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Old 06-05-2022, 09:37 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Stranger in a Strange Land: Trollheart ventures into the world of boybands



I watch the coastline nervously as it comes nearer, and a trick of perspective seems to make it bob up and down on the water. I know of course that it's me, or rather, the ship that's carrying me, rising and falling on the swell of the ocean as I approach this new and daunting land, but my brain refuses to register that. Perhaps that's due to the trepidation I feel on making this journey. I look at my ticket and heft my shoulder-bag, and not for the first time ask myself why I'm doing this, why I'm putting myself through this torture?

Then I remember my promise to myself, and to the good readers of my Journal, back at Music Banter. I have decided to, Jackhammer-like, do my very best to try to ensure that I know as much about genres with which I am only peripherally acquainted, in order to fulfil, in a way, that old adage, know thine enemy. I do not expect to get into this music, but I want to be sufficiently informed that, the next time I slag it off, I can at least feel that I know what I am talking about. It's very easy to say “I hate reggae” or “All rap is awful”, or indeed “Punk is all noise”, but if you haven't listened to any of that music in any real depth then you're just as guilty of bias and ignorance as someone who has seen Genesis play “Follow you follow me” on TV and maybe heard Marillion's “Kayleigh” on the radio who says that all prog rock is rubbish. They don't know that, haven't taken the time to find out what the music is like, have based their opinion on the tiniest examples of that music, and so have come to a totally uninformed and biased conclusion.

My aim is to travel to the most foreign musical countries I can, sample the local music, and try to if not understand it, at least take the good parts out of it, or if they can't be found, relate why I find that particular music so unappealing. At least the next time I say, for instance, Bob Marley is rubbish (sorry, Marley fans, just an example!) and someone says you know nothing about reggae, I will be able to quote albums, artistes and songs to back up my assertions. Of course, these voyages could do the opposite, and change my mindset, so that I will in fact get into these bands, these different genres, or if not get into them, at least get them. That would be interesting, to say the least.

And so, my first, purposely-chosen as perhaps one of the scariest genres to be explored is the clinical, cold, empty and formulaic world of the Boyband. At least, that's how I see such music. Whether this trip will change my mind, whether I will begin to see some good in this genre, or whether I will be able to appreciate with a new ear the music of such bands as Boyzone, Nsync and Backstreet Boys, is open to question. But at least no-one will be able to say I didn't try.

So, I remind myself, that's why I've come all this way, and as the coast comes ever closer into view, my heart begins pounding faster, and I reach for an anxiety tablet to calm my fracturing nerves. As the ship gets closer, and I can now make out the garishly coloured buildings that dot the coastline of this pristine country, a strange sound comes to my ears, borne on the wind, which itself sounds like nothing less than a frothy digital piano playing the same chords over and over again, till it is surely enough to drive hardened sailors mad and cause ships to dash against the rocks. How the captain stands it is beyond me.

I start to clap my hands to my ears, to shut out the awful sound, but then remember my promise, and grit my teeth and endure it as it becomes louder as we drift nearer and nearer. The sound resolves into a low, vibrant hum which seems to maintain the same level while at the same time appearing to rise in pitch. I shake my head, fish out a sandwich from my bag for energy as I stand at the rail of the ship, in the bow as we nose into the harbour, and with trembling hands quickly run up the last prog rock track I will be able to listen to before I have to turn my full attention to the simpering, poe-faced adolescent pap that passes for music from the residents of these islands. Sorry, that wasn't very open-minded, was it? Well, I'm not on their land yet, so sue me.

Before I know it, I'm leaving the ship on shaky legs, my ipod surrendered to the purser to eliminate any temptation to listen to other music, and making my way down into the docks and up into the many small villages which dot the area around the coastline. I realise with mounting horror now what that sound is, and it almost sends me screaming back to the ship, which I realise with hammering heart is gearing up for departure already. Understandable: few if any journey to these dark islands; this trip cost me, and no-one would stay here longer than they have to!

But the sound! Yes, there it is again, higher-pitched and stronger than when we were coming into the harbour, and now that I'm on dry land I can make out the incessant, frenzied, almost overpowering sound of thousands upon thousands of female teenage voices just screaming, almost as one, at the top of their voices. There are no words can be made out, just an endless, indecipherable cacophony that hurts the ears and threatens to shake the brain loose from the skull.

I have arrived in Early BoyBand Land.

(note: my thanks to the designers of the maps used here. I have no way to contact you - or even determine who you are - in order to ask permission for their use, so hope you will not mind this somewhat irreverent use of your fine work, which is not meant in any way to denigrate or make fun of it. Just Boybands.)


The truly scary thing about this country is its size! Boybands have been around since the Dawn of Time (well, the late seventies) but only really came into vogue with the emergence of New Edition, and on their heels New Kids on the Block, generally accepted as having been the first “real” Boybands. But just what is a Boyband? Well, in the unlikely event that there are some of you out there blessed enough not to know what I'm talking about (World War 2 ended almost seventy years ago, by the way!) here's what Wikipedia, the online Encyclopedia of Everything, the web's version of the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - though without the amusing voiceover and graphics - has to say on the subject.

”A boy band (or boyband) is loosely defined as a popular music act consisting of only male singers. The members are expected to dance as well as sing, usually giving highly choreographed performances. More often than not, boy band members do not play musical instruments, either in recording sessions or on stage, and only sing and dance, making the term somewhat of a misnomer. However, exceptions do exist. In many cases boy bands are brought together by a producer through an audition process, although many of them form on their own.”

(The above was copied and pasted directly from the Wiki entry, the only time I have ever done this. I usually utilise Wiki for much of my information, but none of it is ever copied down verbatim. This once, I felt it was right to do so, given the largely false and insincere makeup of these bands. No dubbed vocals, though!)

So, definition confirmed, it seems to be agreed that the first two real boybands were these two, and although there was of course the Jackson Five, I don't really consider them a boyband, mostly due to the fact that some of them could, and did, play instruments (Tito played lead guitar, Jermaine bass and Randy played both keyboards and drums) and the teeny-bopper sensation of the 70s, Scotland's own Bay City Rollers, but again, they played instruments, at least some of them, and to my knowledge did not engage in any of the choreographed routines endemic to Boybands nowadays, so I'm not including them.

Onward, brave heart! The fire awaits! Or something...
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Old 06-05-2022, 10:42 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Old 06-06-2022, 06:24 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Yes, I'm afraid so.
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Old 06-06-2022, 09:12 AM   #4 (permalink)
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You know, some people have referred to the Beatles as a boyband (Ugh), and I guess, if you want to get technical, you can go back to early doo wop or the harmony pop groups of the fifties like the Four Aces for example.

Anyway, assuming you are omitting bands like the Beatles and Hollies from this list (and I hope you are), does that mean we have to endure, ugh, the Osmonds?
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Old 06-06-2022, 11:18 AM   #5 (permalink)
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No. Didn't they have Marie? Anyway, I'm only going from the 80s, when the so-called Boyband phenomenon is agreed to have really begun. And we begin with these guys.

Part One: "Out of the mouths of babes and little children..."


And so I flag down a taxi and point out my destination on the map. It's a small city further north and inland, called Editiona Nueva, which my driver helpfully informs me is the local language for “New Edition”. Well, thanks for that Einstein! I could have figured that out myself! We travel for some time through deserted roads and past vast plains of sand before we come to a somewhat run-down town, with a village clock that seems for some reason permanently stuck at six-fifteen (whether this is morning or evening I don't know) and a lot of people roam the streets in unfashionable clothes. I'm right back where it started, and it looks like the inhabitants have remained there, in 1982. I check into the nearest hotel that doesn't look too rundown and seedy, and after eating and freshening up I head off to the local library, laptop under my arm, to make my first report.



