The Inside Edition on New Edition’s Earliest Discs
In the Eighties, few boy bands reached the level of Beatlemania like crossover R&B group New Edition
Boy bands in the Eighties reached a fever pitch with the arrival of Boston-bred R&B quintet New Edition. Mixing the new energy of street hip-hop and Jackson 5 swag, the youthful bunch made up Ralph Tresvant, Michael Bivins, Ronald Devoe, Ricky Bell and Bobby Brown. At the time only a few boy groups were deemed exceptional in pop and even R&B; the Ricky Martin-sporting Menudo and Motown family bunch DeBarge were pretty good and had impressive fan bases, but proved to be too limiting for their too-focused identity and urban sounds. And while the majority of ’80’s boy bands that dominated the top tier of American pop were actually UK imports (Duran Duran, Wham!, Culture Club) and leaned more on musicianship than establishing themselves as a unified vocal front, New Edition — a group organized by Brown inside Roxbury’s Orchard Park housing projects and eventually powered by the easy bubblegum pop vocals of Tresvant and the more bombastic soulful Brown — changed the narrative.
Their story is finally being told this week in a three-part biopic miniseries airing on BET, one that includes the blessing of all the members. And with all the new buzz surrounding the group, even a recent installment on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, many are reflecting back on their first big break (the Maurice Starr-produced “Candy Girl”), big hits from their teen era (“Cool It Now,” “Mr. Telephone Man”) and their hipper Heart Break evolved macho sound (“If It Isn’t Love,” “Can You Stand the Rain”). It also means trending spikes for the group’s many solo projects (Tresvant, Brown and newer member Johnny Gill all jumped at the chance). And with over thirty years of being in show business, and still touring together as a group, New Edition, with all its flaws, internal fighting and industry struggles, they have proven to be masters of survival.
By the end of the ’80’s, the musical landscape had opened up to New Edition’s formula, duplicating much of that sound on groups like The Boyz, Boyz II Men and Another Bad Creation. Maurice Starr’s newest and smartest comeback, New Kids on the Block — an all white boy band blending R&B, pop and safe hip-hop willing to grab more crossover bucks — also carried the New Edition recipe.
The group’s steady rise to R&B fame is a story of good luck and perfect timing. After trying out their group routine at a handful of community talent competitions, Starr quickly put them to work in his indie quarters of Street Wise Records. The just-as-hungry entrepreneur, a one-time artist formally signed to Arista as a solo act before falling flat, put out “Candy Girl,” which became a regional hit. A full-length debut LP ensued, beginning the fast ride to MCA and their permanent placement on teen magazines throughout the whole of Eighties.
During this time of New Edition fanfare, all six albums of their first albums have been pulled out of the vinyl closet for scientific review. We uncover the big hits, album favorites, hidden gems, important mixes and even the gnashing duds. And in careful review, HiFi crowns the best album from their golden reign.
Underground mix magnet Arthur Baker and Maurice Starr work together to make New Edition an updated Jackson 5 by merging flashy Whodini beats and synths into their pre-puberty vocals. The irresistible “Gimme Your Love” opens the set with much promise, dropping Grandmaster Flash-esque raps into cool R&B. We don’t hear anything this assuring until “Candy Girl,” a song borrowing riffs from “ABC” and “The Love You Save,” enters the picture. “Popcorn Love,” a moderate hit, continues to reflect the same Jackson 5 glow. Even “Is This The End,” a pleasant heartbreak ballad, mirrors MJ’s “Ben” and the Jacksons’ “I’ll Be There” in much of its presentation and melody. Meanwhile, “Pass the Beat” enforces Baker’s growing commitment to golden-age hip-hop, showcasing the beats that anchored Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” and Planet Patrol’s “Play at Your Risk.” Kiddy gimmicks are in rotation on the James Brown-meets-disco “She Gives Me a Bang.” “Ooh Baby” is entirely dated, embarrassing on all levels and should be avoided at all costs, unless you’re seeking for cheap laughs.
The self-titled adventure of New Edition, their first on MCA, is a pleasant update to the saccharine “Candy Girl.” Vincent Brantley’s production work on the massive hit “Cool It Now” and feelgood R&B jam “My Secret (Didja Gitit Yet?)” alongside Louis Silas’s smart mixing offers the best balance on the disc. As good as that is, Ray Parker, Jr, riding high off of “Ghostbusters,” produces and pens the “Mr. Telephone Man,” a glorious gem anchored with crooning soul and a crisp throwback ’70’s vibe.
