“If only we could swap out Freddie Jackson for one of our own songs,” cracked an 18-year-old Donnie Wahlberg as he and his New Kids on the Block bandmate buddies cruised the streets of Boston in the final years of the 1980s on their way to a basketball game. It wasn’t that they didn’t like the R&B star — to the contrary, Donnie names “You Are My Lady” as one of his most influential ballads — but the idea of producing a hit they could blast around town seemed like a distant dream as the group (Jonathan Knight, Jordan Knight, Joey McIntyre, Danny Wood and Wahlberg) continued to shake off the flop that was their self-titled debut.
Yet, in the “most underwhelming” studio environment — the shabby, second-story studio of music producer Maurice Starr — NKOTB would create “Hangin’ Tough,” arguably the apex of their creative output, and featuring songs which would reach far beyond their cars’ cassette players through a subsequent 35-year run. And it was all in the name of fun.
“Danny, Jordan and I would meet up after school and drive to neighborhood basketball games and it’d be us three teenagers playing a bunch of 35-year-old men, getting our butts kicked,” says Donnie , ahead of the March 8 “Hangin’ Tough” 30th anniversary edition release. “Recording was just an extension of the good time we were having. We loved hanging out together and music was a key part of that, but we saw it more like, ‘Okay, now we can replace, “You Are My Lady” with “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” in the cassette deck and drive around listening to that.’ If that had been the extent of where [the music] went, it still would’ve been worth every second.”
“It was totally obvious they were doing it for the joy,” adds Doug Nichol, who directed five videos for the group during the “Hangin’ Tough” era. “It shows how, in life, if you do something for the enjoyment of it, the money will come eventually.”
Money is something Maurice was lacking as he went hunting for his next male vocal group on the back of his success with New Edition and their breakout hit, “Candy Girl.” Determined to create a white version of the group, he and long-time friend Mary Alford first found Mark Wahlberg and brother Donnie, who pulled in his pals, Wood and the brothers Knight, along with Jamie Kelly, who left early on.
Mark also dropped out, later forming hip-hop outfit Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, and topping the charts with the 1991 hit, “Good Vibrations,” (co-written by Donnie) then carving out a successful acting career. In hindsight, Donnie says his younger brother’s exit was pivotal to NKOTB’s success.
“I think it all turned out perfectly,” he says. “Mark was meant to be on the path he’s on and the beautiful thing is that, as New Kids got more successful — and got more criticism — that inspired me to write and produce music, which led to the Marky Mark music. I wrote those songs to prove myself to the world as a songwriter and producer. It gave me a great chance to help Mark get off the streets and find something to do with his life, and also for me to have a voice outside of Maurice Starr.”
“I don’t know if that would have happened had Mark stayed in the band,” Donnie continues. “I don’t know if the success of the New Kids would have happened. I think Joey McIntyre filled the role that Mark would have filled, had Mark stayed. And, Mark’s talent speaks for itself, but I’m not sure that Mark Wahlberg would’ve been a better Joey McIntyre than Joey McIntyre!”
Adds Jordan: “Mark has a lot of charisma and he’s a force, but Mark probably wouldn’t have been able to sing ‘Please Don’t Go Girl,’ like Joe did!”
With Joey, the teens pressed on with “Hangin’ Tough” journey amid social and political turbulence in Boston. A court-enforced desegregation busing system was in place requiring students be transported between predominantly black and white areas and schools to help combat racial strife and imbalance. It was through those rides from Dorchester to Roxbury that Donnie befriended Danny, Jon and Jordan, and the experience also shaped his musical tastes, cultural sensibilities and the ease with which he navigated his then-volatile hometown.
“We were bussed to a predominantly-black school and exposed to music and culture that we might not have been otherwise,” he explains. “We never felt out of our environment and we certainly wouldn’t be here if not for those times. They intended to bring people together to learn about each other and be exposed to different things and that’s what happened to us.”
“Maurice Starr’s house was less than a mile from the school we were bussed to, so when the time came to go there, I was like, ‘It’s right by my school – yeah, I’ll go!’ whereas other kids who weren’t familiar with that neighborhood might not have wanted to,” he adds. “The image of that period of Boston hurts to this day, but going through that hurt opened the door for healing and growth and I’d like to think that New Kids are part of that growth.”
