Backstreet Boys

'It's What America Needed at That Time': Backstreet Boys Look Back on Their U.S. Debut, 20 Years Later

Before the Backstreet Boys became Larger Than Life and subsequently earned themselves a Las Vegas residency honoring their success and endless list of hits, the quintet actually got their start overseas. Two years after forming in Orlando with the help of late Trans Continental Records founder Lou Pearlman, the fresh-faced boys -- then ranging from 15 to 24 years old -- got to work on their debut in Stockholm in 1995, at Swedish producer Denniz PoP’s Cheiron Records, under the guidance of PoP and a young, up-and-coming producer named Max Martin.

Internationally releasing what they call the “Red Album” (simply because of the red backdrop to their picture on its cover) in 1996 and seeing promising success, the guys decided to give it a shot in their home country. Compiling a mix of songs from the Red Album and tracks that would later be released on their sophomore international record, the Backstreet Boys dropped their self-titled U.S. debut on August 12, 1997.

As the late ‘90s were transitioning from the grunge era to the more pop-friendly age of Hanson, Spice Girls and (eventually) MTV’s popular video request show TRL, suddenly the Backstreet Boys went from viewing America as “No Fan Land” to hitting the top 5 on the Billboard 200 in January 1998. Backstreet Boys ended up spawning four top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, including the iconic “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” which reached No. 2 -- their highest-charting hit to date.

Despite the stigma around the term “boy band” at the time -- especially because BSB had initially hoped to be considered a “vocal harmony group” -- the U.S. version of Backstreet Boys kicked off a period of pop music that will forever be revered by pop fans and ‘90s babies alike. Making way for a new wave of boy bands that included fellow smash successes like *NSYNC, 98 Degrees and O-Town -- while also jumpstarting Martin’s career on his rise to an eventual 22 No. 1 hits -- the album was certified 14x multi-platinum in April 2001.

In celebration of the album’s 20th anniversary, Billboard took all five Backstreet Boys (Nick Carter, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean, Howie Dorough and Kevin Richardson) on a trip down memory lane. The guys shared stories of the late nights recording in Sweden, recording (and having video game battles) with the now-legendary hitmaker Martin, starring in some of their most iconic videos with their future wives, and, above all, experiencing the life-changing impact of one 12-song record. Here, in their own words, is the story behind Backstreet Boys.

HOWIE DOROUGH: As little kids growing up, you always hope to have success in your home country. That’s where your pride is, you know? It was so crazy how it happened everywhere else first. I think it was meant to be that way, looking back on it. It really seasoned us to come back home, to really be ready for America.

BRIAN LITTRELL: We had a certain confidence about us, I think. We sold a lot of albums before we even made it back in America, and that was good for us, because it made us respect our craft -- it make us work harder and want to be even more of a success in our homeland.

DOROUGH: But I was definitely skeptical. At the time, there wasn’t any group like us out there. Before us was the New Kids on the Block, and we were told by several people that there was a backlash that came about after them, that radio didn’t want another group of a bunch of boys. The term “boy band” was created over [in Europe], and we were scared of that coming across to America with us, which inevitably, it did. We always wanted just to be considered a vocal harmony group.

LITTRELL: But I think radio formats were changing and, even politically, things were changing, and people were looking for happier music that wasn’t really filled with a whole lot of gimmicks -- just good songs. We felt like we were doing something that was different in the music world, and what was happening was good timing.

DOROUGH: I think it’s what America needed at that time, especially with all the negativity that was going on in the world. And our fans just inevitably made people listen, and recognize us as who we are.

AJ MCLEAN: We were stoked, because it was, like, “Okay, now this whole area we used to call ‘No Fan Land’ -- which is our home -- is now finally picking up the pieces and accepting us, or are about to hopefully accept us.”

DOROUGH: We would go all over Europe, and all these other countries; we could barely get on the airplane. You would think it was, like, the Beatles, or Michael Jackson, fans going crazy. And then all of a sudden, we’d land in America, and it’d be like, chirp chip -- nobody in the room.

