20
Oct 10

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK – “Hangin’ Tough”

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#639, 13th January 1990

The video for “Hangin’ Tough” flicks between scenes of the New Kids in concert – watched by air-punching and weeping fans – and images of them street-dancing in sync on a graffiti-heavy background. One of them hefts a baseball bat – cut to the concert and it’s a jacket, which he hurls moodily to the floor. Underneath he’s wearing a T-Shirt, black-on-white lettering, Katharine Hammett style: “HOME BOY”.

If the cultural coding of the New Kids wasn’t pretty obvious already, “Hangin’ Tough” makes it absurdly glaring. The kids are streetwise, tough guys, but “streetwise” and “tough” now mean nothing but “hip-hop”. And a particular version of hip-hop, too – at a time when rap itself was splintering in twenty different directions, a cartoon image of urban youth gained currency: B-Boying, shape-throwing, high on attitude, vaguely New York, not necessarily black. One massive source for this – especially in Britain where they were the first hip-hop act to have household name pop-culture impact – is the Beastie Boys, and you can definitely hear a low-alcohol, decaf version of the Beasties in the snotty bark the New Kids use here.

Every 90s boy band who tried to be tough as well as tender – which is most of them – owed something to this hand-me-down idea of hip-hop. We’ll see it repeatedly as the decade goes on, though never quite this egregious again. Musically, “Hangin’ Tough” is crude but effective – a basic stomp-stomp-clap beat, a chant, an electro riff: take out the horrible guitar solo and it could have been intriguingly dirty. But this approach needs frontmen who are absolutely convincing, and the New Kids fall terribly short. The “We’re rough!” and “Are you tough enough?” shouts wouldn’t fool a five-year old. At least it’s funny.

Even though strictly speaking it’s a hangover from ’89, this is the perfect opener for 1990’s Number Ones, which provide us with a grand tour of hip-hop inauthenticity: rapping Europeans, rapping footballers, rapping queens of pop, kids’ TV tie-in raps, all leading up to – well, wait and see. Some of these records were excellent: all are better than “Hangin’ Tough”, but it’s this one which provides the decade’s boy bands with a crucial part of their DNA.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Ned R. on 20 Oct 2010 #

    That cover photo is kinda amazing.

  2. 2
    weej on 20 Oct 2010 #

    I’m afraid to say that I bought this when it came out (it had a different cover, this one – http://www.mattscdsingles.com/acatalog/15724.jpg ) but I was 10, and my taste would improve very soon. It’s a lot more ludicrous than I remember, the worst part being the dance in the video. What exactly are they doing? It still gets a ‘4’ from me, though, as I love that weird electro noise that comes in every few bars of the verses.

  3. 3
    Steve Mannion on 20 Oct 2010 #

    This song made some news at the time for allegedly being the lowest-selling number one ever – hitting the top with only 30,000 copies sold.

  4. 4
    will on 20 Oct 2010 #

    This is so hopeless it’s genuinely embarrassing to listen to. 2 for comedy value.

    Both East 17 and Five would have beaten them to a pulp.

  5. 5
    lonepilgrim on 20 Oct 2010 #

    I have no memory of this at all – I prefer it to the last one and quite like the spareseness of the arrangement. Whereas the posing in the video is reminiscent of hip-hop, the guitars sound a lot like Def Leppard to me. I hear elements of ‘I love rock’n’roll’ in there as well.
    As a song it doesn’t go any where but it works OK as a chant. In that regard it reminds me of ‘We will rock you’ and I wonder if it has gone on to have a similar afterlife being played at US sports events?

  6. 6
    flahr on 20 Oct 2010 #

    Once again goes on far too long but hardly dismal. NKOTB seem rather naively cute in hindsight – rather silly and definitely a thing of the past from a 2010 viewpoint.

  7. 7
    Billy Hicks on 20 Oct 2010 #

    Happy New Decade, everyone :D

    The 1990s is where it begins for me. My first memories of current music in the charts start aged 5 in 1993, including some number 1s. From late 1995 it begins to increase, and by 1999 we’ve reached my ultimate “year of pop”. I could name you them all, watching ‘Top of the Pops’, recording videos off music channels and replaying them religiously.

    There’s several #1s especially by the end of the decade that seem cheesy and naff to anyone over about 15, but for then-kids like me, they were incredibly exciting and well-loved. I’m very much looking forward to their appearance on Popular, even though I’ll have to wait until about late 2012/early 2013 by my reckoning. I suppose this is one of the 1990 equivalents.

