Who's got the right stuff? New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys combine three decades of boy-band power into one super-group with a new album and a nationwide tour

”No Kites Over the Border. Sorry, Buddy.”

That’s New Kid Joey McIntyre playing his favorite parlor game, in which the members of New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys come up with alternate meanings for their combined acronym, NKOTBSB. ”It started off with ‘No Kind Thoughts, but Sweet Business,”’ he explains. ”Then it caught fire with ‘Never Kick Out the Best Singer, Bitch.”’

”Then I took it to the next level with ‘Nice Kill, Ostrich: The Bear Shot Bob,”’ chimes in Backstreet’s AJ McLean, who’s listening nearby.

Whatever it stands for, NKOTBSB may well be the tastiest musical mouthful of the summer. The two hugely successful pop groups — they’ve sold a combined 200 million records worldwide — are releasing a joint compilation album (featuring their ridiculously catchy new single, ”Don’t Turn Out the Lights”) on May 23 and teaming up for a blowout arena tour, which kicks off May 25 in Rosemont, Ill. After watching the boy-band era fade over the past decade, this group of nine, now ranging in age from 31 to 42, has managed to stick around long enough to be hot once again. As New Kid Donnie Wahlberg puts it: ”Things that are uncool ultimately do eventually become cool, and it’s up to us at that point to take advantage of our window again.”

Though the two groups are only now officially joining forces, their paths have crossed many times over the years. Here’s a brief history of how NKOTBSB came to, well, B.

After scoring 10 top 20 pop hits between 1988 and 1992 (including No. 1 smashes ”Hangin’ Tough” and ”Step by Step”), New Kids on the Block, comprising Boston boys McIntyre, Wahlberg, Danny Wood, and brothers Jordan and Jonathan Knight, largely disappeared from view, eventually disbanding and focusing on other projects. Meanwhile, music impresario Lou Pearlman — currently serving 25 years in a federal prison on a 2008 conviction for conspiracy and money laundering — had hired former NKOTB managers Johnny and Donna Wright to guide his new Florida-based outfit, Backstreet Boys, featuring McLean, Nick Carter, Brian Littrell, Howie Dorough, and Kevin Richardson (who left the band in 2006).

Nick Carter Johnny and Donna would tell us [New Kids] stories all the time. We met Jordan first on Lou’s boat. I didn’t want to bother him. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had seen him in magazines. I was like, ”Oh, wow, this is cool!”
Jordan Knight I do vividly recall Nick because he was really energetic and excited. They were kind of looking at me like, ”The superstar’s coming on the boat!” Back then, they seemed like little kids.
Jonathan Knight Lou took the whole business profile of what we did and tried to put it onto them. When I first went down there and spent time with them, I didn’t think it was going to work. Not that they’re not talented, but because we had just done our thing. Our style of music went out.
Jordan They were coming up when grunge and hip-hop were huge. There was no way any kind of pop group was going to make it.
Joey McIntyre I remember when they started and our fans over in Europe were like, ”There’s this group, Backstreet Boys…” And then they started to blow up in the States.

By 1997, Backstreet were dominating U.S. pop radio with their hits ”Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” and ”As Long as You Love Me.” But they bristled at the inevitable New Kids comparisons.

Brian Littrell We were fans of New Kids, but were we really modeled after them? No. We looked at ourselves as Shai, Jodeci, Boyz II Men, the true vocal groups. That’s who we listened to and who we really wanted to be like.
Howie Dorough There was a backlash when [New Kids] became too successful. Not any discredit to those guys, but we were trying to be in a different category. We now understand what they went through. We didn’t back in those days.
Joey We’re cut from the same cloth in many ways. But I felt like our experience was so special, and therefore I knew that their journey was all their own.
Danny Wood We’re not the same. It’s two different dynamics. There’s no one in their group like Joe.
Donnie Wahlberg I noticed how much MTV had changed. It became all about teenage girls voting on countdowns. I didn’t have any negative feelings about [Backstreet] because it wasn’t what I wanted to do. In 1998, when the boy bands were really taking over, I was making The Sixth Sense, doing a great part with Bruce Willis in one of the biggest movies of all time. What more could I ask for?

After a 14-year hiatus, New Kids reunited in 2008. They asked Backstreet Boys to join them on stage at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall on June 19, 2010.

Howie When we heard they were getting back together, we were excited. We looked at it like, ”We can help each other.” Coincidentally, we were going through New York when they were there.
Brian They were like, ”Yo, we’re doing ‘I Want It That Way’; why don’t you come sing it?” It was a one-time thing. People were like, ”OMG!” And now, here we are.

These days, both the Kids and the Boys are officially grown men. That means there are fiancées, wives, and kids in the picture (and, in Jonathan’s case, a low-key coming out) — not to mention various side careers, including Wahlberg’s gig on the CBS drama Blue Bloods.

Donnie They’re a well-oiled machine. We’re a well-oiled machine. Putting it together takes a lot more time, but it’s a little easier for everyone, quite frankly. All the guys are doing other stuff now, and it’s easier to compartmentalize.
Nick There was a time when we would heckle each other: ”You’re late!” There were fines, push-ups — you name it. Now that we’re able to sort of loosen the reins a little bit, it’s made the creativity flow the way it should.
AJ McLean Everybody understands that at the end of the day, this is a job. We all love it, but if somebody’s got to leave rehearsal early and go to their kid’s birthday, that’s just life.
Donnie I’ll be doing the last few nights of concerts while shooting Blue Bloods. For the last week and a half, I’m going to be chartering a flight to shoot a day of the show and then go back and do another concert.
Howie We’re definitely going to be on stage together. At the same time, both groups know that we have some loyal fans that want to see us there by ourselves. So we’re going to have some moments where we give each other space.
Jordan We’ve gotten green lights all over the place. It’s kind of like one plus one equals 10. I think it’s a testament to old-fashioned entertainment — guys with mic stands, singing good music.