LITTRELL: I think they take offense when we say [“No Fan Land”] but they were the last in the universe to get the material. It’s kind of a running joke that we talk about with our fans.

DOROUGH: But yeah, we were definitely nervous. “We’ve Got It Goin On,” I think it went to number 69 on the dance charts [it was released in the U.S. with limited access in September 1995 and reached No. 69 on the Hot 100 in December that year], but it didn’t really do much beyond that. We were competing just to try to get on radio airplay against all these grunge and rock groups and rap groups. They just looked at us as, like, a bunch of pansies dancing around instead of accepting us for us. It was hard to get past all that -- the image of who we are, and just take the music, at first.

MCLEAN: [Going to Sweden to record the album] was our first trip leaving the country, besides Kevin. We were in shock and awe that we were in Sweden, we had a real proper record deal now -- this is not us making cassettes in someone’s basement back in Florida. This is really happening.

KEVIN RICHARDSON: It was good to get away and for all of us to be in one place, together, focused, creating.

MCLEAN: Here we are, meeting these Swedish guys [Denniz PoP and Max Martin] that look like they were plucked out of Metallica. They frickin’ look like metal guys, and they’re doing pop music. Even though Max was doing all the work, Denniz was overseeing everything and was still writing on things. But that whole Cheiron team -- that was the beginning of what would become the biggest relationship, I think, in pop history. Max truly is the face of pop music, forever. And we are the first group that he did that with.

LITTRELL: Max has created so many memories for us, being part of it growing through history.

NICK CARTER: There’s so many things that need to come together and create that magic, and I think Max was able to see that. We had something special that was really starting to come into its own -- we had started to really craft our vocals as a harmony group, and then whenever we did it, it was something that the producers fell in love with and felt like they could really use.

MCLEAN: There was a formula back in the day, that Max and Denniz really liked, which was myself, Brian and Nick. It became this kind of whirlwind for [us three] -- like, wow, we really are championing things.

CARTER: I was definitely going through puberty at that time [he was 15 when they were recording]. My voice, where it was at, was good for certain songs, but then other ones not so much -- it was a very strange time for me. I think that’s what gave us character at that time -- we’re all going through all these things that every normal person goes through, but at such a young age in the spotlight. So our fans and people who were paying attention to us during that time were able to go through that with us, especially me as a teenager.

Bob Berg/Getty Images
(L-R) Kevin Richardson, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean and Nick Carter pose for a portrait in April 1997 in Miami Beach, Fla.

MCLEAN: Even when we were cutting the “We’ve Got It Goin’ On” rap section at like 2 in the morning -- I’m like, "Yo, I’m going to go lay down in the other lounge, wake me up when it’s time.” I woke up and I had this rasp in my voice, and Max was like, "That’s perfect. That’s perfect,” and I’m like, “Okay. You want this? All right, dude. Let’s go do it. I sound like poop, but all right." And we ended up keeping it -- the timing for everything was always just random, but it worked.

RICHARDSON: It took a while to get the background vocals for “Anywhere For You.” We all stood around one microphone to get our blends right, I mean for hours, to get the blend right.

LITTRELL: But there was never really a time back then where the label said, “We need to change a vocal.”

CARTER: There was definitely a lot of dancing and playing around in the studio. We were all kind of dorks and very goofy. We didn’t ever take anything too serious -- I think that’s what it’s all about.

LITTRELL: We were growing up in front of the world without social media – which I think helped us [Laughs], we would’ve probably gotten into more trouble over the years if social media was around.

CARTER: Being so young, I couldn’t even go out with [the rest of the group]. I had to stay in the room with my parents, and I just remember feeling left out. Some guys were out clubbing, enjoying the Swedish party scene and then coming to the studio, and I was playing video games with our producers. Denniz Pop was into network gaming, so we had like four computers that would all be set up on a table. We’d always play these fighter and shooter games, called Marathon, Duke Nukem and Half Life.