And so it is, in the city named after the first ever real Boyband, I begin my tale. In 1982 New Edition came second in a talent contest and were “created” as a new version of the Jackson 5 by producer Maurice Starr, and included the now-famous Bobby Brown in their lineup. The original personnel were as follows:-

Bobby Brown
Michael Bivins
Ricky Bell
Ralph Tresvant
Ronnie DeVoe

Signed by Starr and taken to his recording studio to record their first album, 1983's Candy Girl the boys must have been somewhat nonplussed to receive a cheque for the grand total of $1.87 each after completing their first major concert! This despite the fact that Candy Girl had yielded them four hit singles, one of which went to number one!
Candy Girl --- New Edition --- 1983 (Streetwise)


Impressionable kids? Certainly sounds like it. Sounds like they were totally ripped off by an unscrupulous manager and record label boss - thank God that doesn't happen anymore! But the average age of the band members, for want of a better description, in New Edition was fifteen, so I suppose the fame and glory must have gone to their heads, the money a secondary concern. You can be sure ol' Maurice Starr made sure he got his ninety-nine point nine nine percent of their earnings, though!

We'll return to the story of these guys later, and see how they got on, but for now the time has come that we all feared, me most especially: time to knuckle down and actually listen to the music! Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...

It starts off funky, with vocoder and slap bass, then the almost childlike voice of Ralph Tresvant singing the rather incongruous, given their tender age, “Gimme Your Love”. Perhaps "Gimme Your Lunch Money" might have been a more appropriate song title! Of course, in any given Boyband it's really impossible to say who's singing the lead vocals, as they all seem to take that role, but Wiki says that Tresvant was brought on board as their lead singer, so I guess it's him. There's a female voice in there too - I think: I mean, these guys are so young it could be their not-yet-broken voices I'm hearing, but a girl is credited on the album - said to be one Tina B, and there's a lot of beginner's guide to rapping. All very embarrassing, but it must have struck a chord (not literally) as it sold very well and started a lucrative career for the guys. Well, initially as mentioned it just lined the pockets of Maurice Starr, but he was soon to be jettisoned.

“She Gives Me a Bang” does not after all seem to be about the latest hairdressing styles, but has some nice bright keyboard work, with some pops and whistles from the synth which would become quite synonymous with this sort of music down the years. The melody in places almost reminds me of Robert Palmer's “Some Guys Have All the Luck”, and again the vocals are shared, seems like just between two of them. Maybe. Hard to tell. Seems Starr plays keys, synth, bass, drums, guitars, vocoder …. obviously maintaining a tight control over his protoges. He also produces, engineers and mixes the album, and writes or co-writes all the songs bar one. Control freak much? I suppose at least he could say he earned all but $9.52 from the album's takings.

The first of no doubt many ballads comes with “Is This the End” (which sadly it was not), an odd song to put on your debut album, I would have thought, one of their hit singles, and it's not too bad. The drums are nicely measured, the keys just the right amount of sugary sweet and the guitars add a sort of George Benson flavour to the song. Hey, give me a break! I know virtually zip about Boybands, and have less interest in them! I'm doing my best!

“Pass the Beat” is a real “street”-song, with elements of rap and breakdance, lively keyboards and the ever-present grumbling bass that seems to always accompany songs of this type. It's sung in a type of playground chant, making it just that little bit more annoying than it was at first. Seriously, I'm going to make a real effort to find something to praise or something nice to say about these albums, I just haven't come across anything yet! Well, “Is This the End” wasn't completely terrible, unlike the rest of the album so far...

(Sorry to do this to you, guys, but you knew the dangers when you followed me to Boybandland!)

There surely can't be anything to look forward to about a song called “Popcorn Love”, can there? No, there isn't, and it sounds distressingly like the next track up, their number one hit single “Candy Girl”, which is right up there at the top of my list of songs I would cheerfully erase from history, had I the means. Like, what is the point of a song like that? You won't be surprised to hear that I skipped right over it, but as I say, “Popcorn Love” is virtually a carbon copy of the hit single. Originality, zero.

Perhaps the only potential bright spot is their cover of the Bo Diddley number “Ooh Baby”, but no, they've removed all the soul and blues from it and made it another vacuous pop song. Well, I guess Starr is to blame for that. Still, at least the germ of a good song remains: can't kill the classics! Got to wonder though: what the hell was he thinking here? If this is, as it obviously is, an album aimed at teeny-boppers, impressionable young girls and the kind of audience who wouldn't know the blues if it Facetimed them, why would he include a Bo Diddley song? Who's going to care? Anyone who would appreciate that kind of song is unlikely to have been listening to this album, and that's not the sort of listenership Starr was trying to attract. Was he trying to show that this “band”, to be generous, had more about them than just sugary-sweet ballads and dancy pop songs? Why? Who would care?

Seems to me like he was trying to put something in maybe for the daddys of the teenage girls who were going to be subjecting them to this pap, and maybe give them a chance to say “Oh I know that song” most likely to be followed by a scowled “They're ruining it.” Again, makes no sense whatsover. If you're marketing a band like this, sure, maybe three albums down the line, when your money (ahem sorry, their money, of course: their money!) is made, then you can diversify a little and say “look! We're not just pop stars! We appreciate the classic blues!” But not on your debut, when nobody knows who you are, and those who do, or will, are going to give less than a pair of fetid dingo's kidneys for Bo Diddley, much less know who he is. The song will, and I'm sure did, vanish and get absorbed into the saccharine hodge-podge of pop ditties, drowned without a chance to save itself, dragged down, never to be seen again. I'm sure Bo was spinning in his grave.

More tinny keyboard and whistling synth, as well as the never-far-from-the-melody bass on “Should Have Never Told Me”, then we're into (thank the stars!) the penultimate track, “Gotta Have Your Lovin'”, and you wonder where bands like this would be without a vocoder? It's used so often it's almost overused, and it becomes a real pain listening to every bloody line routed through its circuits. Oh well.

The album closes on “Jealous Girl”, which rather surprisingly is only the second ballad on it. Nice piano and some decent guitar work with a sort of waltzy beat which would be revisited by the likes of still-to-be-discovered Boys II Men on their big hit “The End of the Road”. There are definite elements of the Jacksons here too, not a surprise as this band were conceived as a replacement for them.

Well, I still hate Boybands, but this is just the first of three albums from each band I'm going to try to struggle through. Perhaps my opinion will change over the course of these articles, but I wouldn't bet any big money on it!

TRACK LISTING

1. Gimme Your Love
2. She Gives Me a Bang
3. Is This the End
4. Pass the Beat
5. Popcorn Love
6. Candy Girl
7. Ooh Baby
8. Should Never Have Told Me
9. Gotta Have Your Lovin'
10. Jealous Girl

After the debacle of their first concert, New Edition successfully sued Starr and his company and were released from their contract, signing to record giant MCA and releasing their second album, which they simply entitled New Edition, no doubt as a sign they were being reborn, leaving behind the highs and mostly lows of the Starr era, and starting over again.

New Edition --- New Edition --- 1984 (MCA)



With a label giant behind their second album, New Edition were promoted as more of a clean-cut, boy-next-door image which would in fact characterise most Boybands for the next quarter of a century, with bands like Boyzone and later Westlife, Nsync, Backstreet Boys and Take That all projecting a wholesome, “safe” image that would appeal as much to teenage girls as to their parents. Boys like this couldn't possibly be a bad influence, could they?

MCA also gave the boys top writers and producers to work on the album, among them Ray Parker Jr., later known for his megahit “Ghostbusters” (who ya gonna call?) and as a result the album was more cohesive, mature and gained a much larger and more diverse following than New Edition had enjoyed up to now. Also, without Starr, the boys finally made some decent money, no doubt welcome after being ripped off for two years by their producer-cum-taskmaster!

“Cool it Now” opens the album, with a beat and melody that would later surface on Whitney Houston's “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”, and became an instant hit single when released, as did the second track, the Ray Parker Jr-penned “Mr. Telephone Man”, recalling the motown hits of the sixties and seventies, with nice vocal harmonies and a lush keyboard sound. Definitely a more mature sound, less of the kids snickering about girls that more or less permeated the first album, and music aimed at an older, and (slightly) more demanding audience.

