The Number Ones

June 30, 1990

The Number Ones: New Kids On The Block’s “Step By Step”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

***

Maurice Starr was feeling himself. New Kids On The Block, the group of fresh-faced white kids that Starr had assembled, were the biggest thing in the world. The New Kids’ 1988 album Hangin’ Tough had gone octuple platinum. Those album sales had dragged the New Kids’ self-titled 1986 debut, a flop when it first came out, to triple-platinum status. Even the New Kids’ quickie Christmas album had sold two million. The New Kids dominated the singles charts, too. In 1988 and 1989, they’d knocked out seven consecutive top-ten hits, including two, “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” and “Hangin’ Tough,” that went all the way to the top.

One of those seven top-ten hits was a cover of the Delfonics “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind),” but other than that, Starr had written and produced all of the New Kids’ big hits. (That Delfonics cover peaked at #8. It’s a 2.) Starr had played most of the instruments on the records, too. At one point, a few of the New Kids had co-written and co-produced “I’ll Be Your Everything,” a #1 hit for their friend and opening act Tommy Page. Starr had even had a hand in that song; he’d played guitar and bass on the record.

But the records were just part of Maurice Starr’s New Kids On The Block empire. Starr kept the New Kids on the road, where they performed for millions. The group’s summer 1990 tour had a Coke sponsorship and a pay-per-view special. Starr licensed the New Kids’ likenesses for all sorts of merch, and all those lunchboxes and dolls brought in hundreds of millions of dollars. In the fall of 1990, ABC aired one season of a New Kids Saturday-morning cartoon, with voice actors standing in for the different New Kids.

Maurice Starr was telling anyone who would listen all about his own genius. In a South Florida Sun-Sentinel interview in March of 1991, for instance, Starr bragged that the talent of the artists he managed didn’t even matter: “Man, talent is the last thing on the list you need… I’d have to say that most white families have as much talent as New Kids On The Block.”

At that point, Starr didn’t know that the New Kids had already reached #1 for the last time and that none of the new artists he was pushing would ever reach their level of success. But that last New Kids #1 hit was another Maurice Starr song. In fact, it was a Maurice Starr song that had already flopped a few years earlier.

In 1987, Maurice Starr wrote “Step By Step” for a Boston R&B group called the Superiors. The track had a vague electro-pop/Latin freestyle vibe and chanty background vocals that were clearly intended to evoke rap music without involving any actual rapping. At that point, Starr was working with the New Kids, but the New Kids were still a year away from blowing up. The Superiors’ “Step By Step” single came out on Motown, but it went nowhere. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Starr later recalled, “The company thought it was a dud. Even some radio stations said it’s not a hit record.” (The Superiors eventually released an album called Perfect Timing on Columbia in 1990, and Starr’s brother Michael Jonzun produced it. Apparently, the timing wasn’t perfect, since that record didn’t go anywhere, either.)

By 1990, though, just about anything with the New Kids logo on it was practically guaranteed to be a hit. On the New Kids’ 1990 album Step By Step, Maurice Starr once again wrote and produced virtually everything himself, though a couple of New Kids got songwriting credits on a couple of songs. Step By Step is a deeply messy and slapdash album. Even though it’s the much-hyped Hangin’ Tough follow-up, it plays like a quickie cash-grab, not too different from the Christmas record that preceded it. If you ever want to enjoy a deep inward cringe, just listen to Donnie Wahlberg attempt dancehall toasting on the deep cut “Stay With Me Baby.” In grand cash-grab fashion, Maurice Starr recycled his own material for the LP’s lead single and title track. He brought back “Step By Step,” and he turned it into a New Kids song.

Before the New Kids released the Step By Step album in June of 1990, record stores had already put in advance orders of two million copies, which meant the LP was double platinum out of the gate. The group released the “Step By Step” single a month before the album, and that single went platinum, too. At that point, the New Kids were too big to fail. It didn’t matter that the new song was old, and it also didn’t matter that it wasn’t that good.

I might be clowning too hard here. “Step By Step” is OK. It’s a fast, jittery song with a big digital bassline and disco strings and echo-drenched electronic handclaps, and I like all those things. It’s got a sticky hook, and I like the part where the various New Kids all count off the different steps. (Nobody had mastered the boy-band art of trading off lead vocals within every song; that wouldn’t happen until the late ’90s.) But “Step By Step” is also thin and tinny, and in the summer of 1990, it sounded just slightly past its sell-by date.

Jordan Knight, the New Kid with the creamiest delivery, sings lead on “Step By Step,” just as he’d done on the New Kids’ first chart-topper “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever).” Knight cuts loose a little bit on his step-three bit, but for most of the song, he sounds like he’s trying to keep up with the beat. With the track moving as fast as it does, Knight never sounds confident enough to get flirty. It doesn’t help that Starr’s lyrics are all insipid greeting-card poetry. (“Step one” rhymes with “have lots of fun,” “step two” with “there’s so much we can do,” that kind of thing.) The back-up vocal chanting is mostly just annoying, too.