MCLEAN: I’ll never forget -- Kevin stayed up for 27 hours and flew a flight virtual on the computer. We came back the next night and he was still playing, his eyes were all bloodshot and we were like, “Dude have you slept?” and he was like, “I’m a pilot. I can’t sleep.”

RICHARDSON: I’d had flying lessons and had aspirations of being pilot, so in the studio when we weren’t recording, I would be flying on the simulator. But I did not stay up for 27 hours -- AJ can exaggerate a little bit [Laughs.] But, I did stay up all night writing with one of the producers, and when we needed a break from writing, we would use the flight simulator. You know, you get a bunch of creative artists -- and, at the same time, computer freaks -- together, and you need some down time from writing or recording, you go to the computers and have these massive battles.

CARTER: I think it just takes your mind off of having to be perfect. Everyone needed a little escape – but we were recording hits all at the same time!

LITTRELL: We’d do these all-night [recording] sessions at Cheiron -- we called it the dungeon, because it was underground. You would sing underground all night long, and this was summertime in Sweden, so it never gets dark -- we’d come out at 6:30/7:00 in the morning when the sun’s supposed to come up and it’s already light. It was like, "What time is it?’" I remember singing “Quit Playing Games” at about 3:30 in the morning!

RICHARDSON: “Quit Playing Games” was kind of an afterthought, it was like the last one we had done and they were like, “Okay guys, we think this may be a good song, let’s try it.” All the other guys had gone back to the hotel, so Brian and I did that song all by ourselves — then the label heard it and wanted it on the record. Nick wasn’t even on the song at all until they wanted it to be a single.

DOROUGH: We actually had a bit of discrepancy with the record label on the single to release. They wanted it to be “If You Want To Be Good Girl, Get Yourself A Bad Boy,” and we were all so scared about that song, because it was definitely a unique sound -- we just weren’t sure if it was the right song to [start with in] America.

MCLEAN: I think, as a group, we can definitely say that we would love to never see or hear, or ever want to be a part of [“Good Girl”] again. It could never see the light of day again and I would be fine with that. That song is just crap.

CARTER: It’s so funny, that song probably could’ve been a hit if it was released. But yeah, if you think about the lyrical content, it is a little strange for a 16, 17-year-old boy.

DOROUGH: So we said, “Why don’t we go with ‘Quit Playing Games'? It’s a song that’s proven itself internationally to be a great hit single [the song hit No. 1 on the then-active European Hot 100]. Let’s go with it." We were able to compromise, and it was probably the best thing that could’ve ever happened with us, because who knows if we would have been here right now if it was a different song.

LITTRELL: The funny thing was, when we recorded the video for [“Quit Playing Games,”] Nick hadn’t cut the second verse yet. So he was singing to my voice.

DOROUGH: That video, I remember it being cold and rainy [during filming] and the director was like, “Are any of you guys cool with taking your shirt off?” And at the time I was 21 years old, and I definitely had a different body then than I do now, so I was like “Sure, why not?” And then we saw it and we were like, “Oh my gosh, we’re gonna come off as beefcakes.”

MCLEAN: “Quit Playing Games” for some reason, that one hit. At first, MTV was like, “we’re not going to play a video with these guys in the rain taking their shirts off, there’s just no way.” And then it just started to really catch on. That is when TRL, and the whole MTV world, started to catch on.

DOROUGH: Once MTV came around and embraced us, that’s when I definitely had a feeling of there might be a chance to really be accepted here, possibly at the level that it was worldwide.

LITTRELL: I really think ["As Long As You Love Me"] is like “Quit Playing Games” on steroids, as that big group song. "Quit Playing Games" had such a melodic melody, easy listening to it -- that’s really where "As Long As You Love Me" came from, when you listen to sounds and the guitars and keyboards and the chord structure. It’s very, very similar. Max is a genius with the same four chords.