Another ballad follows, this standing out as being the first New Edition song written by members of the band. “I'm Leaving You Again” also has a motown feel to it, and was written by Ricky Bell and Ralph Tresvant. To be completely fair, for a first attempt at songwriting it's not half bad, with that squidgy bass and paced out drums while in the background the synth lays down a pretty sumptuous backing track. Digital piano features heavily on this album, in line with the thinking about eighties ballads, which always seemed to have to have a digital piano melody running through them. “Delicious” is a mid-paced ballad, inoffensive but with plenty of synth and piano. Also features some pretty good acapella vocal harmonies at the end.

In comparison, “My Secret (Didja Get it Yet?)” is just intensely annoying - I really couldn't care what their secret is. Was a single though. No accounting for taste. “Hide and Seek” makes me want to hide and never be found, blatantly ripping off the Eagles' lyric “Sneakin' up behind ya/ Swear I'm gonna find ya” from “One of These Nights”. The saving grace of this album, and I would venture to predict, most if not all Boyband albums, are the ballads, which at least are bearable. Even though the digital piano is in overdrive again, “Lost in Love” is a nice little song with good harmonies, though it is pretty devoid of ideas and just more or less repeats the same phrasing over and over. Not the big Air Supply hit then.

The first songwriting credited to the whole band is nevertheless nothing to write home about, and “Kinda Girls We Like” fulfils its exceptionally limited potential, with an annoying rap before “Maryann” closes the album with another eminently forgettable track which does at least have a decent line in sax.

TRACK LISTING

1. Cool it Now
2. Mr. Telephone Man
3. I'm Leaving You Again
4. Baby Love
5. Delicious
6. My Secret (Didja Get it Yet?)
7. Hide and Seek
8. Lost in Love
9. Kinda Girls We Like
10. Maryann

So that's the second album from New Edition. A little more mature yes, but ultimately I don't see a massive difference between it and the debut. The army of songwriters and producers seem to have failed to have come up with any noteworthy songs really, and after the second track it all kind of descended into more mediocrity for me. At least with Starr gone there was no more butchering of blues classics, so that's something to be thankful for, I guess.
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Old 06-06-2022, 11:19 AM   #6 (permalink)
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At the end of 1985 Bobby Brown was out of the band, replaced by Johnny Gill, who went on to record three more albums with New Edition, and is in fact still with them. The first he recorded with them will be the last example we'll look at here, 1988's Heart Break, said to be yet another move in the direction of more mature, polished pop and away from the “bubblegum” music of their previous years. Yeah, well, we'll just see about that...

Heart Break --- New Edition --- 1988 (MCA)


Interestingly, it starts with a synthy, almost prog-like intro, with a spoken vocal behind rising cheers and applause, which makes it sound as if the thing is live, and in fact segues into what also sounds like a live song, the actual opener (as the intro - called, in a flash of original thinking, “Introduction”! - lasts just over a minute) “That's the Way We're Livin'”, which comes across a little Prince-y circa 1999 or Purple Rain, with some surprisingly good guitar parts and for now, no rap. Very eighties dance, kind of reminds me of Five Star, though of course they were a female band. Fairly generic, but not too bad.

“Where it All Started” continues the Prince/Janet Jackson style, a slower, funky song with much programmed synth and keyboards, and a lot less guitar than the previous, and things slow down a little for “If it isn't Love”, a semi-ballad that gets a little more intense and passionate near the end. The album is peppered with things called “skits”, which are apparently twenty or thirty seconds of “street talk” as the guys discuss their conquests, real or imagined. They're nothing to do with the music, such as it is, so although there are three of them in total I'm going to ignore them.

Next up is “NE Heartbreak”, a dancy, Paula Abdul-inspired number, followed by a short annoying rap then “Crucial”, with more funky bass and stabbing synth --you know the sort: remember “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” That sort of thing: sudden, loud stabs of chords either on their own or in staccato sequence, the sort of thing pioneered by the likes of Jackson, Abdul and Prince, and which became an integral part of most dance music, it would seem, right up to today.

The first proper ballad comes in the form of “Superlady”, with some very tasty horns and a nice piano and guitar backing, and there's another laid-back smooth ballad following it, the rather not-bad “Can You Stand the Rain”. Okay, okay, it's actually quite good, in fact I'd pin it as the standout track on the album thus far. Very mature sounding, well crafted and quite effective. A third ballad follows, in the shape of “Competition”, and I have to admit, when they pull out the stops on the slower songs on this album they really do sound good. Lovely addition of sax helps to create a really cool atmosphere for this song.

And yes, there's a fourth ballad to come! Talk about throwing everything together! “I'm Comin' Home” is really nice, but to be honest I think these songs would have been better spread evenly throughout the album, where they would have had more of an impact, and serve to break up the faster (and quite frankly, inferior) songs. Also, having them one after the other lessens their effect, I believe, as you kind of think, “Oh here's another ballad”.

And yes, you guessed it! The album closes on yet another ballad: that's five in succession, almost half of the album. “Boys to Men” is a nice song, and did in fact apparently inspire the creation of another Boyband - can you guess which one? - but at this point it's number five of five, and though it's very good in its own right, I maintain my opinion that it would have had more effect had it come after a fast song, or even a bad one. As it is, I find it a case of the shrugging of the shoulders, a very small bit like the recent John Sykes album I reviewed, Loveland, which is nothing but ballads and slow songs. I love them, but they have their time and place, and unless you're someone like Air Supply (and even they rock out very occasionally! Okay, no they don't, but they try, bless their little hearts – they don't know they're born, do they?) you really can't expect a full album of ballads to hold the attention.

So that's the last of our look at the first credited Boyband, New Edition. I'm not singularly impressed by them - but then, I didn't really expect to be - but I have to grudgingly admit they have a little bit more about them than I had originally expected. This is the band that gave us “Candy girl”, after all! Nonetheless, I don't see their albums remaining on my hard disk once this article is finished.

TRACK LISTING

1. Introduction
2. That's the Way We're Livin'
3. Where it All Started
4. If it ain't Love
5. Skit #1
6. N.E Heartbreak
7. Crucial
8. Skit #2
9. You're Not My Kind of Girl
10. Superlady
11. Can You Stand the Rain
12. Competition
13. Skit #3
14. I'm Comin' Home
15. Boys to Men

After fleecing New Edition and then being sued by them, thus having to release them from their ironclad contract, our good friend Fagin - sorry, Maurice Starr! - simply dusted himself off and went in search of another band he could make money off. This time he went for five white guys as opposed to black, and so New Kids on the Block were born.

And so I pack up my laptop (after having availed of the hotel's power supply to charge it up for the journey) and pop on my shades as the early morning sunlight filters through the far-off mountains and sparkles off the pools of unnameable substance that dot the ground around here. I hear my taxi arrive, pay my bill and head out to the car, jumping in the back.

We're on the road again, where rather worryingly, more Boybands await...
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Old 06-07-2022, 01:06 PM   #7 (permalink)
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We drive southwards, for in this land of the elder Boybands there are only two regions which house the history and music of the first two known Boybands, and so it is to N'kotbia we drive, the cabby engaging in rambling chit-chat which I do my best to ignore. My head is swimming with close harmonies and digital piano chords, and the word “baby” running around like a beheaded chicken, and the repeated listens to New Edition's catalogue have not helped my stomach to settle after the rather choppy journey to this strange land. Oh well, on we go.



The first thing I notice on arriving in the main city is that this is a far cleaner place than Editionia Nueva: it's more upscale, scenic and prettier than the place I have just left. Is this because it is a middle-class white neighbourhood? Possibly, but whatever the reason I'll be glad not to have to wade through trash on the streets of this town! And maybe I can get a hotel where I can sleep through the night without being eaten alive. Hope springs eternal, but as we pass rows of white picket-fenced houses and well-maintained buildings, with smart top-of-the-line cars outside each house, the place screams “Suburbia!”

I pay off the cabby, find my hotel - which is a lot nicer than the one I've just left - and settle in before beginning my gruelling second day's work.