“Step By Step” is much better as a music video than as a song. Lawrence Jordan, a prolific live-special director, filmed the New Kids doing busily synchronized dance steps. Some of them also engage in traditionally manly activities like lifting weights and riding motorcycles. Donnie Wahlberg’s younger brother Mark makes a quick cameo; he’ll eventually be in this column. It’s also worth noting that Donnie wears a Public Enemy shirt and a T-shirt for Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate crew. (A couple of years later, Rhyme Syndicate member Everlast took off running with Donnie’s whole “tough Boston Irish guy” vibe, even though Everlast isn’t from Boston.) I was wondering how Public Enemy felt about Donnie’s shirt, but apparently, they were into it. In 1991, the New Kids and Flavor Flav performed at the American Music Awards together. (Public Enemy’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “Give It Up,” peaked at #33.)

“Step By Step” was a big enough hit to keep the whole New Kids phenomenon going. The self-referential “Tonight,” the second single from the album, peaked at #7. (It’s a 3.) That made it nine top-10 hits in a row for the New Kids. But that was it. New Kids On The Block had a bunch of hits, but those hits had to run out sometime.

The New Kids followed “Tonight” with “Let’s Try It Again,” and that single decisively broke their top-10 streak, peaking at #53. Throughout 1991, the New Kids stayed on the road, where they grossed a ton of money, but they didn’t release anything other than a remix album. During that stretch, the group had to do some heavy damage control. In 1992, Gregory McPherson, the UMass music teacher who arranged the strings on Step By Step, told the New York Post that the New Kids lip-synced in their live shows and that Maurice Starr had really recorded a lot of the vocals credited to the New Kids. In the wake of the whole Milli Vanilli uproar, this was the last thing that the New Kids needed.

McPherson and the New Kids both sued each other. After the accusations, the New Kids flew back from an Australian tour to appear on The Arsenio Hall Show, where they sang live and where Donnie Wahlberg angrily rapped about McPherson. During an interview with Arsenio Hall, the group admitted that they’d sung over backing tracks at live shows and that Starr had sung some of the harmonies on their records, but they insisted that they’d sung all the lead vocals. Eventually, McPherson put out a statement retracting his claims.

Lip-syncing accusations or no lip-syncing accusations, the backlash was coming for the New Kids On The Block. It was inevitable. The backlash had really arrived just as soon as the group got famous, and once that crazy wave of enthusiasm died down, the backlash overwhelmed them. Step By Step went triple platinum — a big number, but less than half of what Hangin’ Tough had done. Once they finally got done touring behind Step By Step, the New Kids broke away from Maurice Starr, who never touched that level of success again. (Maurice Starr’s next venture, the R&B kid group Perfect Gentlemen, peaked at #10 with their 1990 single “Ooh La La (I Can’t Get Over You).” It’s a 2.) The New Kids changed their name to NKOTB, and they tried to reinvent themselves as a mature R&B group on the 1994 album Face The Music. It didn’t work. Face The Music didn’t even go gold, though lead single “If You Go Away” did climb as high as #16.

After Face The Music caught a brick, the New Kids broke up. Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre started solo careers, and both of them had a bit of success in the late-’90s boy-band wave that the New Kids inspired. (Knight’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “Give It To You,” peaked at #10. It’s an 8. McIntyre’s biggest hit, 1999’s “Stay The Same,” also peaked at #10. It’s a 4.) Donnie Wahlberg became an actor, debuting alongside future Number Ones subject Tupac Shakur in 1996’s Bullet and then making a big impression in the intense opening scene of The Sixth Sense in 1999. Wahlberg has now been in 235 episodes of Blue Bloods, a show that I have never once seen, so he seems to be doing well for himself. As a producer, Wahlberg will appear in this column again.

In 2008, the New Kids On The Block got back together. There’d been talk of a reunion before, but the guys in the group didn’t want to do it unless all five were on board. The video for comeback single “Summertime,” in which Donnie texts the other New Kids and tells them that it’s time, is some fun bullshit.

“Summertime” peaked at #36. Since then, the New Kids have released a lot of other singles, and none of them have charted. That can’t be a surprise, and it doesn’t really matter. The New Kids On The Block are the undisputed kings of the nostalgia market, and they can headline an arena-sized package tour anytime they want. Good for them.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the presumably-snarky “Step By Step” cover that the Lemonheads released on their 1990 EP Favorite Spanish Dishes:

(The Lemonheads’ highest-charting single, 1993’s “Into Your Arms,” peaked at #67.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: On 1991’s No More Games (The Remix Album), producers David Cole and Robert Clivillés remixed “Step By Step,” turning it into body-jacking New York house music. Here’s Cole and Clivillés’ C&C Vocal Club Mix of “Step By Step”:

(Cole and Clivillés’ C+C Music Factory will eventually appear in this column.)

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