1989 was a very good year to sound like George Michael.
Thirty years ago this month, Michael was riding out the end of Faith's album cycle, as the brushed-drum ballad "Kissing a Fool"—the seventh single released from that blockbuster—swooned down the lower reaches of the Hot 100. Entering the top 10 for the first (and only) time though, was a duo that updated the moves Michael had made a few years prior with Wham!: Boys Club, the Minneapolis-born duo of Gene Hunt and Joe Pasquale.
Hunt was far from a total pop neophyte. As Eugene Wolfgramm, he’d been a featured member of the Jets, trading off vocals with his siblings on the hitmaking Minneapolis family band's first two records. In 1987 he decamped to form Boys Club with Pasquale, shedding the name that had become synonymous with fizzy pop in an attempt to be taken seriously.
That didn't quite happen.
"A lot of people say we sound like Wham!," Hunt told the Los Angeles Times in late 1988. "Well, we do. They say Joe sounds like George Michael. He does. We don't have our own identity yet."
Boys Club's 1988 self-titled debut (out of print, but still lurking on YouTube) makes one thing clear: Hunt was right. Opener "Step by Step" is made for synchronized dance moves, with synth brass that adds a bit of Velveeta gloss to its glistening guitars, cubic-zirconia synths, and buoyant, Randy Jackson-supplied bass. "Time Starts Now," which was also included on the soundtrack to the 1988 Haim-Feldman vehicle License to Drive, is drenched in late-'80s AOR signifiers, with Pasquale's vocal better suited to the love song from a Tom Cruise flick than to the Coreys' slapstick. "Danglin' on a String" has a brassy bounce clearly mimicking the pre-Woodstock retro styles that the likes of Phil Collins had used to trigger nostalgia in listeners.
But "I Remember Holding You," which peaked at No. 8 three decades ago this month, is the album's clear standout. The George Michael comparisons Boys Club received were likely due to their most famous single recalling a freestyle update of "Careless Whisper"—its drums have a more forceful snap than Michael's loping Wham! ballad, but it similarly hinges on its sax solos and blossoms into utter anguish on its chorus. It's one of the era's superlative dance ballads—no small feat, given the peaks hit by singles like Exposé's "Let Me Be the One" and Stevie B's "Spring Love." Yet its lack of digital availability has rendered it lost to time, or at least left off retro-minded playlists.
Also largely forgotten is how Boys Club helped lay the groundwork for one crucial aspect of the late '80s teenpop boom: the mall tour, a trip through shopping centers across the country that allowed the music’s target demographic to see their favorite artists for free—without having to worry about finagling fake IDs to get into clubs. (Or having to put up with older audience members: "Some girls go too far," Tina Hobbs told the Orange County Register after a 1989 Boys Club show at the MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana, California. "They say, 'Take your shirts off!' Well, the Boys Club are too old for them.") These tours also provided opportunities for Universal cross-promotion—in Boys' Club's case, ads for the home-video release of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and the theatrical release of Joe Dante's horror-comedy The Burbs figured heavily.
And they resulted in the ultimate show of appreciation: record sales. "We've sold about 30 or 40 [cassettes or compact discs] after each show," Kevin Dodson, then a clerk at the Record Shop in MainPlace Mall, told the Register. "It's meant more work for us, it's good for them, and it's generated a lot of money."
But touring malls was no way to get taken seriously, and by 1990 Hunt was recording with the Jets again, Before that, though, Boys Club went through what would become another teenpop rite of passage, guesting on an episode of the first season of The New Mickey Mouse Club—a show that would soon launch its cast members into surprisingly long-term pop careers.