Before there was One Direction, before there was ’NSync, there was New Kids on the Block. Comprising five street-smart kids from working-class neighborhoods in Boston, a city so flush with hometown pride that it threatens to throw a parade whenever one of its own makes it big, NKOTB was a boy band phenomenon in an era before the term became synonymous with screaming girls and ubiquitous radio play. On Oct. 9, the group will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The brainchild of local record producer-songwriter Maurice Starr (who discovered R&B group New Edition at a 1982 talent show), NKOTB’s self-titled debut effort was an abysmal flop for Columbia Records, its first and second singles “Be My Girl” and “Stop It Girl” dismissed as insipid bubblegum pop. Still, Starr persevered, eventually convincing the label to let Jordan Knight, Jonathan Knight, Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood and Joey McIntyre record a sophomore follow-up.
The resulting album, 1988’s “Hangin’ Tough” was not an instant hit, but its first single, the dulcet McIntyre-crooned ballad “Please Don’t Go Girl,” eventually climbed to No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts, and from there the momentum grew. In early 1989, the bouncy, rap-inspired track “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” cracked Billboard’s top five and, that June, the single “I’ll be Loving You (Forever)” reached No. 1, Jordan Knight’s mellifluous falsetto vocals — a throwback to the Philadelphia Sound — working like a charm on the throbbing hearts of tween and teen fans from Dorchester, Mass., to Denver and beyond.
By the time 1990 came along, if you were alive and in the messy throes of adolescence, you likely not only had your favorite NKOTB song, but your favorite NKOTB member, his wall-sized poster plastered above your bed.
“We felt the impact but I think we were so desperate not to feel it,” says Wahlberg of the worldwide fame that ensued. “When we started, our concept of being really famous was, like, being known in Boston. That was our goal, to walk down the street and have the local pizza guy say, ‘Hey Donnie good work. Hey, have a slice!’ That was the scope of how big we looked at it.”
As that scope expanded, and NKOTB became a global juggernaut, it was the singers’ Boston roots that kept them grounded, helping maintain, per Wahlberg, a sense of “calm in the eye of the storm.”
“We all came up from nothing and we got a lot in a short amount of time,” says Wahlberg, currently starring on CBS’ “Blue Bloods” and exec producing A&E’s reality series “Wahlburgers.” “And because it happened so quickly, we never really got too caught up in it. We worked hard, we earned some level of success, and we caught a wave that was bigger than any of us expected, but we didn’t become holier than thou. We were accountable for each other and that’s what kept us levelheaded. Boston made sure to keep us humble. You can’t come from a city like Boston and grow up and become all big headed because the people there will bring you back down to earth real quick.
“And we somehow figured out that we can’t be as awesome as everyone thinks and we can’t be as bad at everyone thinks. We tried to find the truth in the middle.”
When the band split in 1994, each member pursued solo careers that ranged from TV actor to real estate developer to record producer. For McIntyre, a parochial school kid and the baby of the bunch, striking out on his own — from a role on Fox’s “Boston Public” to playing the male lead in “Wicked” on Broadway — was a way to assert himself as an artist.
“I think we had somewhat of a chip on our shoulder, which is again part of the Boston mentality and, yeah, I think that knee-jerk reaction of ‘I’m going to prove (the naysayers) wrong’ was part of the picture,” he recalls of that period. “I needed some time find myself after the whirlwind craziness in the late ’80s and ’90s. I had to realize this is what I want to do. I was just born to perform.”
When NKOTB released its 2008 reunion album “The Block” (through Interscope) and headed back out on tour, the fans were there to welcome the Boston quintet with a fanfare usually reserved for champion sports teams.
“A doorman would say, ‘Hey, guys, thanks for the show today,’ and I felt like I was on the Red Sox,” McIntyre says.
“The group’s personality and energy is rolled in that Boston fabric and really important to our whole story.”
Today, NKOTB still tours, still sells out arenas, and the girls (now grown-ups) still swoon. To date, the group has sold 80 million records. And it’s the fans, says Wahlberg, that remain “a main driving force.”
“Anytime we’ve played in the Boston Garden — in the old one or in the current one — it’s astounding,” he says.
“The building is usually close to collapsing from excitement. It’s the energy level we dreamed of as children. All of our concerts are loud and fun and near religious experiences, but in Boston there’s just a different level of pride in the audience.”