Here we go then. The nineteen nineties. The fifth decade of the UK singles chart. The decade I did half my growing up in. Almost four years old at the start, almost fourteen by the end. I’ll try to keep the personal reminiscences – interesting for nobody but myself – to a minimum as we go. But there’s no escaping the fact that some of these are the first #1s that I can remember in ‘real time’.
Hangin’ Tough, by New Kids on the Block (their 2nd and final #1)
2 weeks, from 7th – 21st January 1990
Not that three-year-old me, brain filled with Thomas the Tank Engine and dinosaurs, had much interest in 1990’s first number one. NKOTB were back, just a month after ‘The Right Stuff’ had vacated top-spot, to bless the decade with its first of many, many boy-band chart-toppers.
First things first, a question. Did ‘Hangin’ Tough’ ever actually sound tough? I suppose it might have to twelve-year-olds, who were the only audience that mattered. But at a remove of thirty-odd years, the bass chords, the whistles and the oh-oh-ohing all sound incredibly lame. Hangin’ tough… the boys chant, very slowly (this song needs a shot or two of caffeine) Are you tough enough!? they demand, before ending the chorus on a very unconvincing We’re rough!
At my high school these dweebs would have been laughed all the way behind the bike sheds, before having their lunch money nicked. And I think the Kids knew it, because the vocals – especially the oh-oh-ohs – feel half-arsed compared to ‘The Right Stuff’. Elsewhere, the chords in the chorus remind me of ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’, and it’s never a good idea to rip-off a classic song to make a bang-average one like this. A remixed version of the record, the one that presumably got airplay at the time, beefs things up a bit; but not enough.
In fact, the rockier mix takes away one of the few really interesting things about this song. In the album version, a good minute or so is given over to a fiddly, noodly synth-organ solo. I’m not claiming it’s very good, just that few teen-pop songs are allowed moments of such self-indulgence. (The rockier mix switches the organs for a pretty forgettable guitar solo.) By the end though, the Kids are beat-boxing and freestyling, and the song really loses its way. You know it ain’t over till the fat lady sings… one of them announces, and you wish she’d started singing earlier.
The one thing to be thankful for is that, once again, it’s not a syrupy ballad. NKOTB had plenty of them among their ten British Top 10 hits, but none of them troubled the top. The band split in the mid-nineties, with Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre attempting solo careers. They reformed in 2008, then teamed up for a tour and an album with Backstreet Boys (NKOTBSB anyone?)
Whatever their merits (or lack thereof), New Kids on the Block hit two chart milestones with ‘Hangin’ Tough’. They joined Al Martino, Michael Holliday, Edison Lighthouse and The Pretenders in scoring the first #1 of a new decade (a big deal for chart geeks like me!) The second was less illustrious: in the record’s first week on top of the charts, it posted the lowest sales ever for a number one single…