100 Essential CDs – Number 43 – Steps – Gold : The Greatest Hits

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Gold: The Greatest Hits (Jive 2001)

UK Chart Position – 1

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Sometimes you just need to rise above the gloom.  Pop music is going through one of those cyclical stages where it’s taking itself all a little too seriously and is all a little worthy.  In the history of pop this has led to explosions of new music forms – rock n roll, punk, disco, the New Romantics all came about to just shake things up a bit.  Is it then, any wonder in this time of tension and uncertainty that one of the big albums of last year marked the return of Steps?  The timing must have been just right.  A previous comeback had been spurred by the reality show “Steps; The Reunion” which saw the group having to come to terms with their break-up with tears and silences worthy of Harold Pinter. This led to “Light Up The World”, an attempt to cash in to the 2012 Xmas market which didn’t either light up the world or particularly cash in with its number 32 chart place.  Five years later we were properly ready for the return. 

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Steps provides an excellent example of how the music business has changed.  Back in the mid 90’s they would be guaranteed a good chart placing with their singles bought by legions of loyal fans but now with vast numbers of streaming required they don’t really get a look in.  It would have seemed incredible then that an original number 2 album by a pop band would only spawn one number 37 chart single, but that is how things have changed.  2017’s “Tears On The Dancefloor” was probably their strongest studio album as it departed from the pattern of an album built around potential hit singles with a number of largely throwaway album tracks. The best, most essential way to listen to this group remains through a Greatest Hits Collection and in 2001 a lot of record buyers agreed with me as it became the second of their three number one albums (with another hits package “The Ultimate Collection” doing the same ten years later with just a couple of track changes.)

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 On “Gold” we have twenty tracks representing the best of Steps, from their Abba pastiche ballads to tracks that went down a storm in nightclubs.  Here they are in non-chronological order and feature their two number 1 UK singles (one of which was a double A side which has both sides represented) and their string of Top 10 hits.  They are great fun, non-threatening and accomplished- really the perfect pop band for our times.  They are also manufactured, put together in an attempt to give the world a choreography- based pop band – hence the name.  Following a magazine advert and auditions the line-up became Claire Richards (who incidentally went to the same secondary school as I did- not at the same time, I hasten to add), Faye Tozer, Lisa Scott-Lee, Ian “H” Watkins, and Lee Latchford-Evans.  The criticism that is often levied at the group is that the boys do not add a great deal.  True, their vocals may not always be totally distinguishable on the songs, particularly in the early days, but they helped so much with promoting the brand image of the band, Lee’s good looks and H’s manic likeability ensured TV appearance and magazine covers geared towards a younger audience.  Anyone doubting their value (and Lisa, who probably got less lead vocals than the other two girls, can get dragged into this) just needed to see them perform live to bring home how hard they all work and what a strong unit they could be.

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 It all started off for them with a track which didn’t exactly shout out career longevity.  “5,6,7,8” is largely a novelty, line dance of a track with the rap by Lee Latchford-Evans being one of his most significant contributions to the Steps oeuvre.  It fitted in with Europop one-offs like “Cotton Eyed Joe” and other tracks too ghastly to recall, but what set “5,6,7,8” apart was a video which showed these five shiny pop stars for the first time.  Lee, Claire, Faye, H, Lisa.  We were already beginning to pick our favourites in a tactic which had worked very well for the Spice Girls.  The single got a respectable mid chart #14 placing.  Based on the track alone this might have been all we heard from Steps but the image and concept were stronger. There were also the international markets to consider as the group scored a worldwide hit from the off, reaching number 1 in Australia and number 2 in Belgium and New Zealand. 

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Producer Pete Waterman, in putting together their debut album knew he had more than a singing dance troupe on his hands as this group could sing and with the girls he had three voices which could add much texture to a song.  In coming up with a follow-up hit he recalled a track which he had previously recorded. Bananarama never had the vocal quality of Steps (sorry girls) and a track “Last Thing On My Mind” had been an album track on their 1993 post-glory days album “Please Yourself” when they were recording as a duo.  Waterman realised there was life in this track and boosting it with additional Steps energy worked a treat and made me  think for the first time that this was a group who were going somewhere.  Released in May 1998 it reached number 6, was a Top 5 hit in Australia and topped the charts in Belgium.    It opened the floodgates and for the next three years we were never more than a couple of months from a big Steps track.