Formed, as I already mentioned, by the same man who “made” New Edition, and marketed as “the white New Edition”, New Kids on the Block (NKOTB) also came from Boston, and consisted of founder member Donnie Wahlberg, brother of actor Mark and indeed an actor himself later, who, having won an audition with Starr out of hundreds of teenage boys all looking for instant stardom, helped Starr put the rest of the band together. First he recruited his brother, but Mark left before the band began playing or recording. The final lineup ended thus:

Donnie Wahlberg
Jordan Knight
Jonathan Knight
Joey McIntyre
Danny Wood

There were some other changes along the way initially, but this is the known lineup of NKOTB, although originally they weren't called that. The label demanded a change from the name Starr had given them, Nynuk, and so they changed to New Kids on the Block, or NKOTB. As with New Edition previously, Starr maintained an iron grip on his new moneymaking machine, writing the lion's share of the songs on their debut self-titled album, and producing it as well as playing most of the instruments. Success, however, would not be repeated right away, and the album did very poorly, with the result that Starr had to struggle to find the boys gigs, unlike New Edition, who had embarked on a big tour when their own debut smashed the charts.

New Kids on the Block --- New Kids on the Block --- 1984 (Columbia)


Desperate to emulate the original success of his former protoges, Starr made the crucial mistake of trying to make NKOTB be New Edition, writing them bubblegum pop songs and worse, giving them raps to perform. New Edition, as we have seen, although successful with their debut, built their lasting fame and appeal on subsequent records, which were more mature and less kiddish. Starr's gamble didn't pay off, and here's why.

As an album, and indeed career, opener, “Stop it Girl” is weak, sugary, throwaway. If you're going to “unleash” the next Boyband on the world - shame on you, but if you're going to - you have to grab people's attention from the off, as with any album, and this song does not come close to doing that. It's faceless, generic tripe, with that damn vocoder again! “Didn't I (Blow Your Mind)” is the first ballad on the album, a lot better. Hold on: should that not be “Did't You Blow My -” uh, no? All right then, forget I spoke. Oh, you have. I see. Well, not surprisingly, it's an old seventies cover. As a matter of fact, though this album largely left the charts unshaken, it would be this track which, when re-released after their second album hit the big time, would reignite interest in this album. It's quite a nice little ballad, with nice piano and nice guitar. Just nice, period, as the Cat from Red Dwarf once said. Of course, it would be emulated and copied by Boybands down through the years, and become the template for every hit single from Westlife to Nsync and Blue to JLS.

“Popsicle” sounds as you would expect, simple bubblegum pop in the style of early New Edition, with another annoying rap, while “Be My Girl” is another ballad, nothing special, another generic slow pop song, but it does showcase some of the voices rather well. There's still not, though, to borrow a phrase from our transatlantic cousins, a whole lot going on under the hood.

The title track attempts to address this, doing its best to stamp the album with the identity of these new successors to the first Boyband. It's basically a rap with little in the way of music, just percussion and some “scratching”, is it they call it? That thing where they run a record backwards over and over? Never really got that personally, not even when Run DMC did it... and though next track “Are You Down” tries to change the format and kick it up a notch, it's too jarring a change, with heavy drums, deep throaty keyboards and a rap. I guess it piques the interest, but you're left wondering where this band really fit in, what they're about?

“I Wanna Be Loved By You” is a soul-style ballad, where each of the band “introduce” themselves - ”I'm Danny, and I'm a Taurus...” Yeah, nice chat-up lines, guys. Original. It's an exceptionally self-indulgent song, even for a Boyband, and I officially hate it. Just so you know. Marillyn Monroe must be turning in her grave. Typical Starr crap. David Soul might also raise a not-at-all-amused eyebrow at “Don't Give Up on Me” (a plea from Starr to potential fans, perhaps?) which does at least ramp up the power a little more, with bright keys and pulsing bass, nice percussion and an almost rock melody, until closer “Treat Me Right” actually bops and rocks along quite nicely with a really not too bad ender, with elements of swing and doo-wop, as well as gospel and a little blues. Nice.

It's certainly not an album that was ever going to shake the world to its foundations, and were it not for the success of the followup, that may have been the last we ever heard of New Kids on the Block. Unfortunately for me, fate had other ideas...

TRACK LISTING

1. Stop it Girl
2. Didn't I (Blow Your Mind)
3. Popsicle
4. Angel
5. Be My Girl
6. New Kids on the Block
7. Are You Down?
8. I Wanna Be Loved By You
9. Don't Give Up on Me
10. Treat Me Right

Disappointed with sales of the debut album, and the Kids' reception by the public in general, Starr herded them back into the studio for over a year until they produced their second effort, 1989's Hangin' Tough. Like New Edition before them, the guys decided they hated the bubblegum, “safe” approach of the debut and demanded more input into the new album, as well as their look. However, though three of them received credits as “associate producers”, Starr maintained his iron grip on the songwriting, but this time he in fact cracked it, and after initially looking like the new album would bomb just like the first, and NKOTB would be dropped by Columbia, sudden increased airplay and then interest from MTV saved them, and the album eventually went to number one, making the Kids, within a few short years, one of the hottest properties in the US music scene.

Hangin' Tough --- New Kids on the Block --- 1988 (Columbia)


The album opens with a very Paula Abdul-type dance song, “You Got it (The Right Stuff)” is typical of the sort of thing that would emanate from bands of this nature for the next ten years or more, until they all seem to blend together into one song, indistinguishable one from the other. That's how I see it, anyway. This, and the three tracks which follow it, were all released as singles and broke the charts wide apart. “Please Don't Go Girl” is another soul ballad with the soon-to-be familiar spoken intro, clicky drum machine beats and electric piano. The quality of the vocal harmonies is deserving of praise, indeed, but then again, since none of them play any instrument or write the songs, they had bloody better know how to sing together! Again, that's my take on it.

More swirly synth and digital piano introduces another ballad, one of their bigger hit singles, “I'll Be Loving You (Forever)”, which made it all the way to the number one spot. “Cover Girl” is actually a huge surprise, with its screaming, soaraway guitar intro, and its Springsteen/Dire Straits-like piano. Another big hit, it reached number 2, and although it sort of slides into generic pop after the promising opening, it's still my favourite on the album due entirely to its unexpectedness (is that a word?).

“I Need You” is another ballad, as the poor digital piano gets another workout, and then the title track throws down the gauntlet, creating yet another smash hit for NKOTB, and another number one. Almost reminiscent of Joan Jett's “I Love Rock and Roll”, it's again something of a surprise, and not a totally bad track really. Then “I Remember When” takes us back into the sugary realms of Boyband ballads (this makes the fourth ballad so far), with a certain seventies soul feel to it, before “Whatcha Gonna Do About it” transports us to the world of Janet Jackson, with a very hard-edged dance number, more of those stabbing synths and glissando keyboard runs.

Starr relaxes his death-grip on the songwriting - or perhaps the boys manage to pry his fingers loose for a moment! - to allow Wahlberg, Wood and Jordan Knight to contribute to the writing of “My Favourite Girl”, but to be honest they needn't have bothered, as it's nothing special and doesn't stand out as any different to the rest of the tracks. Closer “Hold on” starts out with some nice slap bass and possibly acoustic guitar before it falls back into yet another generic pop/dance track, although there is some pretty rocky guitar work there near the end. And so we come to the end of the album which broke New Kids on the Block, and assured they would become a household name.

I can see the differences between this and their debut, just as New Edition distanced themselves from their first album and upped the ante. It's a lot more polished, professional and has some far superior songs on it, though a lot of it sounds to me like it could still have used some work. Well, what do I know? By the end of the year the album had shot to number one, and there was no stopping the new guys!

TRACK LISTING

1. You Got it (The Right Stuff)
2. Please Don't Go Girl
3. I'll Be Loving You (Forever)
4. Cover Girl
5. I Need You
6. Hangin' Tough
7. I Remember When
8. What'cha Gonna Do (About it)?
9. My Favourite Girl
10. Hold on

And that was it. Just like that, the band Columbia had been intending to drop due to poor record sales and thinking they had no future, suddenly became one of their biggest moneyspinners, and Maurice Starr was laughing all the way to the bank. NKOTB had conquered America by 1990, and the rest of the world by the following year. Merchandising contracts followed, and the Kids even had a syndicated cartoon show on TV about them. They were huge business, but it would not last.

