Like any girl who came of age in the early 90s, we knew some basic facts on the New Kids on the Block.
We knew Donnie was the leader; Joey and Jordan, the cute ones, and the lead singers; Jon, the shy, sensitive one; Danny, the one who looked like a monkey. We knew that our best friend in grade school was utterly convinced she was going to marry Jordan. And we knew that when the New Kids, now known by the acronym NKOTB, made their triumphant return four years ago, a surprising number of our friends bought tickets and shrieked all the way through the show.
So maybe those friends — the diehard fans — knew everything there was to know about the band already. But for those of us who just knew the basics, Nikki Van Noy's new authorized biography, New Kids on the Block: Five Brothers and a Million Sisters, contains a surprising number of revelations about the boy band that practically invented the genre, at least for white folks. Here are the ten we found most surprising.
10. The New Kids were legit.
Or, at least, they weren't manufactured in the way of so many boy bands that followed, like the Backstreet Boys. With the exception of Joey McIntyre, they were all from Boston's hardscrabble Dorchester neighborhood and all went to the same elementary school. It was Donnie Wahlberg who met producer Maurice Starr and recruited the others — with, again, the exception of McIntyre, who lived a few neighborhoods over and was found after Starr's aide called around looking for “white kids who could sing and dance.”
9. Their backgrounds are genuinely hardscrabble.
All five New Kids were from ginormous, blue-collar families. Joe and Donnie both had eight siblings, Danny had five, and Jonathan and Jordan were part of a family with six biological children and typically as many as six foster kids at any one time.
Interestingly, Donnie's younger brother, Mark Wahlberg, was a member of the group's earliest incarnation, called (bizarrely) Nynuk. But when the Wahlbergs moved to a different neighborhood, Mark fell in with a new crowd. “Mark had new friends in Savin Hill, so he didn't want to be in the studio with me,” Donnie tells Van Noy. “He wanted to go out and steal cars with his friends.”
8. The New Kids were originally marketed to black audiences.
Starr's previous success was with New Edition, so his connections were in black radio. Plus, the New Kids were urban kids who liked breakdancing, R&B and hip-hop — and at that point, crossover was still rare.
But their album, made with CBS Records' black division, faltered on black music charts; it was only when a DJ on a pop station in Tampa started playing “Please Don't Go Girl” that anyone realized that white girls might be interested, too.
7. They paid their dues.
Among the New Kids' early shows: retirement homes and, Van Noy writes, “a jail where one of Donnie's brothers was incarcerated at the time.” In a desperate attempt to woo the inmates, the boys threw cigarettes into the crowd. Donnie tells Van Noy, “I just knew prisoners loved cigarettes, and I also figured it's the only way we wouldn't get humiliated.” It worked.
6. Their first big breakthrough? Harlem's Apollo Theater.
They were petrified to perform in front of the notoriously tough crowd. (As Danny explains to Van Noy, this was not Showtime at the Apollo as we see it on TV; it was an even rowdier night for true amateurs.) But they were a hit: Halfway into the performance, Jon recalls to Van Noy, “They started shouting, 'Go white boys! Go white boys!' It was just like, 'What the hell is happening?”
5. When the New Kids got big, they got really big.
A girl was trampled to death at a concert in South Korea. J. Lo was a backup dancer during their performance at the American Music Awards in 1991. They were also treated to a guest appearance by Public Enemy's Flava Flav.
4. Jonathan Knight pulled the plug.
When the group disbanded in 1994, it was mostly because their fans had grown up and moved on. But it took Jon's departure to hit home the fact it was over. He'd been riddled with anxiety over live performances. And he'd grown tired of hiding his sexuality. Yep, the shy, sensitive one was gay.
In those quaint, pre-Internet years, the band's demise came out in a trickle, not a pop. Many of the New Kids' biggest fans got the news when they received a snail-mail letter from the fan club, refunding their membership and saying thanks.
3. The band reunited 15 years later — and the fans were still there.
After recording an album in L.A. and first trying their stuff out in a performance at WeHo's House of Blues, the newly reconstituted NKOTB made their triumphant return on the Today Show. The performance, Van Noy reports, drew more fans than a recent performance on the same show by Bruce Springsteen. Among the collaborators assisting with their comeback: A then virtually unknown Lady Gaga, who was brought in as a songwriter (“Big Girl Now”) but ended up singing on the track, too.
2. You could meet a New Kid at a Waffle House.
Since their reunion, NKOTB has been touring for nearly four years — continuing both to draw crowds and soak up the adulation. (The joint tour with the Backstreet Boys, called NKOTBSB, has been particularly successful.)
Now that their fans are full-grown, there's a camaraderie between performers and performees. Frequently, after concerts, Donnie will tweet directly to the followers: “Meet us at the Waffle House,” Van Noy reports. As many as 300 fans show up.
Van Noy quotes one admirer: “It turns into a party both inside the restaurant and in the parking lot, with music coming from the parked cars with the windows down and the stereo up. There's music playing inside, and Donnie leading chants such as, 'When I say Waffle, you say House: Waffle! House! Waffle! House!' Donnie has been known to come in with a boom box held over his head with The Block blaring, leading the restaurant in singing 'Full Service' and 'Dirty Dancing.'”
1. Deadheads have nothing on Blockheads.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Van Noy's book is this: NKOTB have a core of deeply passionate fans, women who aren't just attending these shows ironically as we'd assumed. The self-described Blockheads camp out. They, yes, flood the Waffle House after shows. They snap up tickets for New Kids' cruises — all 2,700 of them — within hours of an announcement.
They even travel to see multiple shows in the same tour — although, as Van Noy concedes, it's an identical setlist from town to town. “The lifestyle element of all of this is more frequently found in the jam-band scene, with bands such as the Grateful Dead and Phish,” she writes. “[For NKOTB] fans, this willingness to travel great distances and see multiple shows per summer has more to do with soaking in the atmosphere and excitement than seeing a different show every single night.”
So, why? How is it possible that this band is still lighting up big venues four years after they reunited? No matter how “cute” they are, let's face it: The music is mostly forgettable. And no matter how talented, tastes change, or at least they should. Just how many boy bands are still going strong decades later?
But in the dozens of fascinating interviews with super fans that Van Noy records for posterity in this well-researched, smartly organized book, it becomes clear it's not about the music. (It never is.) It's about remembering the way we were — those junior-high days when so many of us loved nothing more than this band, when you could dream of marrying Jordan Knight and fully believe it really would come true.
Today, of course, you still can't marry Jordan. He's got a wife, and kids. But thanks to the magic of Twitter and the band's enormous accessibility to its fans, you could probably meet him. And you can definitely still scream your heart out when he sings.