One of the most successful and heavily promoted music groups of the 1980s was a boy band known as New Kids on the Block. They had a string of hits such as “Hanging Tough”, “You Got It (The Right Stuff)”, “I’ll Be Loving You Forever”, “Cover Girl” and many more. The five original members of NKOTB all hailed from the Boston area (which will become important as this story rolls along). One of those original guys in the band was named Donnie Wahlberg. He had a younger brother named Mark. This is where the story of today’s post begins.
The Wahlberg brothers grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston. Dorchester used to be a city unto itself but was incorporated into the municipality of Boston proper. Initially, Dorchester was a mainly white community founded by Puritans who arrived from England and Ireland centuries ago. However, after amalgamation, Dorchester saw an influx of immigrants arrive, making it one of the most diverse cities along America’s eastern seaboard today. Like many in the Boston area, the Wahlbergs identified with Irish heritage (which at the time for a teenage boy like Mark Wahlberg meant white culture). You don’t have to look very hard in Boston to find indicators of Irish culture. (The Boston Celtic basketball team, bands such as The Dropkick Murphys…my favourite faux Irish band, etc…, are everywhere you go.) So, when Donnie Wahlberg suddenly became a huge music star with New Kids on the Block, it gave his little brother, Mark, a larger sense of self-importance than most boys his age have earned the right to have. With his ego large, young Mark Wahlberg turned to crime. Specifically, he was charged with several violent, racially-motivated crimes against Black and Asian families who had recently moved into the Dorchester area. In fact, one assault was so serious that Mark Wahlberg was charged with attempted murder (which ended up being plea-bargained down to felony assault, for which Wahlberg served time in jail as a young man).
After having completed his sentence, Mark Wahlberg faced an uncertain future. The one thing he had going for him was that he was handsome and strong…and he had a brother who was a music star. Mark worked with Donnie and with his brother’s management team to see if he had the talent to follow in his brother’s footsteps. As it turned out, Mark Wahlberg wanted to try rapping (after seeing the success of Vanilla Ice). With the help of Donnie and some DJs who were skilled in the emerging art of sampling, Mark Wahlberg organized them all into a band that went by the name Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Their first album was called Music for the People. The first single was called “Good Vibrations”. This song went all the way to #1 on the charts and stayed in the Top 40 for almost a full year! The highlight of the song for many was the combination of some stellar piano playing, Mark Wahlberg’s rapping and the soaring vocal sample taken from a lady named Loleatta Holloway (who was given a co-songwriting credit because of the sample, even though she never recorded a single note for the song). Despite the fact that this song reached the top of the charts, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch were never able to replicate its success, and so “Good Vibrations” can really be considered their only true hit.
While the song certainly possesses a funked up groove, it was really the accompanying music video that took Mark Wahlberg straight to the top. In the video for “Good Vibrations”, Wahlberg appears shirtless for most of it. At the time, Mark Wahlberg possessed a physique that was toned and chiseled. His body and his tough guy image that he projected set many hearts a flutter. Sex appeal has long been known to sell merchandise and this was certainly the case with Marky Mark. As a result of the overwhelmingly positive reception his six pack abs received as a result of this video, Wahlberg was signed to be a Calvin Klein underwear model. In the end, he became as famous for appearing in his underwear on billboards (alone or with model Kate Moss) as he ever did as a singer. Many others wondered how they could get themselves into the same physical shape that he managed to do and so he was approached to put together exercise videos. The story of his fitness regimes is more important than many casual fans realize and impacted his career for years thereafter.
When Mark and Donnie Wahlberg were putting together the music for “Good Vibrations”, there existed a famous boxer from nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, called “Irish” Micky Ward. Ward fought several times for the Lightweight title and is most known for a trilogy of matches against Montreal’s own Arturo “Thunder” Gatti. Ward won the initial match against Gatti while losing the rematch and tie breaker. However, many who watch boxing will tell you that those three matches were among the best boxing matches of all time, and that both boxers earned their sterling reputations in the ring during those bouts against the other. In fact, two of those three matches ended up being ranked as “The Fight of the Year” by Ring Magazine. So, when the Irish-influenced kid, Mark Wahlberg, decided that he needed training in the art of boxing for his video for “Good Vibrations”, he turned to “Irish” Micky Ward. It was because of Ward’s training that Wahlberg developed his chiseled physique and authentic boxing moves. But there is more to the story than that. As many of you know, Mark Wahlberg left the music business and went into acting after his modeling days came to an end. He gained fame in movies such as Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm and Planet of the Apes. My daughters know him best from a series of movies called Daddy’s Home (with Will Ferrell). But the movie that Wahlberg is most closely associated with was a movie that earned him many awards and nominations called The Fighter. This movie is the biopic based on the life of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward. In fact, there are many Irish connections at play here…Canada’s favourite faux-Irish band, The Mahones *(who were profiled last week in a post that you can read here) contributed a song to the soundtrack of The Fighter called “Paint the Town Red”. It is the band’s biggest hit. As well, Boston’s own The Dropkick Murphys’ most successful album was called The Warrior’s Code. The title track was a song dedicated to “Irish” Micky Ward, who also graces the album’s front cover. *(You can watch that video here).
Mark Wahlberg, like so many of us, is certainly a product of his environment. He grew up Irish-proud and immigrant-phobic but, over time, he has become able to embrace the positive side of his cultural roots without doing so by downgrading the right to cultural pride by groups who differ from himself. Not knowing the man personally, I cannot say for sure whether that is truly the person he has become or whether it is because of his understanding of how to project an image in the public spotlight. But what I can say for sure is that he has managed to create several onscreen characters that the people in my family like, and in particular, he has created one funky song that really appeals to my wife. So, I dedicate this post to my beautiful wife, Keri. I hope that it brings a smile to your face and a skip to your step. Thanks for being the driving force in our home for bringing the music of boy bands to the forefront. I know that you had New Kids on the Block posters on your bedroom walls growing up so this is something that makes you a product of your environment as well. As boy band songs go, “Good Vibrations” is one that even I can listen to and appreciate. Thanks for being you, dear.
***As a reminder, I take requests. Any genre. Any era. Send me your song/artist/band suggestions and I will do whatever I can to bring those stories to life in a post just like this one. Feel free to leave your requests in the comment box below. Thanks.
The official website for Mark Wahlberg can be found here.
The trailer for the movie, The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg can be found here.
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