Nearly a quarter century after they started hangin’ tough, New Kids on the Block say they still have “the right stuff.”
The multi-platinum Bostonbred quintet, which, along with Beantown mates New Edition provided a boy band bridge between the Jackson 5 and the Backstreet Boys/*NSYNC-led brigade of the ’90s, is back with “The Block,” its first new album since 1994 and fifth overall. The set debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, and at No. 1 in Canada, while singles such as “Summertime” and “Single” have returned the group to radio playlists.
And NKOTB is back on the road, competing in volume against the same kind of screams that typically accompany their performances.
“We’re back now because we want to be,” the group’s Donnie Wahlberg says of the reunion. “No one on the outside was going to be able to do it. That’s why the other attempts at a reunion would never work — somebody else comes in, some record industry executive or television executive — they all come with their own agenda. But their agendas were never dialed in to what our wants are.
“We had to do this ourselves, because nobody else was going to be able to give us that.”
It’s easy to understand why there’s been interest in a NKOTB reunion. Between 1986-94, the then-teen group, which was put together in 1984 by New Edition svengali Maurice Starr, sold more than 70 million albums worldwide. NKOTB scored 10 Top 40 hits, including three No. 1’s — “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever),” “Hangin’ Tough” and “Step By Step” — and fronted an enterprise that included more than 140 licensed products, from sleeping bags to lunch boxes, and a fan club that received 100,000 calls per week to its hotline and more than 30,000 letters a day.
“It was a little intense,” Joey McIntyre says with a laugh. But he acknowledges the ride wasn’t always smooth.
“It was aggravating and frustrating when you felt like everything was getting ahead of you instead of right in front of you,” McIntyre, the youngest New Kid at 35, explains. “And we were kids at the time. When you’re a teenager you think you know everything, and it’s even harder when everyone’s pulling you in different directions. That adds to the frustration.
“So what’s important to us right now is to keep the pace of it something that we feel like we can manage and doesn’t overwhelm us.”
The five group members — Wahlberg, McIntyre, Danny Wood and brothers Jordan and Jonathan Knight — found their own comfort zones during the interim years. Wahlberg, 39, has been the most visible; after helping his brother Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg launch a music career, he turned to acting with roles in “Ransom,” “The Sixth Sense,” HBO’s “Band of Brothers” and this year’s “Righteous Kill.” But in that field, Wahlberg says, he’s spent time letting castmates know that NKOTB “was not a mistake or a blip in my career.”
McIntyre, Wood, 39, and Jordan Knight, 38, meanwhile, continued to release albums. Jonathan Knight, 39 — who dated fellow pop star Tiffany during NKOTB’s heyday — became a real estate developer.
After a number of reunion offers, including an approach by VH1’s “Bands Reunited,” were rebuffed, Wahlberg put things in motion last year when his attorney, Jaimie Roberts, gave him some song demos while he was in New York for a wardrobe fitting for “Righteous Kill.” One of them was “Click, Click, Click,” the opening track on “On the Block,” which “just grabbed me immediately” and set Wahlberg back into New Kids mode.
With Wahlberg as co-executive producer, NKOTB spent about nine months working on “The Block,” accumulating songs and working with contemporary hitmakers such as Ne-Yo (on “Single”), Akon (“Put It on My Tab”), the Pussycat Dolls (“Grown Man,” also with Teddy Riley), Timbaland (“Twisted”) and Lady Gaga (“Big Girl Now”).
Polow Da Don and Redone produced several tracks each, while “Full Service,” teamed NKOTB with New Edition, which Wahlberg calls “an incredible experience. They were childhood idols for us, so to work with them was unbelievable, and not one moment was disappointing.”
Wahlberg and company figured the audience for “The Block” “would be 30 to 40 (year-old) women,” but they were pleased to find they underestimated their appeal. “We’re doing signings and there’s teenage girls showing up,” McIntyre reports, “and they have our ringtones and they’re into it, so it’s not just old (fans) coming back.”
How long NKOTB will be back is an open issue, however. Wahlberg says that he wanted “The Block” “to allow us to write the final chapter of the New Kids.” But neither he nor his fellow New Kids are ruling out the possibility the story might go on a little bit longer.
“It really could take many forms,” Wahlberg says, “and one of the beauties of this thing is we really have to be open to whatever the possibilities are. We’ve talked about everything from doing an album and tour with New Edition to doing solo albums and then coming back for one more group album. There’s no limit to what we can do.”
“The challenge is how do you keep it fresh and how do you keep it new?,” McIntyre explains. “We want to push the envelope and do something that challenges us and is new to us.
“But first the question this time around was ‘Can they come back?,’ and I think we have. Now it’s like, ‘What are they gonna do next?’ and ... we’ll see.”
New Kids on the Block, Natasha Bedingfield and Tami Chynn perform at 8 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 25) at The Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $38-78. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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