New Kids on the Block were the ultimate teen idols. Now they're all grown up – and making a comeback. And so are their fans. Matilda Egere-Cooper reports
Tuesday, 23 September 2008
It normally starts with a chant, followed by squeals, which quickly build up into a euphoric chorus of screams, claps and occasional foot-stomping. At HMV on London's Oxford Street, hundreds of New Kids on the Block fans are in fine form, even if most of them are in their late twenties and early thirties. One buxom woman, squeezed up against a security barrier, is wearing a white vest emblazoned with the name "Donnie" and proudly waving a banner that reads: "I heart you Donnie – mwah".
Another fan from Baltimore, Maryland, tells me she hung out with Joey in their hotel bar the previous night and apologised for stalking him at his Boston house 15 years ago. "He was so sweet," she gushes. "But Jordan? He just doesn't know how to act." The discussion turns to our favourite songs and stories of hopping into taxis to chase the Kids back in the day. The chanting kicks off again. "We want New Kids! We want New Kids!"
The hysteria is mild, but still impressive. Many of these woman have travelled from all over the country and beyond (a few are from New Zealand). Some camped outside the shop the night before. A few have dragged along their kids, who look pretty confused by the fuss.
But any fan worth their limited-edition NKOTB lunch-box knows this gig is a big deal. It's been 14 years since the world's biggest boy-band split, disappearing into the haze of the Nineties until Backstreet Boys, N'Sync, Take That and others stole their thunder a few years later. But nothing could beat the New Kids – 80 million records sold, countless No 1 hits, hundreds of well-executed arena shows and a shameless array of merchandise.
When Joey McIntyre, Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood and Jordan and Jon Knight finally take to the stage for this much-anticipated appearance, they're ready to party like it's 1989. "London, how ya doing?" asks Donnie, who at 39 quickly works his playboy persona by grabbing hands and laying kisses on anyone within reach. Cue screams, claps and foot-stomping. Their four-song set, which includes the oldies "Step by Step" and "Tonight", is a reminder that they're no longer boys, but grown men clinging on to former glories thanks to careful choreography that doesn't require backflips and the impressive vocals of Jordan and Joey. And they're still after the hearts of their lady fans. Asked what was the weirdest thing they ever had to sign, Donnie smiles wryly. "Does ass count?" Cue screams.
Strangely, the hype doesn't follow them back to their hotel a few hours later. Either the word hasn't got out where they're staying, or their groupies have gone back to work. Whatever the case, the group are back to their casual selves. Donnie greets me with a handshake and a kiss. A muscle-bound Danny is all smiles, while the strikingly handsome Joey is still quite hyper. Jon's disappeared, and Jordan is just hanging around.
Two Kids join me in a booth: Donnie is slouched to my right, Danny comfortably close to my left. I ask Donnie if he's ever had the surreal experience of meeting a childhood idol he never thought he'd meet. "No," he smiles steadily, "but I've slept with a woman I never thought I'd meet." Oh, Donnie. "He's just worked with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro for his new film," Danny quickly offers, as Jordan and Joey take a seat. Someone's missing. "Jon's probably having a cigarette," Joey suggests.
A quick glance, and it's clear that they've aged well. Everyone has kids except Jon. Jordan and Joey are married. Danny is divorced, along with a newly single Donnie, who practically bristles at the mention of the word.
A reunion had been rumoured for years, but it was thought that Jon, who's made a mint selling houses, wasn't up for it. He left the group because he suffered from panic attacks caused by years in the limelight. This afternoon, however, he's cheerful, but leaves the other four to bask in the attention.
Put on the spot about his decision to rejoin the group, he chooses his words carefully: "There was a part of me that missed it. I thought long and hard before I said I would do it. In the past, I never held out... I know in 1999 we were asked to present an award at a TV show and I was like, 'Why bother? There's nothing in it for me.' It wasn't a big deal. But I love these guys and I knew what it was like before. It just seemed the right time for me to jump back in."
Still, the timing is contentious. With a number of high-profile reunion albums and tours boosting the music industry, it wouldn't be unseemly for the boys to cash in. Donnie's become the most successful New Kid to date, having built a Hollywood career almost as lucrative as his younger brother Mark's. Joey has had some success in acting, while Jordan and Danny dabbled in reality TV. Jon sold houses.
