Neil Tennant once said that all great pop groups at one point have an “Imperial Phase,” where they are on top and can seemingly do no wrong. Original Run looks at some of the more impressive examples of this phenomenon.
Few pop groups are more unanimously adored, by critics and popular audiences alike, than the Jackson Five–songs like “I Want You Back” and “ABC” have achieved that extremely rare position of being Songs That Everyone Knows and No One Dislikes; Expressing distaste for them would be like saying you dislike The Beatles or The Simpsons–maybe you’re sick of them, maybe you think they’re overrated, maybe you never want to come in contact with them again, but you still don’t dislike them. Iit just wouldn’t be possible.
New Edition, considered by many to be the Jackson Five of the 80s (if not the more family-oriented but mediocre and historically utterly forgotten Debarge), have a long, long way to go before reaching that same rarified status. Possibly because it’s a generational thing, possibly because the songs weren’t quite so culturally ubiquitous (the first four J5 singles all went to #1, New Edition didn’t get above #4 until the mid-90s), possibly because memories of NE’s heavily derided successors, New Kids on the Block, are still too fresh in people’s minds.
Still, I would hold New Edition’s first run of singles–from 1983’s “Candy Girl” to 1989’s “N.E. Heartbreak” (and their 1991 coda)–against the Jacksons’ early years any day. Their early pop singles were bubblier, their ballads were richer, and their later material was more mature–and unlike The Jacksons, who essentially started at the top and slipped a little bit with each successive release, New Edition stayed consistently popular and consistently with the times, fitting as naturally into their early electro-pop singles as into their later New Jack Swing hits.
So here’s a look at that first single run, with Sendspace links of course provided. Singles particularly recommended are in bold.
“Candy Girl” (#46 Pop / #1 R&B, 1983): New Edition’s debut effort, and possibly their best-remembered song today (despite charting at a paltry #46 at the time). Clearly modeled after the Jacksons’ second single, “ABC” (check the vocal line on the chorus–practically identical), the song stands out as more than a rip off through the song’s sheer exuberance, which manages to outdo even their predecessors. The song’s breakdown section is a classic (much like “ABC”‘s famous “sit down, girl, I think I love you!” break), and introduces Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike by name before the group would do so more memorably a few singles later.
“Popcorn Love“ / “Jealous Girl” (#25 R&B, 1983): A perfect follow-up single, using every trick in the book–an originally coined title, squeaked “they say we’re too young” vocals, and even a “popcorn” acrostic breakdown (“P is for her Personality, O is for Originality…”). Just as bright and sweet as “Candy Girl,” and arguably the better all-around song. Meanwhile, the b-side, “Jealous Girl,” shows New Edition really bringing out their Doo-Wop roots for the first time, a genre they would often return to later in their career (and check out that mid-song monologue break–Boyz II Men, anyone?)
“Is This the End?” (#98 Pop / #8 R&B, 1983): If “Candy Girl” was the group’s “ABC,” then clearly “Is This the End?” would be their “I’ll Be There”–the chords are even practically soundalikes. The song is kept from being mere pastiche, of course, by Ralph Tresvant’s heart-rending lead vocal, sounding very much his age (or even younger–he was actually 15 at the time), but sounding far more pained and honest for it.
“Cool It Now” (#4 Pop / #1 R&B, 1984): And, of course, the group’s “The Love You Save”. The biggest hit of the group’s early years, it continues along the “Candy Girl” and “Popcorn Love” formula, though it does contain the group’s first competent-sounding rap break, as well as the famous “Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky & Mike” line, which would be instrumental in helping fans actually remember the first names of Bell Biv Devoe years down the line.
“Mr. Telephone Man“ (#12 Pop / #1 R&B, 1984): Another one of the group’s most well-loved singles, featuring the most memorably self-deluded chorus since John Waite’s “Missng You” (“Mr. Telephone Man / there’s something wrong with my line / when I dial my baby’s number / I hear a click every time”). Written by Ray Parker, Jr. (of “Ghostbusters” and Raydio fame), the song was the group’s most sophisticated to date, and remains one of their all-time classics, even getting performed by the group (recently reunited with Bobby Brown) at a 2005 BET 25th Anniversary concert.
“My Secret (Didja Get it Yet?)” (#27 R&B, 1985): The third single off their self-titled second album, another effervescent pop tune with a great chorus and synth-solo (remember those?) Also memorable for having the group’s first truly salacious breakdown (“c’mon girl–you only got three guesses, and you’re not even close…ooh, now you’re getting warmer…oooh, now you’re HAWT!!“) “Do Me!” was only a half-decade away.
“Lost in Love” (#35 Pop / #6 R&B, 1985): The group’s first real clunker, a ballad too dippy and airy by half which goes on for far too long (and not even an Air Supply cover!) Still, for the fourth single off the second album, you can’t really expect too much.
“Count Me Out” (#51 Pop / #2 R&B, 1985): The first single off third album All for Love, and a fairly flagrant re-write of the previous album’s lead single, “Cool it Now”–the music is essentially the exact same, and is complemented by more “the fellas say I’m going too fast, but whatever, I dig the girl” lyrics. Still, when the music is this sweet, it’s hard to really complain.
