Reflections on the Backstreet Boys: From A to NYE

Natasha Simons

The boy band is dead! Long live the boy band!

I imagine that most of you had the time-honored Dick Clark countdown special on at some point during your New Year’s Eve. And, unless you were studiously avoiding Mr. Clark right around that all-important midnight hour--perhaps starting on your midnight amorousness early? -- I imagine also that you caught the New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys joint performance, intended to advertise their upcoming tour together. Perhaps you watched out of the corner of your eye, amused. Maybe you cracked a joke to a friend or partner about the increasingly inappropriate moniker of “boy”, suggesting the word was starting to lose all meaning for you. I doubt that, for most of you, you thought about the Backstreet Boys very much more after that. But speaking for myself, and for a certain special contingent of ladies out there, the performance marked yet another stop in a very strange tour of duty.

Take it from a former super-fan: watching the Backstreet Boys perform after all these years is weird. Down one “boy”, the remaining four 30-somethings soldier on, having been unable to forge successful solo careers, and clinging somewhat remarkably to the decaying specter that is the boy band (even as I type the latter, the 12-year-old zealot in me cries foul at my once-unthinkable betrayal). On New Year’s Eve, watching, cringing, at the less-than-stellar performance, I recognized that what I was watching was a show of relics going through the motions; it was as if something mummified had been raised from the dead, only to sing (croak) and dance (stagger) about the stage for some unknown purpose.

An anecdote: a friend of mine was unironically dragged to a Backstreet Boys concert a few years ago by a prospective girlfriend. As he tentatively swayed to the familiar music and swore never to call her again, he took stock of his surroundings. No one around him was over the age of fourteen. The music of his youth was no longer his, nor hers, nor for most of the fans who had once been so devoted. These legions had been replaced by new ahistoric droves, apart from the initial formation and progression of the Backstreet Boys.

And what a progression, eh? Bursting onto the European pop scene in 1996, the BSB became internationally famous after only a few short years toiling in anonymity. “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” climbed the charts. In 1997, they returned home to a loving public; hence, “Backstreet’s Back”. I, a ten-year-old girl, was part of that public. Having first joined the fanhood in order to fit in at my new suburban Texas elementary school, I quickly took to the enterprise with great zest. What follows now you will have to forgive me for.

I started a BSB club with my friends; only five members were allowed, and we all were required to have different Boys as our favorites (we never did find that fifth “Howie” member). Mine was the now-defected Kevin Richardson, who to this day I will argue is clearly the best one. Licensed scuba diver, pilot, and ballroom dancer? Where do I sign up? I held sleepovers on Kevin’s birthday--10/3, a number that seems to follow me around even now. I began a website named in his honor, the cringeworthy “Kevin’s Heaven” (yes!). Later, I would become more amenable in my thinking and expand the name to “Backstreet Heaven”. I knew more HTML at that age than I know now; as one entered the site, sparkles followed your cursor, because of course they did. I was twelve. Alas, dear reader, the Gurlpages server does not hold storied memories forever, and this vital webpage has been dissolved into pixels and lost from the archives. I attended several concerts, which my mother lovingly and patiently took me to, holding a strained smile as I screamed myself hoarse. I watched the music videos and documentaries and specials a hundred times each. And yes, though I hesitate to admit it even in these impartial halls, I wrote fan fiction.

Fan fiction! I merely dabbled, though dabbling meant hundreds of hand-written pages spread out over approximately ten stories. Each Backstreet Boy was given his own story, naturally, so as not to have the other Boys overshadow his narrative (A.J. McLean’s, ominously enough, involved a trip to jail). The rest were group stories, with one particularly interesting foray into horror, featuring a crazed ex-girlfriend and a silencer for a chainsaw, as my grasp of weaponry at 12 was somewhat . . . lacking. If you can venture to believe it, every story where Kevin had a girlfriend, her name was something like Natalie, Tasha, Talia, Nat--a similarity to my own I strove furiously to deny as mere incidence. Writing the stories was, pure and simple, wish fulfillment.

I was obsessed. My devotion knew no bounds. I scoffed at those who didn’t know that the Backstreet Boys were formed in 1993, that their greedy manager was Lou Pearlman, that Brian Littrell had a hole in his heart (perfect romantic song fodder, n’est-ce pas??). I wrote furious epithets on the *NSYNC message boards. I waited outside closed stores in order to snag Millennium and Black and Blue.

But, reader, every obsession must meet its inevitable end. One normal-seeming day, I came into school to find my best friend in tears. “Brian and Kevin proposed to their girlfriends!” she wailed. I wept also and rent my garments; Hamlet’s gloomy castle had nothing on the hallways I darkened with my mourning. Though I eventually re-swore my allegiance tenfold, that was the moment when the bloom fell off the rose.

I moved to New York the next year. I went to one last concert. I stopped wearing my shirts and pins. No more fan fiction issued forth from my tween hand. I looked on sullenly as BSB, *NSYNC, 98 Degrees, and their ilk all dissolved and went on their merry ways. Those not fated to be as successful as Justin Timberlake (12-year-old Natasha still hates him and his stupid hair and refuses to recognize the allure of “SexyBack”), former members moved on, grew up, married, came out (fan-girls wept, Lance), and were for the most part happy to let the phenomenon that was the ‘90s boy band die out.

But not the Boys. A few years went by, and then they reunited in early 2004. A 16-year-old me had let enough time pass, as one must after a break-up of sorts, to hear of their comeback with a tolerant smile, even goodwill. Hey, “Just Want You to Know” was pretty catchy! In college, I pre-gamed to “Everybody” and “Hey Mr. DJ”, co-opting the music that reminded me of my former naïveté before nights of ensuing debauchery. After my first real heartbreak, I listened to “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” and “Don’t Want You Back,” with, I told myself, a bittersweet mixture of belief in the simple lyrics and mature distance from the cloying material. But really, I maintained my stubborn loyalty to them over all those years, despite them becoming Backstreet Men, even going so far as to defend their continuing arc. Eventually, however, their former aficionadi had to grow up, and the five-part harmonies and whispered intros just couldn’t speak to us as they once had, not even ironically. I left the Backstreet Boys. Last year, I found buried at the bottom of an old box my first-ever tour shirt, dusty and mildewed.

Over the years, I’ve watched A.J. go to jail, Nick’s family be torn asunder by a father Michael Lohan could take lessons from, Brian and Kevin get married, Howie do nothing, the group announce cruises and new albums and tours with the New Kids on the Block, filling those legions of fans with their own existential doubt, I’m sure. It has been awkward to grow up past the point of their target audience, and though I maintain they were, once-upon-a-time, the best of their kind, the glory has long since faded. I watched the performance on New Year’s Eve like a fugitive, glancing at my fellow revelers as if they would find me out. But it was truly their inattentiveness, their puzzled bemusement, that demonstrated the hard truth: no one cared one way or the other. Our revels, now, had ended. The boy band is dead! Long live the boy band! And send me a review of the NKOTB/BSB tour when you get a chance. That is, if you remember.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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