In 1986, at the height of their global success, hitting their late teens and primed to conquer the world, New Edition released Under The Blue Moon. An album of oldies covers. At a time when Janet Jackson reinvented herself with Control and Run DMC shook up the world with Raising Hell, New Edition recorded an album of old people music for old people.
Now, as far as I can tell (and please correct me if I’m wrong here), this was one of the earliest – if not the very FIRST – teen pop oldies albums. Albums where teen pop acts tuck their tight neon pants away, wash the blond out of their hair, and knock out a quicke record of old tunes to appeal to America’s Moms and Dads. Nowadays they’ve become so common it’s almost cliche, but when New Edition broke the mold in ’86 I imagine their fans might have been confused. Why would they do this? Why would a teen pop act, a gift to all the Youth Of The World, waste their time recording a bunch of old snoozers? I can’t give a definitive answer here. Not every teen pop act is the same, you know? Folks do different things for different reasons. All I can do is take a few guesses as to why New Edition, at this precious and crucial part of their career, decided to record Under The Blue Moon. I can’t do much more than speculate here, whoopee! Here we go!
1) Bobby Brown had just left. In one of those classic boy band member departures, Bobby Brown was either kicked out of New Edition or quit willingly. The stories still vary, but the reason he left is never argued: Bobby felt like co-lead singer Ralph Tresvant was taking the spotlight, he wanted more lead vocals and wasn’t getting them, and he felt like NE’s music had grown too cutesy and teenybopper-friendly. To the dude’s credit, he wasn’t wrong – as solid as All For Love was, it was not a step forward, and still found the boys treading through standard cute Jackson 5 moves. Bobby would embark on a thunder-stealing solo career, one that would easily eclipse New Edition in popularity, but in 1986 Don’t Be Cruel was still a couple of years away. New Edition felt no need to compete with him musically, but they also didn’t want to jump too quickly into a new creative project.
They were only a four-man band now: Ralph, Ronnie, Mike and Ricky. It’s an unwritten teen pop rule that losing a single member – especially one as vital and important as Bobby – is a death knell. Band relations fall apart, morale takes a hit, the public starts to sense disharmony. The pressure is on. You’re in a vulnerable position, and if you let it get to you, you’ll be gone within two or three years tops. So New Edition chose to take the safest possible route: an oldies album, one where they could put a sweet modern spin on some classics without having to worry about their next move. It’s a stopgap, basically. A breather.
Makes a lot of sense, in retrospect! The side effect, of course, is that it only strengthened Bobby’s reasoning for leaving the group: Under The Blue Moon is a cutesy, eager-to-please, kinda dated record, one completely lacking in edge or modern appeal. After three years of success, it was time for New Edition to grow up, and they didn’t. Not the best move of their career, and one that would telegraph uncertainty for the group’s future.
2) Trying to appeal to a wider, adult, white audience.. We’ve talked about this a few times in previous reviews but it’s always worth mentioning again. As popular as New Edition were, they never quite acheived the universal success they deserved compared to white acts doing the same thing they were – namely, the Maurice Starr-managed New Kids On The Block, who would form in 1984 and whose debut record saw release in 1986. This is not to deny New Edition’s remarkable popularity among black and white teenagers alike – they had them both, let this not be denied – but they didn’t have the stodgier, older white audience. They likely never would. I feel that, with Under The Blue Moon, they wanted to win them over, to sing doo-wop and soul standards white audiences had found acceptable years ago, to prove that they were a worthy part of pop history. They wanted to clean up their image, scrub away the “kids from the projects” image of their previous records and don 50s-era suits. There’s definitely some repackaging going on here.
Of course, New Edition didn’t need to prove themselves to anybody in 1986, let alone shitty older white people who didn’t deserve them in the first place. Nevertheless, Under The Blue Moon is an interesting – if ill-fated – attempt to show New Edition as modern kids who still respected pop history in their own way.
3) They didn’t know what they were doing. A cynical conclusion, and one I don’t entirely believe, but easy to assume! Because why else would a teen pop act at the height of their youth, the height of their success, resort to an oldies cover album? Because they’re out of it. Out of juice. The tank is empty. They’re getting desperate, they’re trying to appeal to an audience – adults – that will never care about them, they’re taking the easy way out. They’re copping out, they didn’t have enough material, they had no idea what to do next. They’re done. They’ve lost.
In 1986, I don’t think his was an unreasonable conclusion. And I don’t doubt that NE, working through the loss of Bobby, weren’t entirely sure what the heck they were supposed to do. “Not a girl, not yet a woman” syndrome: too old for “Candy Girl” cuteness, too young for a mature reinvention. Under The Blue Moon, in the eyes of their fans, must have felt like a shrug, a step to the side. A way to stand back and let other groups take the spotlight for a little while, so they can work a few things out. So they can dream it all up again. And that’s presicely what it was.
4) They were under contract. This, depressingly, is the most valid reason on this list. This is probably what happened. From what I have heard, New Edition – despite having sold two million copies of New Edition and being of the most visible and beloved teen pop groups of their era – had lost a lot of money trying to get out of their garbage Maurice Starr contract, and owed MCA Records a buttload in legal fees. So they put out a bunch of records very quickly to pay off their debt, including All For Love and Christmas All Over The World. None of these records are bad, per se, but it’s hard not to hear them as contractural obligations more than from-the-bottom-of-their-heart sincere records that they truly wanted to make. Under The Blue Moon has this feel. On the surface, it feels forced. Obligatory.
5) They genuinely loved these songs, and wanted to record them and love them and share their joy with the world. I like this one! While I don’t think I’ll ever like Under The Blue Moon as much as their modern teen records and probably won’t listen to it ever again after this review, I do think it’s a charming, sweet, admirable piece of work. At the very least, I don’t think it’s a toss off. The boys put alot of heart into these songs, especially Ralph, who sounds right at home singin stuff like “Earth Angel” and “A Million To One.” He’s got a tender, youthful, good-hearted delivery, and it elevates these songs. And just from the harmonies, it’s clear that doo wop was an actual for real influence on NE. There’s a certain verve in hearing these kids singing songs their parents probably played for them from birth, their tribute to generations past.
Heck, they even throw in an adorable cameo from Little Anthony in the middle of “Tears On My Pillow”! And they have a fun dialogue! Fuck teens, hello parents! Remember the 50s? How can you resist this??
Not to mention that they don’t perform boring karaoke-esque versions of the old hits, like too many teen pop acts tend to do. It’s modern 80s production all the way here, and while it definitely dates the record (almost every song has the exact same pre-programmed beat and it gets distracting after hearing it 3 or 4 times in a row), it’s cool to hear these dudes sing “Duke Of Earl” and “Blue Moon” in ways that aren’t completely reverent and obvious. Still kind of reverent and obvious, but not completely! There’s even a fun original song at the end “Bring Back The Memories,” which name-checks half the tracks on the record and finds our boys pining for good old days they were never alive to see.
Yes, there is love here. I can feel it. Under The Blue Moon will never be an essential chapter in the New Edition story, and it kick-started a problematic trend in teen pop that led to alot of worse, worse records from worse, worse groups. But it’s still New Edition, with their only album as a foursome, singing songs they clearly love and having a great time. It’s a testament to their talents and singers and performers.
But still, it would find them in trouble. For a group already in danger of looking like squares, Under The Blue Moon found them knee deep in Squaresville. If they didn’t break out and find something new soon, Bobby Brown and the rest of 80s Modern Pop would swallow them whole. What would they do next..
6) They wanted to impress some pretty girls so they could smooch them. Oooooh!