The Sembello brothers (“Maniac” hitmaker Michael Sembello, Danny Sembello) also supervises much of the rest of the disc. Although the material isn’t exactly A-side royalty, their production makes good listening with the bubbly crossover pop of “Delicious.” Their finest moment actually comes in the form of a ballad, the tranquil “Lost in Love,” possibly NE’s best love ballad on wax. But New Edition isn’t void of mistakes: “Baby Love” and “Hide and Seek” are huge misses and should be voided in conversation. “Kinda Girls We Like,” the group’s attempt at producing their own stuff, isn’t better. Only good for nostalgia and to relive high school V-Day rap, the group hoped to continue their magnetic draw towards burgeoning hip-hop and even a nod at rock with a closing unaccredited guitar solo. The effort should be praised; this song shouldn’t.
All for Love
With a rumored Bobby Brown exiting, New Edition dropped this disc at the height of their first wave of super fandom. It is severely stuffed with much of what most are familiar with from them: the uncanny rap showcases (“School”), sub par street R&B (“Kickback”) and B-side acts (“Tonight’s Your Night”). The over abundance of these ideas, done across eleven tracks, points All for Love in the direction of a seemingly setback.
The obvious go-getters are stuffed in the front of the disc. Vincent Brantley’s “Count Me Out” easily traces “Cool It Now,” but it isn’t a total disappointment. Bubbly melodies, sweet lyricism and a sing a long pop-heavy chorus brings out the best on this opening track. The next track, “A Little Bit of Love,” pushes them into grown folks’ R&B, even mirroring the machismo balladry Bobby Brown would champion as a solo act. “Sweet Thing” and “With You All the Way” are also worth pointing out for being delightful ear worms.
Possibly the biggest gripe here is that the album is stuffed with below-performance tracks, many of them feeling like previous album leftovers. Still, for fans of NE, grabbing the best of this disc is a must.
Under the Blue Moon
Some executive at the top of MCA’s ladder thought it would be a cool idea to introduce younger audiences to doo-wop and to push the breaking-away-from-adolescent New Edition down the throats of older music lovers. It’s highly likely anyone heard Under the Blue Moon, a disc packed with cover tunes done with a ’80’s synth and drum programming framework and supervised by producer Freddie Perren (Sylvers, Gloria Gaynor, Peaches & Herb). But nevertheless, with Bobby Brown now gone solo (King of Stage dropped that same year) and the group wrestling with the idea of being a quartet mostly led by Tresvant, the disc helped quell some of the public’s biggest worries. Thanks to “Earth Angel,” their contribution to the Karate Kid Part II soundtrack, the group followed things up with nine other covers, many doo-wop classics familiar to the ear (“Duke of Earl,” “(Hey There) Lonely Girl,” “Tears on My Pillow,” “Blue Moon”). They do a decent job pulling off these ambitious songs, even bringing Ricky Bell to the front for some solos, but it’s still a period worth avoiding.
Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, the power production team responsible for Janet Jackson’s juggernaut Control and soon-to-be-released massive follow-up Rhythm Nation 1814 and bringing other acts to prominence (S.O.S. Band, Cheryl Lynn), were called in to help New Edition’s reinvent. Johnny Gill, a singer whose only dose of fame came with Stacy Lattisaw duets, was now in Bobby Brown’s coveted spot, and the vision for a perfected urban soul group was now more in focus. Powered with the hip flavor of New Jack Swing and Jam & Lewis’s powerful songwriting arsenal, Heart Break accomplished the impossible. It gave them a runaway R&B hit with “If It Isn’t Love” and steamed up countless bedrooms with the juicy “Can You Stand the Rain” and the slick swag of “You’re Not My Kind of Girl” by merging the sex appeal of Marvin Gaye and Prince. The grown folks’ R&B is strongly permeated in the new course of lyrics (“Come on baby, let’s go get wet,” Bivens ad-libs on “Can You Stand the Rain”). But with the barrage of new ideas encoded came a few critical disappointments. The clever idea of presenting Heart Break as a faux concert seemed wonky in form. The skits in between, possibly the premature stretched-out conceptualization used on Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, are also burdensome. Gill outpaces the rest, taking over songs like the glowing ballad “Boys to Men” and “Can You Stand the Rain.” All of this easily gives him the blessing to kick start his solo career again. It’s probably the most definite thing one can predict on what’s next for NE. Tresvant would also do his own thing. And no one predicted that three from the group would also emerge as a bad-ass splinter group , Bell Biv Devoe, and crank out the hottest party anthem of 1990 with “Poison.”
Also, it’s important to note much disappointment on the album version of Jellybean Johnson’s “Crucial.” Thanks to a trusty last-minute dance remix, the song was fully rescued and later joined the ranks of NE’s brassiest radio hits. You can find that mix in 7″ edit forms on vinyl and on several NE compilations, particularly the Gold one.