Hanging Tough

The Baltimore Sun

Such worldwide hysteria among teen girls hadn't been seen since the Beatles.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, some 25 years after the Fab Four sparked mania, New Kids on the Block became a sweeping sensation.

The Boston quintet of Donnie Wahlberg, Joey McIntyre, Jordan Knight, Jonathan Knight and Danny Wood dominated the Top 10 with sprightly pop hits that streamlined elements of classic Philly soul and lite hip-hop. Surely you remember them: "Please Don't Go Girl," "Step By Step," "You Got It (The Right Stuff)" and others. Guided by shrewd producer Maurice Starr, NKOTB was the white counterpart to New Edition, the all-black Boston quintet Starr launched in the early '80s.

New Kids on the Block were far bigger, though, packing arenas around the world. When the dust settled, the camera-friendly quintet had become one of the most successful groups of all time.

"I was 14 when New Kids hit the charts, and I was the epitome of every stereotypical teenage girl who worshiped the band," says Shannon Heath, 33, a corporate communications specialist in North Carolina. "NKOTB doesn't have fair-weather fans who drop them when the hottest thing comes along. They held on to the music and memories as a reflection of their youth."

In their five years of pop ubiquity, the guys of NKOTB sold more than 80 million albums worldwide. Merchandise - everything from New Kids T-shirts and bedsheets to lunch boxes and school supplies - moved as swiftly as the cassettes and CDs. Sales exceeded $400 million. For better or worse, NKOTB set the template for the boy bands ('N Sync, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees) that followed in the '90s.

Now, more than a decade after the mania fizzled, the New Kids have reunited for a world tour, which stops at 1st Mariner Arena tonight. The reunion is an event that longtime fans like Heath won't miss. She had long made plans to attend the Tuesday show in Greenville, S.C.

"Here I am, practically on the eve of my 34th birthday, leaving my husband and 4-month-old baby for two days, not to mention paying what some would consider a ridiculous amount of money, for seats by the stage, backstage passes and a chance to be 14 again," she says.

To build anticipation for the tour, NKOTB released an album in September called The Block, its first CD since 1994's Face the Music. But most fans don't care about the new stuff. The tour is, for the most part, a trip down memory lane for women of the MTV generation.

"I remember seeing them for the first time at Merriweather in 1989. They were on the show with Tiffany," another '80s pop sensation, says Sarah Hess, 32, a Pikesville native and senior director of special events for the American Cancer Society in Westchester County, N.Y. "I was with my cousin." She and that cousin are going to the Baltimore show.

Because the New Kids are now men, the reunion performances benefit from a certain level of maturity, Hess says.

"They had the fame, they lost it and they're working hard to get it back," she says. "They're more invested, and they can appreciate the fans more than when they were teenagers. They work harder, and you can see that."

The current tour is the first successful NKOTB reunion. In 1994, after the ambitious Face the Music flopped, the guys officially disbanded. They started families and launched limited solo careers. In 1999, MTV attempted to bring the guys together for a performance on that year's Video Music Awards, but Jonathan Knight dismissed the idea. In 2004, VH1's Bands Reunited tried to persuade NKOTB to perform on the show. This time, Knight was on board, but McIntyre, Wahlberg and Wood were no-shows.

Finally, last April, all members, now well into their 30s, decided to hit the studio and the stage. Announcements for the tour were accompanied by new promo shots of the guys looking serious in sharp suits.

That image seems a little odd as the group revisits its greatest hits: sticky-sweet songs of puppy-love devotion.

With New Kids on the Block, "I can't say it was ever really about the music," says Ian Drew, senior music editor for US Weekly. "The music, in a sense, was another marketing tool to push the overall product."

The rise of grunge rock and gangsta rap in the mid-'90s helped deflate NKOTB's popularity. But the guys' attempts at evolving haven't gelled. On the new album, NKOTB is trying to push a grimier image. The sunniness of the earlier hits is all but gone as the guys sing unimaginatively about sex. The bubbly arrangements of such past favorites as "Cover Girl" and "Tonight" have been supplanted by skittering, mechanical beats and Auto-Tuned vocals.

It's a mostly blah effort, but it was a smart idea to tour. A month before Interscope released The Block, Columbia, the group's old label, put out a sleekly packaged greatest hits collection.

"It hasn't held up that well, but it was never just about that," Drew says of the band's catalog. "It's a different time right now. ... They might not be as agile in their dance moves, but the fans are connected to the memories so can overlook it."

For fans, seeing New Kids on the Block is still a transporting experience. Hess acted like a giggly teenager when she met her favorite New Kid, McIntyre, at a recent Washington performance.

"I mean, I've worked at Columbia Records in their product marketing department. And I've met tons of people, famous musicians, whatever," Hess says. "When we were waiting to meet him, I was like, 'OK, he's just a person. I'm all grown-up. It's not a big deal. It's been 20 years.' I was two feet away from him, and I totally started shaking. ... I talked to him like I was 12. I was like, 'Oh, my God.' That's really lame."

if you go

See New Kids on the Block at 7:30 tonight at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. Tickets are $45-$65 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.

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