Allegations of lip-syncing (eventually withdrawn) hit their fanbase hard, and as the world shifted its focus away from Boybands towards the emergent gangsta rap scene and grunge rock, the Kids (now officially known only as NKOTB) parted company with Starr, and began to write and produce their own albums. These were not as successful as their second and third albums, and interest in NKOTB began to wane. Members left, record sales dipped and finally in 1994, disappointed with reaction to, and sales of their fourth album, the perhaps appropriately titled Face the Music, they decided to disband altogether.

But as Count Dracula once warned, “You cannot kill what does not live!” and the boys reunited in 2008 for a triumphant comeback album and tour, and Lord help us, they're touring this year even as I write, supporting another Boyband, the Backstreet Boys. So it seems they're baaaaacckkk! Where's me Marillion albums?

So the last album we'll look at here is then, not surprisingly, their comeback album, recorded fourteen years after they had split up.

The Block --- New Kids on the Block --- 2008 (Interscope)


Oh well, apparently they're back to their full name, as the album sleeve attests to. Have they changed their musical style? Are they writing decent songs? Are they, in short, any good after almost a decade and a half in the wilderness? Enquiring minds want to know, so down I go, into the pit of despair. The things I do for you guys...

Well, one thing I notice from the liner notes (okay, okay, Wikipedia!) is that there are a lot of big guest stars on this album, whom we'll get to in due course. I do have to say though that the opener, “Click Click” is a whole lot more mature and professional than anything I've heard from them to date: age does seem to have improved them, or maybe they've just gone full circle. After being the flag-bearers and vanguard for the Boyband movement in the eighties, perhaps they have now looked at the work of some of the “young pretenders” and decided those bands know what they're doing (considering the moolah they're raking in) and followed suit.

From the off, it's a lot less annoying an album than any of the others I've listened to, with restrained, echoey piano and keyboard rather than the stab of the synth that permeated their previous albums, at least the ones with Starr involved. It's a sort of semi-ballad, lots of handclaps and an easy melody. Nice opener. Then we come across the first of the big name involvement, Ne-Yo guests on “Single”, with that annoying updated vocoder vocal that is so prevalent in dance and r&b bands these days. Is it autotune? It might be autotune. Sets my teeth on edge, anyway. The song is relatively restrained though. Not bad so far.

“Big Girl Now” features the flavour of the year, Lady Gaga, but it's a real example of the kind of song I hate, and I find it empty and vacuous. So, normal service resumed then! Oh well, let's not write them off just yet: we're only three tracks in. “Summertime” starts off as a nice laidback ballad, gets a little more animated, but it's pleasant enough, with some busy synth in the background of the melody. Another ballad follows in the shape of “2 in the Morning”, and it's okay, nothing special but hey, it doesn't make me throw up, and that has to be good!

I notice that most of the songs on this are written by members of the band, mostly in fact Donnie Wahlberg, and it's got no less than twelve producers! Overproduced? Maybe. “Grown Man” features the Pussycat Dolls and Teddy Riley (who he?) - starts off with a kind of country rock melody, but with the Dolls on the track it really comes across as one of their songs, possibly a missed opportunity. “Dirty Dancing” comes in on a nice clear piano line which continues through the song, and it works quite nicely against the handclap drumbeats, while the ridiculously titled “Sexify My Love” is just basic throwaway, very forgettable apart from the title, then Timbaland guests on “Twisted”, close to a rock song for part of the track, and not too bad at all, nice orchestration on the strings.

New Edition, of all people, appear on “Full Service”, and Lady Gaga reprises her role, making the song something of a celebration as the two old Boybands meet. Probably like if Zep and Purple guested on the same song. Maybe. Though more likely, probably not. Exuberant feel to the song, at any rate. “Lights Camera Action” sounds like someone's playing that old pop hit “Popcorn” in the background, and has the by-now-standard talking intro, but beneath it's just another boring dance song really.

Akon pops in for “Put it on My Tab”, but as I say, the problem with these guest appearances is that it seems to me that each takes over the song and makes it in their own image, so it's hard to relate it to the Kids Who Are No Longer New on the Block. A case of pulling in stars to bolster up the album, perhaps? I personally feel it detracts from rather than benefits the comeback album, making it difficult to work out whether they've changed or improved at all. Used to be Maurice Starr who controlled them, now ostensibly they control their own music, but they do seem to have handed over a lot of creative control to these guests they have invited to contibute.

At least the closer, “Stare at You” is a decent, very decent ballad, and leaves you with a good tune in your head as you close down your media player and wonder what next for the New Kids?

TRACK LISTING

1. Click Click
2. Single
3. Big Girl Now
4. Summertime
5. 2 in the Morning
6. Grown Man
7. Dirty Dancing
8. Sexify My Love
9. Twisted
10. Full Service
11. Lights, Camera, Action
12. Put it on My Tab
13. Stare at You

And so I return to the dock, watching the ship slide in closer through the early afternoon fog that shrouds the harbour. My first visit to Boybandland is complete. I've learned a lot, and I do have something more of a regard for the bands I've investigated, but I'm not going to be running out and buying a ticket for the NKOTB/BSB concert just yet!

As I look back from the rail of the ship, pulling away now from the dock and heading back out to sea, I ruminate on the beginnings of this thing called a Boyband, and wonder how much blame the bands that came before them have to take for the creation of this beast? After all, without the Jackson 5 or indeed the Osmonds, there might never have been a belief that a band could exist without any instruments, that more than one person could sing and that they should also dance.

I guess we can't blame New Edition or New Kids for being a product of their time, and to be fair, it's more the later, media-saturated bands like Westlife and Take That I have a problem with. And I know I'll be soon listening to their brand of music when I reach the second island in this weird country, and begin to trace the history of the nineties Boybands, particularly those from my own native Ireland.

Until then, I think I'll go belowdecks and review a Venom album or two: got to do something to get that bloody digital piano out of my head!
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Old 06-08-2022, 01:15 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Part Two: "Gonna write a classic. Probably."

The voyage has been long and troubling, more for the fear of what lies at its destination than due to any maritime adventures along the way, of which there have been precious few. It's been almost four months since we left the faintly shimmering coastline of Early Boybandland behind, and as is my task I've spent the time reading up on and - say it without fear - listening to the music of what I will term the “classic boybands”, although that's something of an oxymoron: there's nothing classic about any of these bands, nor will there ever be. But on a scale of let's say importance to the genre, these bands would be best known and rank the highest. New Kids on the Block and New Edition may have started the craze back in the early eighties, but it's really the nineties that this whole thing got totally out of hand, and boybands started springing up everywhere, like branches of Ikea or Starbucks.

All of the bands (I know, I know, but what else can I call them? Know what I'd like to call them … keep it friendly, keep it friendly...) I'll be looking at here started their careers in, and enjoyed their biggest successes throughout the 90s, so qualify as “classic” boybands, purely for that reason: they're seen as the “big guns” of the boyband movement, the ones people remember or revile when they talk about this genre. These are the ones who decided to start butchering some classic songs along the way, as if spinning out their own puerile pap (isn't this article nicely balanced and unbiased?) wasn't enough of an insult to music. These are the ones who most contributed to, even helped create, the cult of the personality, or indeed, the celeb, the ones whose image, love life, actions and fashion mattered a whole lot more to their fans, in general, than their music.

Of course, I don't know too many boyband fans - at least, none that will admit it! Anyone reading this who is one, I welcome your discourse on the subject, as I am quite figuratively taking your heroes apart here (I say figuratively, as were I to say literally I would be liable to be jailed for murder) and they don't seem to have anyone to defend them. But to be totally fair, I'm not just writing about how bad they are. To be completely frank, I know very little of boyband music, and one of the aims of this feature is to try to understand, if I can, more about what drives these bands and their fans, why they are or were so popular, and where, if anywhere, they deserve a place among music's rich history.