What Maurice Starr lacked in finances, he made up for with enthusiasm, so the youngsters weren’t bothered by loose wires, blankets of dust and a gaping hole in the wall — with no window, they had to pause recording every time a siren blared or truck roared past. In between sessions, they played ping-pong with broken bats on a piece of plywood secured atop traffic barricades. “We didn’t know any better,” Donnie laughs. “None of us had ever owned a real ping-pong table!”
“It was a dilapidated house with a makeshift studio, but to us it was awesome,” says Jordan. “It was a playground.”
Recording was a disjointed process, but unlike their first record, the group was more active behind the scenes, with Danny in particular learning and handling much of the engineering and production. Every so often, Maurice, who wrote every track, would bounce into the studio with the next hit.
“Out of the blue, he’d go, ‘J! I got a song for you,’ and I’d get really excited,” Jordan recalls. “I still remember when he came in saying, ‘I got a song for you, J — it’s called ‘The Right Stuff,’ and starting singing it.”
The most powerful track that Maurice would bring Jordan was the ballad, “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever).” The song was one of many unplaced tracks sitting in Maurice’s cassette collection — having penned it for someone else.
“He said he wrote ‘I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)’ with Smokey Robinson in mind,” Jordan recalls. “Maurice grew up in the Motown era. He loved The Jackson 5 and everything he did was like an ode to Motown. He had it kicking around and thought it would fit my voice well. As soon as he started playing it for me, it was just hauntingly beautiful.”
Jordan went home and played the demo for his mom and girlfriend, who loved it, while Danny played an early recording of the track to his late mom, Betty, who declared, “You guys have a hit!”
“My mom said the same thing,” Donnie remembers. “My mom has guessed every No. 1 record in the history of my family, including when I played her the demo of ‘Good Vibrations’ by Marky Mark!”
Jordan says he “tediously” recorded the track, using a technique common with Motown music, involving perfecting his vocals, recording them again as closely-matched to the first time as possible, then layering the two tracks together to create a “warmer” sound. The endearing track became NKOTB’s first No. 1 hit and Jordan says being able to sing it night-after-night on tour 30 years later, is a “blessing.”
Another ballad that would remain a staple on the group’s setlists for three decades was the album’s Joey-led debut single, “Please Don’t Go Girl,” NKOTB’s first commercial success. The song broke out after a music video directed by Doug Nichol was sent to radio stations across the U.S., prompting many to play the track. “It gave people a visual of the group,” the California Typewriter director says. “We really captured their camaraderie and girls from all over the country fell in love with them from it.”
Ballads aside, Danny took lead on funky closing track, “Hold On,” while Donnie rocked “Cover Girl,” one of two songs (along with “I Need You”) which Maurice was recording with a rock band. “We begged [for] those records,” Donnie says. “In hindsight, ‘Cover Girl,’ was off-the-trail because it’s more pop-rock and our songs were more R&B-pop, but it felt like a hit. At that point, it was about finding the best material, not pigeonholing ourselves into songs about puppy love.”
“I didn’t anticipate singing the whole song myself, but during that time, we were finding ourselves,” he adds. “Jordan has a soulful voice, so we discovered the R&B ballads suited him. ‘Cover Girl’ was grittier and suited my natural voice, as opposed to me trying to be a crooner like Joey or Jordan. Guys would sing a part, then two days later somebody else was singing it. Maurice started me out as lead vocalist on ‘What’cha Gonna Do (About It),’ and when I returned to the studio, Jordan had replaced me. Ironically, the part I hated most was the part Maurice kept of me! Maurice’s thing was, ‘We’ve got to have 100%.’ If a guy sounded 80% right for the part, then he was probably going to be replaced by someone who sounded 100% right. Fortunately, we didn’t take it personally.”