But the suggestion that they jumped on the reunion bandwagon annoys Donnie. It was his idea for the group to reform last year after hearing a demo he thought would suit them. "I think [the idea] that we'd do a reunion just because someone else did is very discouraging to me. It wouldn't guide my personal choice. If I'm going to be part of something that's going to be compared to Take That or someone else, that would just be a negative on my list. It has no bearing on why we're doing this."
But they are doing it well. On their new album The Block, they've roped in the star power of Akon, Ne-Yo and the Pussycat Dolls to unveil a new sound that could fit in today's musical landscape – but cringe-worthy song titles like "Sexify My Love", and Donnie's insistence on rapping, border on parody. It's hard to work out if they're trying to appeal to their old fans or to their kids' schoolfriends.
"We didn't do the album trying to make it for any age group," Danny says. "If you set out to reach certain people... The people you're trying to reach, they might think it's fake; people who've always been your fans may not appreciate it," adds Donnie, who served as one of the album's executive producers. "You have to make the music for yourself first and make the music that you feel good about. Then everyone else will like it as well."
But their live shows are expected to deliver. When they announced their reunion tour in the US, tickets sold out within minutes. And the boys head to these shores in January. As for future albums, they snigger at the suggestion that they'll follow The Block with more records. Surely they would? "The idea is to keep the door open," Joey explains. "The idea that we can come back, in whatever manifestation; I think that's cool. We can come back and people will expect something good from us."
New Kids on the Block were put together by Maurice "The General" Starr – a Berry Gordon-esque Svengali who'd made a sensation out of R&B teen hitmakers New Edition and hoped to emulate that success with white kids to rival The Osmonds. He met Donnie in summer 1984 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Donnie helped him to find the others: Danny was his best friend, Jordan and Jon friends from school. Donnie's younger brother Mark was a member in the early days, but left to be reborn as Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Joey replaced original member Jamie Kelly because, as Donnie explains, "He wasn't good – he had no talent. He was just any other white guy crazy enough to get on stage with us."
The boys are proud of their early rise to fame. "To find five kids who were willing to stick it out and go through that impossible journey... When you think about the odds of us ever accomplishing anything on that level, and then the challenges that faced us... we could have woke up any morning and just walked. We could have just gone off and got a girlfriend and gone and had babies and had a life. And you couldn't find guys doing what we did," says Donnie. "You would have to scour the whole country to find 100 white guys doing what we were doing, to audition for the group." Danny chips in: "There was no Disney factory in Orlando, churning out boy bands back then."
They admit things got murkier when their careers peaked in 1989, after hits like "The Right Stuff" and "Hangin' Tough". They've never told tales of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, but they've never denied they weren't as clean-cut as they appeared to be. "Stadium tours were the end of the innocence, but it was the beginning of the marketing of the innocence," says Donnie, knowingly. "It was just a bad time." "Godawful!" adds Jordan. "Everything just got away from us... It just got pinker and yellower..." ("More fluorescent," says Danny.) "And we were getting older," Jordan continues. "What you start having was a lot of fractures. It was a fractured group. It was just so big..."
Donnie tries to be diplomatic. "It stopped being about anything but work. We probably tried to take our talent to the limit and tried to define who we were individually but we also tried to do whatever we could to stay connected to reality somehow, so it became posses on the road, different personalities, everybody pushing to find their own voice. Then you have to come together and do commercials for every name brand in the world. Everything was starting to go down for the wrong reasons." "And there were 70,000 people out there that wanted a piece of you," adds Joey. "So you just start going into a little protective cocoon. You don't get to laugh and have fun like you used to."
By 1994, they were seeking independence. They changed their name to NKOTB and returned with the Starr-less album Face the Music, a much edgier offering. It tanked. "At a better time in our career, it probably would have worked," Jordan says. "We got so big and we were jammed down so many people's throats that people were gonna reject us regardless."
Their biggest challenge now will be to ensure they don't go down in history as the biggest boyband that tried and failed again. "If you play your cards right, and you are true and you are honest and you do good work and you believe in yourself, you can come back," Joey says. "And here we are. What other boy band is like us? There's no other boy band like us from our era."
"When I look at New Kids, I refuse to let that be the definition of my life," Donnie admits. "There's more to life than New Kids but at the same time, there are no rules. Today, we're defining who we are and we're defining how we'll be remembered, and that's fun. I'd rather have it be in our hands than anyone else's."