MCLEAN: I literally learned the lyrics of “As Long As You Love Me” the day we shot the video. I actually was supposed to sing the bridge that Brian sings -- the verses were supposed to be Brian and Nick, and then me on the bridge, because that was the formula -- but I had strep throat, and Max was pressured for time. So he was like, “Look, I can’t wait another day. Unless AJ can come in tomorrow, we’ve got to get somebody on the bridge.” So the song got cut, mastered, and put on the album, and it became the single.

LITTRELL: The first day of that video shoot was the 15th of June, 1997. I was heading to the shoot and I had a stack of the headshots of the young ladies that were going to be in the video. The last picture that I came to was Leighanne Wallace, and I was like “Wow, I have to remember that name,” because she was just stunning. We get to the video shoot and she was nowhere to be found. About five after 9, she shows up running in about two hours late. She’s prettier than the picture, like The Weeknd song, [Sings] “Cause you look even better than the photo.” Every time I hear that line I’m like “Man, you’re reading my mind. That’s what I thought about my wife, I should’ve written that song!” [Laughs.]

I went up to her and said hi, and she said, “Hi, my name’s Leighanne.” I said “I know, I took the liberty of seeing your headshot on the way here.” She was like, “Oh, well I owe you one.” She doesn’t owe me anything -- we hit it off and we’ve been together ever since.

MCLEAN: We weren’t back for anything in the U.S. because this was our first album, but we striked that album with “Everybody (Backstreet is Back)” on it for Europe and the rest of the world -- because for them, we’re back with our second album technically, so that’s why it became “Backstreet’s Back.” And lo and behold it became probably, at that point, our biggest record.

CARTER: It’s funny, when I look back, I feel like [the “Am I sexual” lyric of “Everybody”] would be weird from my perspective now. At the time when I was doing it, I didn’t care -- I was just like “I’ll sing it. I don’t give a damn, put me on something, I just want to sing.” Maybe it was fitting because a lot of our fans were around that age when it came out, it struck a chord with them.

MCLEAN: It got us our first MTV Video Music Award [for Best Group Video] -- it was this iconic video that blew people out of the water. Again, that was us fighting with the label about this whole treatment, wanting to do a throwback to “Thriller,” this monster video. And when we got on the phone with [director] Joseph Kahn and kind of gave him our brainstormed idea, he took it and ran with it -- and it turned out to be one of our biggest videos ever.

MCLEAN: [“I’ll Never Break Your Heart”] was the longest recording for any single BSB record in Backstreet history, because both [Brian and I] were sick, so we would go in and cut a couple lines [at a time] -- some would be usable and others sounded like we had corks up our nose, so we’d have to try again. Mind you, this was back in the day of tape, so there were no computers, there was no ProTools, no Logic, so it took a lot more work to rewind the tape and find the specific part to punch in a brand new vocal. It took a lot of work and a lot of hours to make that song happen.

DOROUGH: That video was made in the mountains of Snowbird, Utah. None of us had ever skied before -- well, at least not the Florida boys, who had not seen snow before. It was so funny, we all got off the lift, and they’d be like "All right, cut the camera!" because we’d all fall off.

RICHARDSON: [My wife] was my girlfriend at the time -- she was a professional dancer and an actress, and was out visiting me. They needed more extras, and the director asked her if she would be in the video. So she was like “OK sure!” I think it's really cool that my children can look at the [first “I’ll Never Break Your Heart”] video now and see Mom and Dad as young lovebirds.

MCLEAN: Aside from working with Max, we started with a couple of these different urban writer and producers like Full Force, who wrote “All I Have to Give.” Stuff like this [was special], working with these urban acts that entrusted this five-part white group harmony group that we could pull off urban records. Not only did we have this kind of Max Martin thing going on, then we were also able to do urban, which is really I think why you could define Backstreet Boys as a pop/R&B group. We are not just a pop group. We can cover R&B, and now country [collaborating with Florida Georgia Line for the 2016 hit “God, Your Mama, and Me”], there is nothing we can’t do once we put our minds to it.