“A Little Bit of Love (Is All it Takes)” (#38 Pop / #3 R&B, 1986): The group’s first real mid-tempo single, foreshadowing the mellower but still propulsive New Jack Swing sound they would soon develop. Also the group’s first sinlge to not be extremely obviously coming from kids–any number of acts in their 20-somethings could have done this song, and New Edition were soon to join them as peers.
“With You All the Way” (#51 Pop / #7 R&B, 1986): Another ballad in the style of “Lost in Love,” helped by the group’s expressive voices (Tresvant is at his most MJ here) but hurt by the dated period production. Better than “Lost in Love,” but they would soon prove they were capable of ballads much stronger than this.
“Earth Angel” (#21 / #3 R&B, 1986): Following fading commercial fortunes and the group’s forced removal of Bobby Brown, the group bought some time by releasing the all-covers album Under the Blue Moon, featuring their cover of the Penguins’ doo-wop classic “Earth Angel”. The move succeeded, temporarily at least, as it gave the group their biggest hit since “Mr. Telephone Man,” and though musically it was a step backwards for the group, it’s hard to deny that it was a good match.
“Once in a Lifetime Groove” (#10 R&B / #9 Dance, 1986), “Helplessly in Love” (#20 R&B, 1987): The group tested some new waters with a pair of soundtrack contributions, for Running Scared and Dragnet. The former is a surprisingly successful attempt at a gritty (well, relatively gritty) 80s dance sound, featuring MJ-styled “YEOOOWWW”s and an urgent, synth-heavy beat. The latter goes in the complete opposite direction, attempting lush, beat-less balladry in the style of the Force M.D.’s classic “Tender Love” (making you wonder exactly where in Dragnet this song was featured). The group would (probably wisely) end up following neither direction on their next album, but these were interesting one-off experiments in the mean time.
“If It Isn’t Love” (#7 Pop / #2 R&B, 1988): And with that, the group’s career was back on track. With a helping hand from legendary R&B producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (of Janet Jackson, Human League and the aforementioned “Tender Love” fame) and a new vocal low end courtesy of new member Johnny Gill, the group developed an entirely new New Jack Swing sound on their 1988 album Heart Break, and with ledad single “If It Isn’t Love,” had one of their best and biggest hits in almost a half-decade. The ingeniously crafter chorus can get stuck in your head for days, and the “I really love her!” / “You love her…WHAT??” break marks a return to the unforgettable bridges of past NE classics. A great way to start the (unfortunately short-lived) second phase of the group’s career.
“Can You Stand the Rain?” (#44 Pop / #1 R&B, 1988/89): Two classics in a row from the group. Based around what must be one of the best song titles of the 80s (as in “Sunny days / everybody loves them / but tell me baby, can you stand the rain?”) and a fantastic dual lead from Tresvant and Gill, the song was by far the group’s most mature and heartfelt to date, and stands as one of the great R&B ballads of the era. By the time the rain starts actually falling for real in the song, you’ve been feeling it for ages.
“Crucial” (#4 R&B, 1989): Another Jam/Lewis produced club banger. Not nearly as unforgettable as the group’s previous two hits, but still an enjoyable up-tempo NJS number.
“N.E. Heartbreak” (#13 R&B, 1989): New Edition get meta. Nowadays “perils of fame” songs are almost expected of huge pop groups, but I feel that lyrics like “It’s off to another city / where everybody knows my name / But when I meet that perfect honey / is it me she wants, or is it the fame?” were probably a bit more unexpected in the late 80s. What’s more, it’s a self-awareness and maturity that would probably have been unthinkable for New Edition just a few years earlier. Shame about that stupid beatboxed ending.
“Boys to Men” (did not chart, 1991): The last single released from the group’s first run, three years after Heart Break came out, presumably due to the rising popularity of Boyz II Men, the group the song gave its name to. In reality, though, there could be no capper to the group’s career finer than this–not just because it’s the perfect summation of the group’s career to that point, but because it shows just how far the group had come since “Candy Girl”. Featuring the only solo lead vocal Johnny Gill would lay down for the group before their seven-year hiatus, the song is a wistful and extremely moving testament to growing up, and shows just what an amazingly powerful singer Gill was, leading to many unanswered questions about what kind of potential the group could have had if it had continued on.
Not to say the group was never heard from again–their 1996 comeback effort, Home Again, was a hit, and spawned at least one fairly memorable single (“Hit Me Off,” technically the group’s biggest hit, though one no one is likely to remember the group by), and in the seven years in between each of the members had great success outside the group: Brown with the monster album Don’t Be Cruel and the accompanying #1 hit “My Prerogative,” Tresvant and Gill with the respective solo top five hits “Sensitivity” and “Rub You the Right Way,” and of course, Ronnie, Ricky & Mike with the NJS classics “Poison” and “Do Me!” as Bell Biv Devoe. Still, nothing can match their seven-year run at the top together, where they actually managed to rival the teenage supermacy of the J5, something no other R&B act has managed to do since.