So this time out I have four boybands to concentrate on. I know last time I only did two, but that was the early boybands and there really weren't (mercifully) too many of them at that time. By the nineties they were rampant across the face of the Earth like some incurable disease (sorry!) and therefore there are many more to cover for this period, and were I to decide to do so, I could probably write about nine or ten. But I want to restrict it to four, which is about all I think the universe will stand for at this moment, so these are the ones I'm going to be investigating on the second leg of my voyage to Boybandland.

To be completely fair and impartial, nationality-wise, I'm choosing two American, one British and one Irish - God how I hate to admit we had boybands, but we did, and two of the bigger ones too! - and they are Nsync, Backstreet Boys, Take That and Boyzone. I know Westlife probably fit this category too, but as they only recently broke up (who cheered? Oh, it was me!) I plan to hold them back for the third and final part of this treatise. Hell, they're pretty much carbon copies of each other anyway! Now, now, no pre-judging... what am I saying? I've already prejudged all these bands, and rightly so. They've made my life hell, polluting the airwaves for nigh-on thirty years now. But the idea is to see if I can scrape off the gloss and the surface paint, peel back the layers (if there are any) and look beneath the surface to see what's underneath, if indeed anything is, or if these bands are all as empty, vacuous and pointless as I believe they are.

As the wind sighs in the sails of our ship and the ancient timbers creak in protest (hey, I could only afford passage on an old tub! I'm not made of money, you know: who do you think is paying for this expedition? Yeah, you're talkin' to him!) I can begin to make out the misty coastline of my new destination, Terra Permusica Major, which roughly translates to “Greater Boybandland”.

As the old schooner begins the slow approach into the harbour, I consult my travel guide and learn that Greater Boybandland - usually referred to as GBL - is basically broken into four main areas, regions or countries: no-one is quite sure what category they fall into, and the governmental structure around these parts is, shall we say, fluid and changeable. But for my purposes I'll refer to them as kingdoms - which I don't think they are, but it suits my narrative, and as the whole ethos of the boyband genre is making everything suit your particular plan, that seems appropriate.

The first is the one we head towards, and it's called Chicotania. It is here that the main archive concerning the first successful boyband since New Kids on the Block (and indeed, the most successful in terms of sales of all time, with over 130 million records sold), the Backstreet Boys, is located, and here where I will learn what I need to know for my article. In Chicotania I will sample (shudder!) the music of these young guns of their time, and examine their phenomenon, try to work out what it was about them that made them so successful, almost ridiculously so. They still exist today.

Later I will head east, to the kingdom of New Southland, where I will research the other big American boyband of the time, the weirdly-named Nsync, then it's a three-day train journey to the very southernmost tip of this country to Tha'Takken, to read about and listen to the first big example of this genre to pop up outside the US. Finally, I will take a relatively short busride back north to Boyzeire, a much smaller realm which houses the Early Irish Boyband Archive.



As I disembark from the ship and head through Customs, I'm almost immediately surrounded by people. These guys are not well-dressed, and seem very much down on their luck. One offers to sell me a “genuine” Fender Strat for the price of a cup of tea. I politely refuse, but give him some money. BIG mistake! Like sharks sensing blood in the water, the others crowd in and press upon me as if I were the Messiah and they all looking for miracles. Some wave guitars, some thrust ratty pieces of paper purposefully in my face, with comments like “Look man, I just need someone to record this song, yeah?” or “If you see Timberlake tell him I wrote this for him”, and other such requests, demands, even threats.

A sudden shout of “Mr. Cowell! Simon Cowell!" rescues me as the wretches all turn their eyes to the left, beginning to move off in the direction indicated, shuffling with the half-desperate, half-hopeful zombie-like gait of a auditionee for the X-Factor, and I turn to behold my saviour. A small, swarthy man with a large heavy moustache and deep, dark eyes, Max will be my guide for the first few weeks of my visit to GBL, and will ferry me to my first two destinations. I'm eternally grateful to him for rescuing me, though as we stow the bags in the boot and I climb in the passenger seat, I confess I am somewhat bemused as to who the people who had been accosting me are.

“Ah yes, session men.” Max shakes his head gravely. “You have to feel for them. They do all the work, backing the band and playing the music, but they never get any recognition. They're the lowest class around here,” he confides to me, a slight tremor in his voice betraying his contempt for the situation. “Everyone loves The Kids, of course: the boyband members, not to mention their managers and producers. They get all the plaudits. But these guys: you can't not have sympathy for them.” I resist the urge to correct Max in his use of a double-negative, and hold my tongue as he expounds further, the tan-coloured Vauxhall Viva clanking and creaking almost as much as the boat that brought me here, as we pull into traffic.

“Time was,” he reminisces, “this country was full of guitarists, drummers, keysmen. They made an honest living, forming bands, gigging, recording. Life was good. Then the boybands came, and they were relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Terrible.” He shakes his head sadly, and for a moment I feel a little selfish as I find myself less concerned with the plight of these out-of-work musicians as I am with Max keeping his eyes on the road ahead. But his grip on the steering wheel is firm, and his eyes scan the twin lanes ahead as he pulls out and passes a large green bus, whose driver, a woman of African origin, flips him the finger as he passes, her pearl-white teeth glinting like jewels in her mouth.

“Terrible”. The last word comes almost four minutes after Max last spoke, and takes me by surprise, but I suppose he has been thinking about the situation of the unemployed musos as he drives. I feel compelled to ask why they don't just move on, and he shakes his head again. “None of them have the sort of funds that would allow them to do that,” he tells me. “Most spent all their money on their instruments, and what they occasionally pick up as session musicians for these upstarts wouldn't come close to what they need for the fare out of here. And even then, where would they go? You came here by sea,” he turns to me, precipitating another flutter of my heart as two motorcyclists zoom by, one on either side, and a police siren (or maybe an ambulance or fire engine) sounds in the distance. Is it getting closer?

“You've seen how far this boyband nonsense stretches. Why, you have to go thousands of miles before you leave the influence behind. I heard you say you have been to Terra Permusica Minor already?”

“What?” I'm a little thrown, as I haven't heard the name before. He sighs.

“No-one uses the old names anymore.” Another disapproving shake of the head. “These days it's called Lesser Boybandland,” he clarifies, “or Early Boybandland, something like that. I prefer the old names. Still, they mean the same thing. But you have been there, yes?”

“Early Boybandland?” I understand now. “Yes, I have. In fact, I came direct from there. Almost four months the crossing took.”

“So. And even that relatively slow and not exactly glamourous form of travel cost you, I have no doubt. And beyond here lies an even worse place, which they now call Future Boybandland, though most of its residents have taken to calling it New Boybandland. The old name,” he confides to me, “is Terra Permusica Ultima - some fools think it means “ultimate Boybandland”, but it does not. It literally translates as “The last Boybandland”. So there is a very long way to go if you wish to escape the insidious clutches of life in Boybandland”, he concludes, “and going a long way means paying a lot of money. So most of the musos just hang around here, drifting from city to city, realm to realm, staying not too long in one place or the other, always on the lookout for work but seldom finding it. Ah, Scherzattach!” he snaps, and I assume this is some ancient expression of distaste. “Tis a bad hand they've been dealt, and no mistake.”

We continue on in silence for some time, each of us wrapped in our own thoughts, as the highway begins to thin out and more fields and hills become evident, as we obviously move away from the city and towards the outlying country. As my attention begins to drift and my eyes start to close, I suddenly see a huge structure passing by on the right, almost gone before my eyes and brain can properly register its presence. Quickly, I fumble out my camera and snap a picture, looking back as it recedes in the back window, its rapidly diminishing bulk evidence that we are travelling at some speed.

I look at the picture I have taken, having not had enough time to properly take in the huge statue - for such it seems to have been - in any detail before we are past it and it's behind us, vanishing rapidly, its configuration becoming less and less visible and discernible as the Viva speeds along, out into the countryside. What I can make out, now that I look at the picture, seems to be the figure of a huge man or manlike form, must be well over twenty feet tall, probably closer to thirty. The man - if indeed it is a man - seems to be large and fat, with a sloping, balding forehead and small square spectacles that cover small, squinty eyes. He appears to be dressed in an orange jumpsuit and is standing on something, though I can't quite make out what it is: the speed at which we passed the icon has blurred all but the largest aspect of the form.