    Well, it’s so much better than The Right Stuff. I love that little synth riff during the woah-ohhs. Any serious analysis of the song will simply show it up to be a bit silly, especially “We’re rough…ruff! Ruff!” and even more amplified in the video with them flailing their arms in the air, and particular words appearing in HUGE! LETTERS! ONE! BY! ONE! It’s ridiculous, but pleasantly ridiculous.

    Their lowest-selling #1 record survived I believe until 2004, when it got beaten about ten times within the space of a few months. The introduction of legal downloads to the chart in 2005 began to put sales up again.

  8. 8
    DietMondrian on 20 Oct 2010 #

    It’s such a tinny track.

    While in the Sixth Form a mate and I used to DJ once a week for the first years at our school’s youth club. We played this once and my mate dropped all the bass out, and it sounded no different.

    If might have been the same week we played Happy Hour by the Housemartins and an 11-year-old girl ran up to the DJ booth and screamed “turn this sixties shit off” at us.

    Ah, memories.

  9. 9

    Both the NKotB tracks so far remind me of the first Kim Wilde alb.

  10. 10
    MikeMCSG on 20 Oct 2010 #

    Good review Tom but there’s surely an inauthentic rap number 1 that’s worse than this later in the year.

    # 7 I am surprised the record lasted that long; I’d have thought it would have been repeatedly broken throughout the 90s. That’s a real indictment of this shite.

  11. 11
    Steve Mannion on 20 Oct 2010 #

    #9 Saw “Both the NKotB tracks so far remind me of the first Kim…” in Recent Comments and got excited thinking you were back on a PRK tip.

  12. 12
    Steve Mannion on 20 Oct 2010 #

    I think there are a couple of #1s from early 1992 which may have sold fewer than this did, if not to get there than certainly later during their reign.

  13. 13
    thefatgit on 20 Oct 2010 #

    Yup, they’re rough alright!

    The baseball bat phallus, Wahlberg as chief rabble-rouser, fixing his stare on a rather toothsome member of the mallrat audience until she crumbles and his moody features collapse into mirthful laughter (it’s OK girls he can’t REALLY make you orgasm with a single stare), all smacks of overcompensation. Jordan Knight is the pretty boy, who is little more than window dressing here. Donnie wants* to be alpha male, so the HOME BOY t-shirt, the bat, the posturing is all designed to assert his hard man credentials. But he tries too hard to be hard.

    The song? Nothing works effectively here. The stomping drums, the “Whoa’s” the electro synths, all suggest a bridge between hard-rock muscle and hip-hop agility, but in practise the song is neither of these things. It’s stiff, inflexible, no bounce, all thud.

    *Of course it’s the marketing bods, not Donnie’s wish for him to be the tough guy of the outfit.

  14. 14
    Chelovek na lune on 20 Oct 2010 #

    How very strange, just this lunchtime I heard “Step By Step” being played over the speakers in a City of London Sushi Bar; quite probably the first time I have heard that track “in public” for the best part of 20 years.

    I think it was quite clear that there was a very big progression – both in terms of musical production – and in the confidence of the singers/”performers” themselves -between the second NKOTB album (the one that “Hangin’ Tough” is on) and the third album (the one that “Step By Step” and “Tonight” – which is also great fun, in a moderately are-they-poking-fun-at-themselves kind of mildly preposterous way). “Step by Step” kicks ass, in a showmanslike and self-conscious way, for sure (Where each Kid chants a line in turn “Step one! We can have lots of fun”….even if the “Step three!” is eardrum-breaking in its highpitchedness. Is all this an allusion to self-introductions of each of the cast that we hear on The Floaters’ “Float On”. Almost possibly it is. . “Tonight” too self-consciously apes I think both the Beach Boys and the Beatles, and also tries (I hope with more than hint of irony) to present the Kids as old-timers who’ve experienced so much “we told you you had the right stuff, showed you we were hanging tough”, and now they’ve even met some girls (as well as people)…

    Both those tracks are immeasurably more fun to listen to, and consequently more fun to talk about, than this one, however.
    (Oh, and on the sleeves: the one at the top is IIRC from the original 1989 release; the one linked to by Weej in post 2 is this reissue).
    “Hangin’ Tough” is dire. Dire dire dire dire dire dire dire. To say the least. You Got It at least at some potentially interesting backing music, and interesting melodious progression, even if it didn’t follow through and quickly wore itself out.

