Joey McIntyre on how NKOTB became ‘the hardest-working kids in show business’

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New Kids on the Block perform on 'Soul Train' in 1988. (Photo: Soul Train via Getty Images).
New Kids on the Block perform on ‘Soul Train’ in 1988. (Photo: Soul Train via Getty Images).

It’s in the middle of a Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume interview to promote “Own This Town” — a “Valentine” to his home city of Boston, and his first solo single since 2011 — that Joey McIntyre realizes that this year marks the 35th anniversary of his famous boy band, New Kids on the Block. “The cool thing of being together for so long is you get to have all these anniversaries,” he laughs. “It seems like every day: ‘It’s the 30th anniversary! It’s the 30th anniversary of Step by Step being the No. 1 album!’ All that stuff, which is really fun.”

But NKOTB were hardly an overnight success story. Their bubblegummy debut album, released just one year after their formation, didn’t even get close to the No. 1 spot, and was in fact a flop at the time. But that’s when the boys and their manager/creator/producer, Maurice Starr, really got to work — playing clubs and school dances all over the New England era while Starr convinced the group’s label, Columbia Records, to give them a second chance. “There is a real sing-for-your-supper mentality from where we came,” says McIntyre. “You gotta work it. You gotta be the hardest-working guy in the room, the hardest-working kids in show business.”

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McIntyre says it was actually the Black music community that first embraced NKTOB. “I’ve said many times, especially recently, that we were so embraced by the Black community, and so loved,” he points out. “The reality is that in the Black community — and yes, I’m painting with a wide brush here — but like, you either have it or you don’t. They appreciate, in the musical community, getting up there and doing your thing. And I think they’re going to support you no matter what, but if you do it right and you swing for the fences and you connect, they’re going to give you a standing ovation. And that’s what happened in Boston. … I think that’s where [that work ethic] has always derived from for us.”

Starr had intended New Kids on the Block to be a “white version” of the previous group he’d discovered, New Edition, and he had “called around public schools” and looking for “white kids who can sing and dance” when he found musical theater kid McIntyre. “I was 12, and I looked like I was 8,” quips McIntyre, who turns 48 this month. “I think where it starts from, is that first of all, Maurice was Black. He lived in a Black neighborhood and he had connections with a place called the Lee school, a public school — they would have talent shows, and I think it was Maurice’s natural idea of like, ‘These are the places that we’re going to go play.’ We were a pop/R&B group that came up like the Temptations and the Four Tops and New Edition: You sang and you danced. It was that kind of performance. It was that thing. So, that’s where we performed, and that’s where we cut our teeth. And we were always the only white kids in the building. We performed for all-Black audiences.”

Those three years of working the Boston club circuit, along with their doo-wop influences, prepared the New Kids well for their iconic performance in front one of the harshest and notorious audiences anywhere — on Showtime at the Apollo in October 1988, doing what would become their breakthrough single, “Please Don’t Go Girl,” featuring McIntyre on lead vocals.

“It wasn’t new territory. We weren’t fish out of water. It’s just that people never saw it,” says McIntyre. “So, we sort of had that shock value of like, ‘Look at these white boys!’ And we delivered, and they stood up. And so suddenly, the toughest audience in the world, historically, gave us a standing ovation and went crazy and had us back and the whole thing. But this wasn’t all a surprise. It did take a lot of work. We rehearsed in basements, over and over again, and talked to people and had people coach us and mentor us. We kept getting shots, and we would learn every show. We loved the idea of, ‘OK, what are we going to do this time? How are we going to surprise them this time?’ And we still do that today. We still have that fire. And why wouldn’t we? It the best job in the world.”

New Kids on the Block were hardly the first boy band to not be taken seriously. But NKOTB caught more flak than most after they finally achieved mainstream success with 1988’s Hangin’ Tough album and amassed a huge following of young girls, since sexist music journalists tended to discredit acts with largely female fanbases. “[We tell our fans now], ‘They weren’t wrong about us. They were wrong about you. They thought you were dumb and stupid, but we proved them wrong,’” McIntyre says proudly, three decades later.

“In our generation, growing up, not to colorize it, but you know, the guys writing and critiquing us were 30-year-old white guys who listened to rock ‘n’ roll. They didn’t know what a ‘boy band’ was. And so they would just come from that place. Now it’s much more open,” McIntyre adds. “We’ve progressed, thankfully. We’ve actually come a long way. I know every generation is going to say we’ve got a lot more to go, but when you think of just 30 years ago, how bad it was for women and people of color, it’s really breathtaking, you know? And we’ve got to keep chipping away. There’s just so many opportunities for people to call people on their BS. I think that’s one of the good things of social media. There’s plenty of crazy, crazy reasons to not use social media, but one of [the positive aspects] is you’re going to get called on your s*** .”

In a more open pop era, when music fans love all sorts of artists regardless of their color, gender, or genre; when NKTOB seem as popular as ever, with last year’s Mixtape Tour earning more than $50 million; and K-pop septet BTS now the biggest recording act on the planet, McIntyre thinks it’s time for a new American boy band. There’s such a lack of them, in fact, that he just might become the next Maurice Starr and start one himself.

“The new crop of [American] boy bands, they’re not dancing,” he says. “And it’s suddenly struck me that, first of all, they’re leaving a huge thing on the table. It’s like they have a suitcase filled with a million dollars and they’re not opening it. Because I realized, ‘Oh my God, we danced our hearts out.’ We not only did we sing and we had fun and yeah, we were good-looking kids, but we were dancing our hearts out, which anybody can connect to. Young girls see that as an expression. I never put that together; I just thought, ‘Oh, we like to dance, and that’s dope, and it looks good.’ But it’s an expression. It’s saying, ‘I love you.’ It’s saying, ‘I’m so crazy about you, I have to do this dance.’ So, if you have rhythm, you’re leaving so much on the table. It’s like a no-brainer.

“BTS is massive and I’m happy for them, but there’s such a void out there for a [U.S.-based] boy band right now. Like, I don’t understand why there aren’t more. I’m running around the industry going, ‘We need another boy band! Let’s gooooo!’ I mean, maybe someone’s going to [read] this interview and go, ‘He’s right. Make some calls!’ Some manager’s going to call a record company and be like, ‘Let’s go!’ When you think of how big TikTok dances are and how big BTS is, I think you can make songs as good, if not better, you know? I’m just saying there’s an opportunity to have more people in that game. I’m just shocked. I’m really shocked.”

As for the secret behind NKOTB’s influence and staying power, McIntyre chuckles, “Well, we took a lot of time off in between. People say, ‘How do you make it work?’ Well, take 14 years off in between and then go have a life and then come back. But we benefit from something most bands don’t get to have, and that’s experience in sticking together. It’s really hard to keep a band together, and people break up for a lot of different reasons — good, bad, and indifferent. And because we have stayed together, we get to share that past and keep going.”

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The above interview is taken from Joey McIntyre’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available on the SiriusXM app.

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