DOROUGH: My sound wasn’t exactly the lead-person sound for the group with these songs. “All I Have To Give” was me finally getting a chance to step to the plate and show the world who I am as a singer. I’ll always be thankful for producers from the group Full Force for saying, “Dude, why don’t you sing more on the leads?”

MCLEAN: Over time, the same thing started to happen with Kevin and with Howie [having bigger parts]. Working with Max for so many years, everybody started to find their voice. Everybody is a lead singer in this group. Everybody has a great voice. It’s not like a lot of the groups from the past, where it was one or two guys, and that was it. We sing as a group, and everybody can definitely carry their weight.

DOROUGH: Eventually, the term “boy band,” which we felt was very derogatory, over time we have learned to just embrace.

CARTER: Once the record kind of started spreading, I couldn’t really do all the same things that I was doing at 16 years of age. The girls loved us, and the boys hated us. I just remember kind of being embarrassed and thinking to myself that I wasn’t normal -- at the time I didn’t realize that it was kind of a good thing that everyone was singing our songs and mocking us wherever we went [Laughs]. We created music that was so different and that people wanted to hate on, but they loved it all at the same time.

DOROUGH: I feel almost like we were creating a new lane for us, our style of music, and eventually boy bands to come after us.

Simon Ritter/Redferns
Backstreet Boys in 1998.

DOROUGH: That album, to me, was our footprint, coming back home into us being who we are -- a group that would not only be accepted by America, but break down some walls and barriers. We had a hard time doing that, but it’s the album that gave us legs to stand on for many more albums, and we’re now on our tenth [they're currently recording].

RICHARDSON: There wasn’t this huge looming expectation that Millennium had, so we had a lot of freedom. We were fearless, and there was just kind of like, an innocence to the creative process -- not so calculated, not like we had to pop ourselves, but just fun risk-taking and freedom.

MCLEAN: Then when you follow up with Millennium, you realize that this was a stepping stone of what is to come. Before you know it, our biggest album is out, and we’re all over the place with Millennium -- we can’t even leave our house. There was never a moment to stop and take a breath, really appreciate what’s happening right before our eyes. I feel like now, over the last 24 years, there’s been moments here and there where we really got to just sit back and go, “Wow. This has been my life. This has been my career.”

CARTER: I think the peak was the Millenium era, but without [Backstreet’s Back], we wouldn’t have a career here. I think we came out pretty hard with breaking the mold of a boy band at the time.

LITTRELL: Our catalog after 20 years still speaks for itself. The songs on that record and the songs that have followed in our career, I think, really set us apart from the traditional boy band flavor-of-the-month that you see come and go all the time.

DOROUGH: Our music wasn’t challenging for people to have to think too much. It just makes you feel good.

RICHARDSON: I think we had four singles off of that album that still, to this day, fans sing at the top of their lungs. I’m still hearing them being played on radio stations, grocery stores, shopping malls -- I’m really proud of that record and what it did for us.

LITTRELL: We’re on stage with Florida Georgia Line the other night in Minneapolis, and words right out of their mouth are, “We’re on stage with legends, the Backstreet Boys.” And I’m like, “Wow, I’ve never really thought about it like that” [Laughs]. Artists that are blowing up are referring to us as legends, and that’s a good feeling.

MCLEAN: Through highs and lows, through deaths in the family, rehab, loss of management, record labels leaving, all kinds of things -- here we still are, 24 years later with this amazing resurgence, almost getting back to where we were in ‘99 again. It’s just so crazy how things happen in these cycles, and we’re so blessed. We couldn’t be more grateful.

LITTRELL: Who could’ve ever thought 20 years ago, the impact that we made in the industry is still somewhat of an impact today? We grew into Backstreet Men and we’re still kickin’.

Piper Ferguson
From left: Richardson, Littrell, Carter, Howie Dorough and McLean of Backstreet Boys.

Additional reporting from Sabrina Finklestein.