I turn to my guide, asking what was that? He shrugs. “Ah yes,” he intones. “Pearlman, one of the most hated figures in Boyband history. A real pariah.” My blank look leads him to explain: I have never heard of this Pearlman of whom he speaks. He goes on. “The statue is one of several, hundreds even. One such stands at the entrance and exit to each major city here in GBL. It represents the figure of Louis Jay “Lou” Pearlman, who was the creator, if you like, of both Nsync and the Backstreet Boys, and indeed also formed and mentored other boybands and young artists. The statue depicts him standing in a prison jumpsuit, as you have probably worked out, as he was eventually jailed for mutiple fraud, embezzlement, conspiracy and money laundering offences.”

I have my recording ipod out now and I'm listening eagerly, and taping it all for later transcription and inclusion in my article. “The statue further shows him standing on the prone bodies of five young men, meant to represent neither Nsync nor BSB, but more a symbol of the many artists he cheated and lied to during his career. He swindled both the two big ones, and others, out of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars, and had so many legal cases against him it just wasn't funny. Most got settled out of court, but eventually the weight of his crimes was so unsupportable that he was indicted on federal charges and he's now serving twenty-five to life.”

Max lapses back into silence then, and I ruminate upon the, as I saw it at the time, nefarious Maurice Starr, who also cheated his charges, infamously paying New Edition the princely sum of one dollar thirty-seven cents each for their first world tour! I thought that guy was a scumbag, but my god, Pearlman makes him seem like a saint! Seems no matter where boybands went, sneaky, greedy and crooked managers and promoters followed, like bodylice or bands of marauding lawyers. They were everywhere!

After a while I begin to nod off, as the sun starts to slip behind the darkening hills and the night air turns cold. The ancient Vauxhall is not air-conditioned, but then, I come from Ireland, where most of the cars are not, and anyway it's seldom warm enough to merit such technology. I am, however, glad when Max turns on the heater: it seems nights in GBL can be damn cold!

I listen to the steady click of the car's engine as we travel along the country roads into what is fast becoming night, and I allow my eyes to slide shut, as I contemplate the work that awaits me in the morning.

It's well past two in the morning when the car finally bumps to a halt, and Max shakes me awake, advising me we have arrived. The hotel is not the most glamorous, but it's not a fleapit either: I had and have limited funds, but I refuse to stay anywhere that inserts an extra letter into hotel, making it a hostel. Hostage, more like! So it's a two-star at best, but at least I can be reasonably confident that breakfast at the Millennium - named, I'm informed, for Backstreet Boys' third and most successful album - won't have to be shared with any bedbugs or cockroaches. I hope.
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Old 06-13-2022, 11:33 AM   #9 (permalink)
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I awake in the morning, refreshed and with a new sense of purpose. I take a little time to look around and note that my surroundings are very New York skyline-like. Despite the two boybands who will form the first part of my research here in the north of the country being from Florida, I see little evidence of blue seas and condos. Instead there are skyscrapers reaching up into smog-choked skies, fleets of yellow taxicabs haring along the roads in tightly-knit packs like metal wolves, and the sounds of traffic, police sirens and alarms fills the air. When this place was built, they obviously had a very stylised idea of America in general, and this is the impression they have left here.

I leave the hotel and head down towards the library, where I'm about to begin my investigation into the multi-million-selling phenomenon that is one of the first truly “great” (I use the word advisedly) boybands, America's own Backstreet Boys.



As we've already learned, boybands are not formed, they're created. In the eighties it was Maurice Starr who was the Godfather, with the likes of New Edition and later New Kids on the Block on his resume. Going towards the nineties this position of power was taken over by one Lou Pearlman, whom we have met in statue form on the way here. A man who began his career in aviation (and made a mess of that, going bankrupt) he would finish it in pokey, having cheated successive boybands and other artists he managed out of millions of dollars, perpetuating one of the world's largest ponzi schemes, and falling foul of everyone from the Better Business Bureau to the federal government.

But back in 1992 he had placed an ad for a new band to take up the reins dropped by the aforementioned two bands from Starr's stable, and fancying himself as the new Starr, wanted to manage and produce boybands that would make him rich and powerful. Unlike Starr, he never seemed to have any real interest in the music, beyond what it would bring in in terms of cold hard cash. He was not a musician, and did not come from a musical background, despite having Art Garfunkel as a cousin. Pearlman's talent, it would become clear, lay not in music but in cheating people out of their hard-earned, setting up phantom companies and selling stock in them, and doing anything he could to make a dishonest buck.

Having already decided to form a group, Howie Dorough, A.J. McLean and Nick Carter had hooked up with cousins Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell. Seeing Pearlman's ad they auditioned for him and won the contest, releasing their first single the next year. Despite the tough, street-sounding name of the band, it was in fact chosen by Pearlman, who decided to name the band after a market in Orlando, the Backstreet flea market. How's that for shattering your illusions? Just as well they weren't from Ireland, or they might have been called Moore Street or The Liberties! Anyhow, their first single was not exactly a resounding success, but moreso in Europe, where they were to have their biggest initial successes, leading to their touring schedule being mostly concentrated on the likes of Germany, Holland, France and Switzerland. Their first album, imaginatively self-titled, followed in 1996.

Backstreet Boys - Backstreet Boys - 1996 (Jive)


Originally released only in Europe and a few other territories, due to the less than meteoric initial rise of the band in their native USA - that would follow later - their debut album was later released, under the same name but bearing tracks from this plus some from their followup, in the US. For handiness' sake though, for the purposes of this article we're considering the release of this album as their official first, with Backstreet's Back their second, and then on to the third in Millennium, and so on.

Not that surprisingly for a boyband album, it opens with close-harmony singing, which in itself is not too bad, then the handclap beats and funky guitars and keys cut in, and a disco/dance beat unleashes “We've Got it Goin' on”, which incidentally was also their first single, released before the album came out. There are some pretty cool trumpets too, though as is usual with boyband albums all attention is focussed on the singers, and the musicians -- without whom these guys would be little more than acapella singers, or the nodern equivalent of a Barber Shop, um, quintet : G4, anyone? - get little or no recognition. But whoever they are they're good at what they do.

It's not long before we hear the familiar mainstay of the boyband, the digital piano, as “Anywhere for You” becomes the first ballad, though without question not the last. As it goes, it has to be said it's not a bad song, though it would become subsumed among the generic lovesongs that BSB would shovel out by the double fistful as they tightened their stranglehold on the charts, and pried open more teenage girls' - purses! I was going to say purses, you dirty - on their rapid climb to the top. It's pointless trying to discover who is singing any one song (and anyway I don't care) as they all pretty much sound the same to me, and I also don't think it's important or germane to the issue, so I won't be giving you that information, as I don't have it, nor do I intend to look for it.

Back to the dance numbers then, with another close-harmony acapella intro as “Get Down (You're the One for Me)” assaults the aural senses. Even more handclap beats, stabbing synth chords and warbly keyboards, and a song that no doubt featured one of their many clever dance routines. With lyrics like ”You're so fine/ Gonna make you mine” you know what to expect, but it's still a little of a nasty shock when they start rapping! Oh no! Just when I thought I could stand no more! There is, however, to be completely fair to them, a nice slow bit in the middle, but it's nowhere near enough to save this piece of garbage.

Much better is the soul/gospel oriented ballad “I'll Never Break Your Heart”, sounding a little too close to Boys II Men's “I'll Make Love to You” for me, but then, most of these songs sound the same - stop it! Be professional! Make an effort! Okay then, I will, but the comparison stands. Whose was first? Let's see... Boys II Men's effort was 1993, so these guys could be accused of copying, or at least taking elements of the melody from “I'll Make Love to You”. Hmm. Yeah, it's really not that bad a song, and best of all there's no rap in it! Nice strings arrangement on the song too.