Of course, one song where all five members banded together was “Hangin’ Tough.” As Jordan fondly recalls:
“We gathered around the microphone, chanting the chorus while bopping back-and-forth holding our crotches, laughing.” The track was intended as an anthem for their basketball heroes, the Boston Celtics, yet it also reflected NKOTB’s own tough journey, involving limited finances, rundown recording conditions and criticism from those who dismissed the group as a boy band fad.
“All we wanted to do was prove we could go the distance — that we could make a record, stand up in the face of adversity and earn some respect,” Donnie reflects. “We didn’t necessarily think we would sell so many records or become a phenomenon. We just wanted to prove people wrong and show we belonged. Of course, when we finally arrived, we didn’t prove it to everyone else … we proved it to ourselves.”
The success of “Hangin’ Tough” launched the five young men onto a dizzying rollercoaster of fame. Posters, dolls, magazine covers and worldwide concerts spawned a dedicated fanbase of “Blockheads” and helped the group sell more than 80 million albums.
“The first video I made was ‘Please Don’t Go Girl,’ and they were just five kids and nobody noticed us on the street,” recalls director Doug Nichol. “By the time I directed, ‘Hangin’ Tough,’ there were bodyguards and a mass of screaming, crying girls. Each time I came back to work with them, the fanbase was bigger and bigger. It was a touch of what Beatles-mania must have been like, with crazy fans trying to get to these guys. They were just in their hotel rooms having pillow fights and trying to stay sane from the craziness.”
For Jordan, it was coming home to Boston following the group’s first tour that it became apparent how drastically life had changed. “We went on tour with Tiffany and I remember coming home and it was like, ‘Wo., it’s different. We’re famous. You have to act a little different now,’” he says. “Not in a bad way, but I couldn’t just run around the streets or go to a mall anymore.”
“Hangin’ Tough” would go on to be certified eight-times platinum and was followed by 1990’s “Step By Step” and 1994’s “Face the Music.” Jonathan left the group mid-tour in 1994 amid anxiety struggles, and the remaining guys disbanded shortly after.
Fourteen years later, Blockheads rejoiced when a 2008 reunion and comeback album “The Block” was announced. It featured cameos from Lady Gaga and Ne-Yo and was followed by a tour and two more studio releases, 2013’s “10” and 2015’s “Thankful” EP. The 30th anniversary edition of “Hangin’ Tough” also contains three new tracks, including “The Way You Should Be Loved,” and “80s Baby,” which features Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Naughty By Nature and Salt-N-Pepa, all of whom are joining NKOTB on their Mixtape Tour, kicking off in Cincinnati on May 2
Donnie, for one, isn’t fazed by the notion that the music they make today is unlikely to have the same level of mass and monumental impact that “Hangin’ Tough” did. “How lucky are we that our record is even remembered at all? And that this album, that came from a turbulent city during turbulent times in the most humble of origins, is remembered to this day. That’s a blessing. Sure, do I think we’ve done better albums? Absolutely. If all the New Kids voted, Hangin’ Tough would probably be in the bottom two!”
“I still feel pride,” adds Jordan. “A couple of days ago, ‘The Goldbergs’ was on TV and they were talking about ‘The Right Stuff’ and played it. My son wasn’t around when it was a big hit, so to be sitting in the living room with him and have our song come on and people talking about his father on TV — that was a moment of pride, for sure.”
Thirty years later, there’s also a deeper level of pride associated with being part of a boy band – something the group celebrates in “Boys in the Band,” another new track from the re-released “Hangin’ Tough.” Co-written by Donnie, the tune and its accompanying video pay homage to acts like New Edition, Backstreet Boys, O-Town, 98 Degrees, Take That, One Direction and BTS (watch it below).
Says Donnie: “The million-dollar question with a song like ‘Boys in the Band’ is has the environment changed towards boy bands that would encourage me to write a song like this, or have my feelings about being in a boy band changed enough to make me write it?” he considers. “It’s probably both. I’m not sure where this song came from inside me, but the reaction to boy bands is certainly different than it was 30 years ago and I take pride in our journey. I think you have to have had a career that covers a certain amount of time to be able to look back and do a song like this. I don’t know if we could have made this song 30 years ago because I don’t know that we would’ve earned it. I think, now, we’ve earned it.”