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 “One For Sorrow” (UK#2) added another dimension as here was a song which had an authentic Abba-esque feel in its verse, a cut-price “Winner Takes It All” in effect.  The Abba influence is also evident in a number of the other tracks.  The group scored a #4 hit in 1999 with an Abba tribute taken from the Brits Ceremony for that year performed with lesser pop acts B*Witched, Billie Piper, Cleopatra and Tina Cousins and the group just seemed to slot into the whole Abba revival thing created by “Mamma Mia”, the show and the film which became beloved of hen parties everywhere. “Thank Abba For The Music” does not actually appear on “Gold”.  This connection was most fully realised, however, after the Steps implosion when H and Claire put out their fans’ loyalty-splitting album recorded as a duo, the title track of which “Another You Another Me” was written for them by Bjorn and Benny. 

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 The fourth single was a perfectly timed double A side which gave them their first chart-topper and featured the song most associated with them.  The Bee Gees had already had a number 1 hit with “Tragedy” in 1979 and nineteen years later all it needed was an ear-cupping dance move and a wedding themed video and that ensured that this would be the hit of Xmas office parties for years to come. The better track of the two is the attractive sing-along ballad “Heartbeat” with its trademark stomach-rumbling sound touches and a Steps -at- Christmas cockle-warming video.  The original Bee Gees version of “Tragedy” is now less remembered than the Steps cover.  With such a successful cover version under their belt it’s not surprising that it was a method tried on further occasions.  “Chain Reaction” (another Bee Gees penned song) gave a slightly different interpretation to the Diana Ross chart-topper and reached #2 in 2001.  Pete Waterman raided his old song-book again for “Better The Devil You Know” which added absolutely nothing to the Kylie version (1999 #4) and a track left off this album was paired with the “new material” “Words Are Not Enough” for a number 5 single in 2001, but I don’t think we really needed another version of “I Know Him So Well”.

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 The golden years were 1999 and 2000 as the group then put out a string of tracks which perfectly summed up what Steps were all about and were rewarded with big sales “Better Best Forgotten” (UK#2), “Love’s Got A Hold On My Heart” (UK#2), and “After The Love Has Gone” (UK #5) are a trio of little pop gems, danceable sing-alongs which, even when the lyrics were melancholy lifted the spirits.  In 2000 a slightly harder dancer edge was used to great effect in the sublime “Deeper Shade Of Blue” (UK#4) and the latin-tinged fiesta of “Summer Of Love” (UK#5).

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By the time of the third album “Buzz”, which just a couple of years after did seem to be a regular feature in the CD collections of charity shops, the group were striving for a cooler sound than the Hit Factory artists they had become and were using Swedish producers and saw the group writing themselves and employing Cyndi Lauper to help out.  It certainly paid dividends with the track released just before the album as “Stomp” with its Chic influenced “Everybody Dance” groove, felt like a song by one of the cooler boy bands of the time more than the sound we had associated with Steps and it showed the public was behind this (slight) change of direction when it became their second UK #1 single after so many near misses.

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 At least part of Step’s continued success could be put down to them being a highly bankable live act.  I did see them perform at The Brighton Centre at the height of their career and the audience split equally between kids, parents and grandparents, hen and office parties and gay men absolutely lapped it up.  They worked so hard onstage and this was publicly recognised in 2000 when they were given a special Brits award for being the Best Selling Live Act for that year.  Working so hard, however, recording, touring continually and being in demand for television appearances was bound to take its toll.

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On Boxing Day 2001 it publicly fell apart.  There had been rumours circulating from the release of the “Gold” package that the group’s days were numbered.  When the announcement came there was considerable backlash concerning poor timing, ruining Christmas for fans and criticism that the band had cashed in to make the most of the Christmas market.  Claire and H had been through enough, fans could see how hard the band had worked and knew they would be in need of a rest.  It was perhaps not the best of news for H and Claire to sign a reputed big value recording deal with Warner to continue as what would really be Steps minus three.

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This partnership scored three Top 10 singles which suggested good things for them, but the album release was fairly disastrous, reaching number 58 in a one week chart stay.  I picked up a copy in Poundland just a couple of months after its release and the duo were dropped, causing bitterness and recriminations which permeated throughout the five members of the group which were only partly resolved during the reality series “Steps- The Reunion.” Faye moved fairly effortlessly into musical theatre (with earnings obviously drastically reduced), Lee concentrated on personal training and choreography with occasional forays back into shows and pantomime and Lisa, eventually got a reality TV series “Totally Scott-Lee” in 2005 which focused on Lisa and family members in which she made the rash statement that if a solo single did not reach the Top 10 she would give up on the music business completely.  With the twist of fate that such pronouncements encouraged it reached number 11.

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And now Steps are back, issues resolved and now in their 40’s and able to recreate their happy pop sound for a different album-buying era.  I hope this revival isn’t just a flash in the pan, but even if this turns out to be so, we do have compilations including my essential CD “Gold” to relive those finest moments.

 

Gold  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £9.31 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $12.99 and used for $0.01.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.

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