Next up is “Quit Playing Games With My Heart”, a slower, less dancy number but still with those ubiquitous handclaps and some nice laidback keyboards. It's slow enough to qualify as a ballad, so let's call it the second ballad on the album. Another thing that leaves my eyebrows completely unraised is that not one song on this album is written by, or has any input from, any of the boys, and with a very few exceptions, that's the pattern throughout their career. I can't claim to know any of the many writers they employ on the album (or rather, that Pearlman presumably uses), but they may be well-known in pop circles. One thing is clear though: of the five producers of the album, four of them are involved in at least some of the songs.

More dance nonsense with “Boys Will Be Boys”, which (and again, sorry for the silly comparisons but) sounds similar to Sabrina's “Boys Boys Boys”, and that's going all the way back to 1987, so there's no place to hide with that one, guys! Mind you, that's about the only thing of note on this generic dance tune. Here, let's also note some comparisons with the Cuban sexbomb singer Gloria Estefan, who had songs called “Anything for You” (BSB's effort it titled “AnyWHERE for You”) and also, though it wasn't so titled, “Bad Boys” had the refrain “Boys will be boys (bad boys, bad boys)” so what do you make of that? Nothin' huh? Have it your own way then. Next! Well, "Just to Be Close to You" is a sort of half-ballad, half-rap, not a bad song with some nice vocal harmonies, heavier drumming that almost seems to avoid the everpresent handclaps, then “I Wanna Be With You” ramps up the tempo with a curiously ABBA-style opening and then some pretty solid horns, a dance beat but ultimately I'd classify this as another mostly empty song.

Some serious digital piano heralds the return of the handclaps for “Every Time I Close My Eyes”, and really the best thing I can say about this is that it comes in as one of the shorter tracks on the album. Not so “Darlin'”, which runs for an agonising five and a half minutes, a really twee ballad with a totally annoying spoken opening in which one of the guys “talks to his lady”. Oh pass the sickbag! These guys must have been laughing all the way to … Pearlman's bank account. Yeah, sorry, forgot that. They got ripped off bigstyle didn't they? Well, I'm not unsympathetic, but I reckon they made up for it in later years. Not exactly on the breadline now, are they?

Still, terrible as that song was, the worryingly-titled “Let's Have a Party” doesn't hold any big surprises, specially with its opening line ”All I wanna know/ Is where the party at?” Has no-one heard of apostrophes or prepositions anymore? Couldn't last through this one, sorry, and then we're onto “Roll With it” - no, not the Oasis song, too early for that, and a far superior song in the case of the latter. Another semi-ballad/dance/pop tune, ah hell, these all sound the same to me. Nothing special about this. And the album finishes on another generic, annoying dance number, “Nobody But You”, leaving me to wonder how I'm going to make it through, what, four of their seven (to date, with a new one due this year, Lord help us!) albums? Maybe if I call in sick...?

Then I remember: there's nowhere to call in sick to. This is my project, my decision, and come hell or high water, I have to see it through to the end. But it's going to take a hell of a lot of courage and self-discipline, and I may even take up smoking before it's done...

TRACK LISTING

1. We've Got it Goin' on
2. Anywhere for You
3. Get Down (You're the One for Me)
4. I'll Never Break Your Heart
5. Quit Playing Games With My Heart
6. Boys Will be Boys
7. Just to Be Close to You
8. I wanna be with you
9. Every Time I Close My Eyes
10. Darlin'
11. Let's Have a Party
12. Roll With it
13. Nobody But You


As if I wasn't already annoyed enough with the whole boyband thing, Backstreet Boys are giving me a headache, not surprisingly with their music (though that's bad too) but with the insane double-releases and half-releases of their first two albums, to suit the almighty American market! I've already discovered that I accidentally downloaded the American release of their debut, which is essentially half the tracks that were on the European one AND half from the proper version of this album, which was a pain and necessitated much You-Tubing. Now I find the same holds true for my version of this, ostensibly their second album but in the USA their first, as above. So now I have an album with tracks on it I don't need, and without ones I do.

So off to bloody YouTube I go! Again! Not to mention that some of them seem to be Windows Protected files which won't bloody play unless I download a licence! GAAAH! WHY am I doing this??? And can someone please explain to me how one song on an album can be protected content, while the rest is not? RRAAWWWGGH! HULK... SMASH! Or something....

Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean...
Backstreet's Back - Backstreet Boys - 1997 (Jive)


Okay, now I've had a cup of tea and a lie down, let's start the review. Taking, as I intend, the European, or “proper” release of Backstreet's Back, the second album from the Backstreet Boys, it opens with the title track, which everyone knows: loud, dancy, pounding rhythms and a rather annoyingly catchy tune that ended up being their first big hit, at least in the US. Subtitled (or indeed prefixed) “Everybody”, it's well known and became their signature song, unsurprisingly. It's followed by another big hit, “As Long As You Love Me”, a sort of semi-ballad, and it's not puke-inducing, though I've heard a lot better. More handclaps, some okay piano - well, come on, be fair: some pretty good piano - and a relatively decent lyric, if a little simplistic and vacuous, but let's be honest here: we're not expecting any deep themes or subject matter from these guys are we? Songs about dancing, love, girls, nights out: these are going to be the main fodder for their music, and I guess that's fair enough. Play to your strengths is, after all, good advice in just about any situation.

Nice bit of guitar in “All I Have to Give”, which seems to be yet another ballad, and again, this is no surprise. BSB would carve out a career based around a mixture of slushy love songs and dance routines. This song, as it turns out, was written by Full Force, the first time the boys would turn to an established band to write a song for them. Serious dance beats and Art-of-Noise-style synth on “That's the Way I Like it”, with some half-decent keyboard melodies, then we're back to ballads for “10,000 Promises”, which I grudgingly admit is not too bad. To be fair, when BSB do ballads they generally do them well, and they became one of the cornerstones, not only of their success, but that of every boyband that followed. Think about it: if you're a fan, how many of your favourite songs by your favourite boyband can you name that aren't ballads? There's another one on the way in “Like a Child”, and yeah, again, it's quite nice, digital piano and guitar meshing nicely with some understated percussion, and the voices are almost soothing. Oh my God! Am I becoming a fan? Am I … am I.... CHANGING?

No, let there be no panic! Normal service is restored with “Hey Mr. DJ (Keep Playing That Song)”, another sub-dance filler with really (and I mean really) annoying synth-pops running through it. Get me out of here, now! Their first cover song comes with PM Dawn's rather nice “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”, which, even with the annoying raps I can quite enjoy. To a point. Another first, the first song written by a member of the band, “That's What She Said” is not a bad effort from Brian Littrell, who writes the song solo. Another ballad, yes, but then what do you expect? Gotta give the guy credit: none of the others put themselves out on a limb creatively like this, and he does quite well. Nice arrangement too, with some violin and cello, soft percussion and acoustic guitar.

Of course it can't last, and “If You Want it to Be Good Girl (Get Yourself a Bad Boy)”, possibly the longest title for a track I've seen since Meat Loaf's “Good Girls Go to Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)” lives up to the limited, banal promise of its title, another dancy, peurile, macho piece of nonsense. It's left to the rather lovely “If I Don't Have You” to end things in style, with a slow, soul ballad that recalls their “I'll Never Break Your Heart” from the debut album, but is a very decent closer.

The whole US/European thing has bugged the hell out of me, but I think after this they kissed and made up, and all the albums from here on in were released in the same format with basically the same track listing. I certainly hope so, as I can't go through this again!

TRACK LISTING

1. Everybody (Backstreet's Back)
2. As Long as You Love Me
3. All I Have to Give
4. That's the Way I Like it
5. 10,000 Promises
6. Like a Child
7. Hey Mr. DJ (Keep Playin' This Song)
8. Set Adrift on Memory Bliss
9. That's What She Said
10. If You Want it to Be Good Girl (Get Yourself a Bad Boy)
11. If I Don't Have You
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Old 06-20-2022, 07:09 PM   #10 (permalink)
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I always thought of a boy band as a group of men who look like boys who couldn't play any instruments.

My sister was a New Kids worshipper. I share a birthday with Donnie. Bla. Only two good things came from that group - Weird Al's The White Stuff (Oh Oh REE Oh), and Band of Brothers.

I heard Hangin' tough TOO many f'n times.
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