds of moms who are accompanying their daughters during the all-night vigils that have become standard procedure at the hotels where the Kids stay on the road and you'll find a strong consensus that the Kids are good kids.

"I would never let my daughter even listen to Motley Crüe's records," says one dedicated mom who's spending a long night after the Kids' show in the lobby of the Marriot near the Nassau Coliseum. "I heard them on MTV and told my daughter to come quickly. I like the music myself, and I like the fact that they're clean-cut. So if my daughter wants to take one day off from school, that's okay with me."

Another secret of the group's success has to do with the Kids' own schooling: The Kids are one happy result of the controversial school-busing program in Boston that led to so much racial disharmony in the Seventies. "We grew up when they were trying to integrate the city with busing," says Donnie. "A lot of bad stuff came up, a lot of racism. But kids weren't involved with it. Some people have said, 'Ha, they've even gone to black schools to train to be black.' As if it was part of an intricate plan." The New Kids on the Block's schooling may, however, be one reason that they seem so utterly free of racism – an important factor, considering the organization around them is largely black.

"These [kids] are white kids who are black," Starr told the Los Angeles Times recently. "They have white skins, but they are black. They have soul."

Indeed they do. When the Kids talk about music, it's almost always about rap and soul. In the comfort of their posse on the tour bus, they talk like veteran B-boys. Some of their favorites are Public Enemy, James Brown, Michael Jackson, the Stylistics and – to the apparent dismay of Starr – New Edition and Bobby Brown. Both Donnie and Danny were heavily into break dancing before they even joined the group.

Accordingly, the group members – who've all recently read The Autobiography of Malcolm X – are disturbed by the racist assumptions people sometimes make about their black colleagues and friends. "I was in a mall once and this kid walked up to Peter [Work, the Kids' road manager] and said, 'Is he your bodyguard?' I said no. 'Your valet? Your roadie? Your choreographer? Your DJ?' Finally, I had to say, 'Listen, he's my manager.' "

This is one reason, according to Wahlberg, that the Kids are getting sick and tired of seeing themselves depicted in the mainstream press as talentless white kids being manipulated by a frustrated black mastermind.

"Some people think we have no talent and that Maurice is this crook Svengali puppeteer," Donnie says. "And that's a lot of garbage. Especially with kid acts, people think there's got to be evil stage parents or evil, greedy adults behind you. We're not Menudo. Danny's not going to get replaced if he grows a mustache. We do have talent to produce and write and play, and we will do more of it. We've done some on the records already. But right now we're still learning, still growing. We're proud of our past, and we're confident about our future. We know people are going to try and stick drugs in our faces – do something to trip us up. But we're not worried. We know who we are, and we're not puppets. There are no strings."

Their critics might not buy it, but the little girls understand.

This story is from the November 2nd, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 564: November 2, 1989
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