You’d never have figured it twenty years ago, but New Kids on the Block turned out to be a fairly influential act. The 5-man unit from Boston’s brand of pop-flavored R&B struck a chord with teenage girls everywhere, and while their success was short lived, the boy-band explosion of the late-Nineties would not have been possible without the success of the New Kids ten years earlier.

NKOTB’s seeds were actually planted in 1984, when another Boston-based boy band, New Edition, severed ties with writer/producer Maurice Starr and signed with MCA Records. With vengeance on his mind, Starr vowed to create a white group that would be even bigger than New Edition. He quickly rounded up Donnie Wahlberg, who recruited his brother Mark, as well as grade school buddy Danny Wood and brothers Jonathan and Jordan Knight. Mark Wahlberg left the group early on (and wound up enjoying later success as a rapper, then as an actor) and was replaced by Jamie Kelly, who was then replaced by Joe McIntyre. Originally named Nynuk, the group changed their name to New Kids on the Block after a song Wahlberg wrote. They were eventually snapped up by Columbia Records’ black music division and released their self-titled debut in 1986 to little fanfare.

Starr and the New Kids reconvened in Boston to record the group’s second album, which turned out to be the record that broke the New Kids wide open. Released in fall 1988, Hangin’ Tough wound up becoming a multi-platinum success, creating a teen frenzy not seen since the glory days of The Jacksons & The Osmonds in the early Seventies. Despite the critical drubbing the group received, by the beginning of 1990, they’d racked up over 10 million in album sales (having released a Christmas album and re-releasing their debut), scored 7 Top 10 pop singles (including a pair of #1s) and launched a merchandising initiative that raked in truckloads of money while slapping the New Kids’ name onto everything from baseball caps to bedsheets.

The New Kids’ roll continued through 1990. They began the year by winning 2 American Music Awards, and quickly snapped up a sponsorship with Coca-Cola. That spring, they released their fourth album, Step by Step. The album shot to #1 within two weeks, the title track went Platinum, and they continued selling out shows around the world. However, the seeds of overexposure had already been sown, and a backlash quickly brewed.

Their singles had begun to slip on the charts, Step By Step only sold about half of Hangin’ Tough‘s total, and a Saturday morning cartoon was probably the final nail in the group’s coffin. The New Kids and their handlers quickly went into damage control, issuing a remix album that hinted at a “harder” sound and having the group members grow facial hair and get arrested, but the group’s teenage fans had already begun to move on to a different sound, whether embracing harder rock acts like Nirvana, or more authentic R&B/pop acts like Boyz II Men. A claim (later proven false) of lip-synching by a former associate only added fuel to the fire.

Renamed NKOTB, the boys tried one last time to re-ignite the flames with 1994’s Face the Music. However, despite an unexpectedly positive reaction from critics, the album flamed out, peaking at #36 on the charts. The group went on a club tour to promote the album, but Jonathan Knight dropped out shortly into it, and NKOTB limped on as a quartet, calling it quits before its conclusion.

In the ensuing years, the members all tried their hands at solo projects, with varying degrees of success. Jonathan Knight dropped out of the industry entirely, finding his niche as a real estate developer. Danny Wood settled in Miami, producing music and raising a family. Wahlberg followed his younger brother into acting, scoring roles in The Sixth Sense and the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. Mcintyre also tried his hand at acting, with a brief role in the series Boston Public, and also released a handful of solo albums, scoring a Top 10 hit in 1999 with Stay the Same. Also that year, Jordan Knight scored a Platinum single with Give it to You, and released a solo album which heavily featured writing and production from the legendary Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis as well as future soul star Robin Thicke. Both McIntyre and Jordan Knight also wound up on reality shows, with the former appearing on Dancing With the Stars and the latter appearing on The Surreal Life.

Rumors of a New Kids reunion began to surface in early 2008, with denials issued by several group members. However, in April, the group appeared on the Today Show to announce a new album and a tour to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Hangin’ Tough. By this time, the “New Kids” ranged in age from 35 to 40, and all members except Jonathan Knight were parents. In May 2008, the single Summertime was released, with an album scheduled to follow in the fall. Meanwhile, a limited tour reported strong initial sales, with a 2nd show added in their hometown of Boston.


— M. Heyliger