    “Hangin’ Tough”, however, doesn’t even get off the ground (and like “you Got It”, but unlike the two later 1990 tracks I mentioned above), it’s another one that sounds (in this case only marginally) better without the video accompaniment. The track (I am reluctant to categorise it as a song) is rank jock posturing; nice, gentle (but muscular through physically and socially healthy involvement in sports) middle-class (as we would say in England) suburban lads trying to pretend they are hard. But they aren’t they are wholesome. Too wholesome. “Cross our paths and you’re gonna get stopped”. Yeah, right. And that oooooooooohhhhh chanting thing. Should be against the law.

    They remind me of the gaggles of youth who one sometimes encounters on late night trains especially on a Friday or Saturday night between Leigh-on-Sea and Chalkwell (the real “golden mile” of Southend) (I don’t think this quite translates to London), basically respectable kids who know that the ticket barriers will be open and no ticket inspectors will be in sight. They hang about on the platform in a (notably well-attired) gaggle, perhaps with a can of lager in hand each, get on the train, be self-consciciously noisy and drawing attention to themselves in a look-how-young-and-virile I am (and how fortunate I am to be far from anywhere when anyone genuinely “tough” lives) fashion, before all trooping off at the next station to go and drink beer in someone’s house or park, or possibly a bar.

    We’re rough? No, rather, you’re shit. Sorry, no other way to say it. Now clear off and don’t cross my path again.

    A definite contender for worst number 1 of the year, already. One-out-of-ten. Do not pass go. A great pity that their two number 1s were among their weakest singles.

  15. 15
    Chelovek na lune on 20 Oct 2010 #

    (on the wholesomeness pretending to be unwholesome thing – check the video for “Tonight”, and the Kid wearing a hash-leaf t-shirt that is pixellated out)

  16. 16
    MBI on 20 Oct 2010 #

    Six million times better than “The Right Stuff,” but still not very good. “We’re rough!” always puts me in the mind of a theme song for a late ’80s Saturday morning cartoon about rapping dogs.

  17. 17
    anto on 20 Oct 2010 #

    This was an ugly lurching thing to start the 90s with. Sure enough those drama school yelps of “We’re Rough!!” became just another reason to ridicule NKOTB.
    The immediate influence from this track was the brief pop career of Donny Wahlbergs brother who prior to becoming an underpants model and finding movie stardom playing a man with a larger-than-average tallywhacker traded on this kind of cosmetic agression.
    I remember once in TV Hits they asked various stars about their favourite soaps. Marky Marks reply was something like ” Hey I ain’t got no time for that Joan Collins shit man I’m from the street etc”.
    Flippin ‘eck it was a reasonable enough question.

  18. 18
    swanstep on 20 Oct 2010 #

    Like Lonepilgrim above, I’ve no memory of this, and listening now the musical lifts from We will Rock You and (Joan Jett’s version of) I love Rock&Roll are so glaring and the upshot so inferior to the sources that ‘Why bother?’ is almost the only real response I have to this track.

    The ‘tough boy band’ schtick doesn’t work at all – this feels like a step towards Bros for the NKOTB compared to YGI(TRS) and that’s the *wrong* direction!

    Tom’s not wrong about rap splintering at this time. I heard Eric B and Rakim’s great Let the rhythm hit ’em on the radio in March 1990 (I think), bought it and dug it, but by the time the album came out in June it was already supposed to be a form of Rap that was completely over/dated etc.. Ker-razy.

  19. 19
    wichita lineman on 21 Oct 2010 #

    Re 9: Kim Wilde?? I get the three years late cod-Blondie/cod-Beastie Boys* ref, but those taut RAK productions stand up to dancefloor action today and have done for a good 10 years. This is hilariously soft, like Harpers Bizarre’s babies attempting Sucker MCs with Mike Batt at the controls and Uncle Bulgaria turning that annoying rumbly ‘boom box’ down. No one will EVER play this out and get people dancing!

    Mark, I agree NKOTB sound almost sweet in retrospect (Big Fun could have beaten these limp lettuces at conkers) but leave Kim outa this, you Clapton commie.

