“When I first saw you guys, people didn’t expect what you were going to bring, these little white brothers from Boston!” It’s a humid Sunday afternoon in Harlem, and the Apollo Theater’s longtime historian — Billy Mitchell, a.k.a. Mr. Apollo — is reminiscing backstage with New Kids on the Block’s Donnie Wahlberg. “But, brother, you killed it,” Mitchell continues. “The place went crazy. The place went crazy, man! I still have a picture of you guys in my home.”
Before they became the world’s biggest boy band, the New Kids came up via Boston’s club scene and R&B radio. They might have stayed there had it not been for their breakthrough album, 1988’s Hangin’ Tough, which blew up the charts by injecting just enough funk and soul into otherwise simple pop songs. When they meet with Mitchell, the band is back at the Apollo for a special concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Hangin’ Tough, which Sony will re-release early next year with new material including the song “80s Baby” featuring their 2019 tour mates Salt-N-Pepa, Naughty By Nature, Debbie Gibson and Tiffany.
Soon after the reunion with Mitchell, the group’s five members — Wahlberg, Danny Wood, Joe McIntyre and brothers Jordan and Jonathan Knight — gathered around an old videotape brought out of storage, trying to figure out exactly when their appearance at the Apollo’s storied Amateur Night had taken place. It was 1988, that was for sure. Hangin’ Tough was released that September. “Please Don’t Go Girl” had been out since early April, but wasn’t really doing anything. Their first album had been a flop. “If the song didn’t hit, we were done,” recalls Wahlberg.
The New Kids were nervous, but prepared, they recall, when they faced the Apollo’s notoriously skeptical crowd, who stared at the five white boys from Boston in their Task Force jackets, slamming their feet into the stage as they danced and sang “You Got It (The Right Stuff)”—to a track, because someone forgot to bring sheet music for the Apollo’s house band. It took a while, but the New Kids started to notice a few ladies clapping and getting to their feet. By the end of their set, the room was on its feet, chanting, “Go, white boys! Go, white boys!”
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There were no screaming young New Kids fans in the audience that night. This was before everyone and their kid sister was doing that “Right Stuff” dance, the one with the moves their choreographer had lifted straight from Morris Day and The Time’s “Jungle Love.”
“No one knew who we were,” says McIntyre, who was a baby-faced 15 on the old tape. “Every show was ‘us against the world.'” McIntyre seems impressed as he watches the clip of his young self whipping up the crowd: “We genuinely did not do drugs back then, but it looked like we were on drugs because we were so fired up.”
Before long, the now-40-something New Kids solve their own mystery. The tape shows the fresh-faced kids introducing themselves, with their age and star sign. “If those ages are accurate,” says Wahlberg, “it was in between Danny and Jordan’s birthdays.” Which places the Amateur Night appearance as May 15th or 16th, 1988 — right before the summer that launched the New Kids, and set a whole subset of R&B-tinged pop music in motion, from Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch to the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and Justin Timberlake. That was the summer the group supported Tiffany on a mall tour and quickly supplanted her as the headliners. By the fall of 1988, they had won the hearts of thousands of American teens and were invited back to the Apollo to appear in their first syndicated TV appearance.
The show this October 7th took place 30 years to the day after that victorious Showtime at the Apollo broadcast. A choked-up Wahlberg told the audience it was “the 30th anniversary of the year that we fell in love with each other.”
Lest you think this is too much schmaltz for one day, strap in: “We’re suckers for complete and utter sentimentality,” admits Wahlberg, the group’s captain and fan ringleader. Sunday night’s mezzanine-shaking show—this time backed by their touring band of the past 10 years—was laden with nostalgia and happy tears, but also with pride. From start to finish, it was a showcase of what has always fueled the New Kids’ success: pure, unbridled, who-gives-a-damn-if-it’s-uncool feeling.
The New Kids performed all 10 of Hangin’ Tough‘s tracks at the Apollo, with plenty of their old-school moves and the theatricality they’ve honed by singing the album’s hits for packed arenas since their reunion 10 years ago. They even did the sleeper tracks, and the fans went wild—encouraging their idols in occasional moments when they couldn’t quite hit every note that their producer Maurice Starr had coached out of them as teenagers. Starr, who used to dress up in a military dress uniform and call himself The General at the height of New Kids’ fame, was invited to the event but was laid up at home in Florida and unable to make it. The relationship with Starr has long been portrayed as a Svengali-protégé tale, but it’s a bit more nuanced than the cliché suggests.
“The dynamic changed with Hangin’ Tough,” says Wahlberg. “We took on more of a role. It stopped being Maurice trying to fit us into songs that sounded like the Osmonds, the Jacksons or New Edition, and more about us identifying songs that fit us.” Starr pressed his singers for “100’s” and taught Wood how to engineer a record. He played basketball with the Kids and told them he was certain they would be famous. “He listened to us and trusted us,” says Wahlberg. “But I think after that, when the success came, he probably tried to grab on a little tight and fit us back in [to his vision]. We’d go to an event with him and another famous person would be there and he’d start challenging them to sing—even Luther Vandross! He was crazy—but great crazy.” Jordan Knight agrees: “There’s a fine line between crazy and genius—but he straddled it, and we caught the genius side.”
At Sunday’s show, a congratulatory message from Starr played on a screen above the stage, and they FaceTimed their old producer in to show him the packed house with the lights up. “He brought us here the first time,” Wahlberg told the crowd, breaking into tears. “He brought us off the fucking street, man, and gave us a chance.”
According to Wahlberg, the New Kids story is more like Rocky than American Idol. If they had been booed off stage in 1988, “it would have been very easy for one of us to say, ‘I’m out.'” But the Kids were spurred on by their reception in Harlem to keep going. To many, it may look like the New Kids’ long-term success is the result of a perfect storm of pop hooks and marketing. But the story of New Kids is also one of chemistry and working-class grit. “We come from that generation where you just get up and you go for it,” says McIntyre. Or, as their 1980s booking agent Jerry Ade put it, “In their hearts, in their brains, in their balls, these kids didn’t quit—ever.”
Despite the many albums that followed, Hangin’ Tough remains the most enduring New Kids record, going eight times platinum.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m comparing us to Michael Jackson, but Michael Jackson’s going to be most known for Thriller,” says Wahlberg. “That’s the one. But it’s not better than Off the Wall. Do I think we’ve had better songs and other things? Maybe. I think we’ve had moments where we’ve written songs or sung better or performed better—but Hangin’ Tough, that’s the one. We don’t get to decide how we’re remembered. But if it’s with that album, and those special times, then how lucky are we?”
Rebecca Wallwork is the author of Hangin’ Tough by New Kids on the Block (33 1/3, Bloomsbury Academic).