    *safely in the top 5 most over rated acts of all time

    PS We’re rough, 1955 style. A no.13 hit. See how far you can get into it before going barking mad.

  20. 20
    punctum on 21 Oct 2010 #

    And so did the nineties begin with a group of questionably groomed, well behaved lads who pretended to be hard. “Hangin’ Tough” is both slower and lower than I remember it but its risibility remains intact. At least the Osmonds made a fair effort of baring their teeth on “Crazy Horses,” but “Hangin’ Tough” is a murky bouillabase indeed, sounding like “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” at 16 rpm combined with “You’re The One For Me” played backwards. They were beastly boys indeed with their knees-knocking-a-trembly threat of “Don’t cross our path ‘cuz yer gonna get stopped.” Fear the hydraheaded Wahlberg monster! They might stick their tongues out! Still there is some useful post-Descartian theory at work here: “Don’t worry ’bout nuthin’ ‘cuz it won’t take long.” I’d like to see Sting do a concept album about that (note: when I say “I’d like to see Sting do a concept album about delete where applicable” I do not actually mean “I’d like to see Sting do a concept album” although deleting Sting where applicable sounds a reasonable and fruitful pursuit). “We’re RRRRRROUGH!” the Not That New Kids conclude – not so much the Osmonds of their day, more the Hair Bear Bunch. Can anyone remember what exactly constituted “the New Kids’ dance” apart from alternately jumping and slouching around with hands in pockets like peas reluctant to be mushed?

    #19: cogent explanation please or my office 9 am tomorrow sharp.

  21. 21
    wichita lineman on 21 Oct 2010 #

    Of which bit? The Singing Dogs?

  22. 22
    punctum on 21 Oct 2010 #

    No, the Beastie bit.

  23. 23
    wichita lineman on 21 Oct 2010 #

    Re 20: Well, I’m exaggerating, but I think their influence has been malign: Grand Royal being a forerunner of Sugar Ape; She’s Crafty being a foreruner of funk metal. This might be like blaming Jimi Hendrix for Ted Nugent, or Joy Division for Fields of the Nephilim, but their vocals sound smart-arse and irritating to me these days – better than NKOTB’s wimp rap obviously, but they get in the way of some excellent spacey hip hop productions (parts of Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head, most of Hello Nasty). They are deemed untouchable though, aren’t they? Greatest cultural contribution: they invented the word ‘mullet’.

  24. 24
    Billy Smart on 21 Oct 2010 #

    Oh dear – Its that awful skwalling guitar solo that I really can’t stand – aiming for another slice of rockin’ credibility on top of their dubious street credentials. Its more memorable than ‘The Right Stuff’, but not in a good way.

    Everyone hated this at sixth form, of course.

  25. 25
    wichita lineman on 21 Oct 2010 #

    … the Beasties did for hip hop what Bob Marley did for reggae, both good and bad, by making it understandable/marketable to rock fans. A bi-product of this is the guitar solo on Hangin’ Tough.

    I’ll stop now.

  26. 26
    Erithian on 21 Oct 2010 #

    “deleting Sting where applicable sounds a reasonable and fruitful pursuit”

    – Rosie, your blood pressure tablets are in the cabinet.

  27. 27

    “bi-product”?

    my boss at work is also fond of this very telling typo!

  28. 28
    swanstep on 21 Oct 2010 #

    ‘bi-product’ = a product with two features (like bi-plane)?
    A very long time ago I worked at a KFC and had to wear a stupid paper hat as part of my uniform. On the hat’s inside surface were printed two patent-pending notices. This bothered me at the time because this nasty strip of paper hat seemed to me to barely have two features (barely to be a bi-product…. haw haw) let alone to have two things about it that were conceivably patent-worthy.

  29. 29
    wichita lineman on 21 Oct 2010 #

    By-product. Soz. I need a sub. Not a sandwich. Or a vessel that can be submerged and navigated under water.

    I’m listening to Wombling Songs, the first Wombles album, beautiful baroque stuff. This may or may not be an excuse for slack spelling.

  30. 30
    Izzy on 21 Oct 2010 #

    #14: ‘Step By Step’ really is a marvellous record – my favourite bit is the aural-illusion slow down “ma-tter [beat] of ti-i-i-me”. I had to check it didn’t hit #1 itself and it didn’t – it fell just short – but it deserved to. They were certainly packing ’em in in 1990 (six more top ten hits to follow!) but never reached the top again.

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