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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100 Essential CDs – Number 49 – Kylie Minogue- Let’s Get To It

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Let’s Get To It- Kylie Minogue  (PWL 1991) 

      UK Chart Position – 15

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Kylie Minogue’s 4th studio album was the last for the PWL label which had transported her from Aussie soap actress to international singing star.  It was very much a parting of the ways.  Kylie would go on to leave the label to join Deconstruction for her next release.  The PWL label masterminds were already down to two thirds strength as  life at the” Hit Factory” which had spawned close to 100 UK Top 40 chart placings by this time was beginning to waver.  The UK chart of 13th October 1990 was the first for over two years that had no Stock, Aitken and Waterman produced songs in it.  A burnt out, stressed Matt Aitken left the team leaving Mike Stock and Pete Waterman to work with their number one artist.

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The men from The Hit Factory – Stock, Aitken and Waterman

“Let’s Get To It” ended up as Kylie’s least successful studio album .  The number 15 placing is lower than anything apart from compilations and mix albums.  All this is rather bizarre, as it is one of her best and is certainly superior to the three she had put out with the SAW team in the previous three years.

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One of the most watched TV weddings of all time

Kylie Minogue joined the Australian soap “Neighbours” as garage mechanic Charlene in 1986.  At this time the show, broadcast at teatime in the UK, was gaining huge audiences and the romance between her and character Scott, played by Jason Donovan, captured the British public’s attention in a very big way and ensured that both actors were well on their way to becoming household names over here.  A recording deal for both was inevitable.  Kylie signed to the Australian label, Mushroom records and her first recording, a cover of Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” became Australia’s biggest selling single of the 80’s and number 1 over there for seven weeks.  Sensing international success, the label sent her over to work with Stock, Aitken and Waterman.  The story goes that they forgot she was waiting to see them, had very little to offer her and quickly wrote a song “I Should Be So Lucky” which became a massive hit single in many countries and began the reign of the new pop princess.  The trio remixed the first Australian hit and released it as “The Loco-Motion” which gave her another worldwide smash.  The first two albums “Kylie” (1988) “Enjoy Yourself” (1989) were both huge number 1 albums in the UK, but were pretty light pop confections, centred around the hit singles, of which there were becoming many.  The third album “Rhythm Of Love” saw Kylie beefing up the image somewhat.  It contained probably her two best ever singles “Step Back In Time” and the phenonomenal “Better The Devil You Know” and it was probably around this time that  I joined the Kylie party.  As an album it is still a little patchy apart from these tracks.

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The first three albums

Album number 4 seems to carry on with what “Rhythm of Love” had attempted in making Kylie a credible artist who could achieve commercial pop success and also extend the fan base from those who would put up her poster on their bedroom wall.  This album, in its range of more mature styles, together with Kylie’s consummate stage performances help pave the way towards the longevity which has really been extraordinary in the pop arena.  That people didn’t buy into it in this occasion has always been puzzling.  It might just have been by 1991 people had tired of the whole domination of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman sound in the UK charts and that the backlash was beginning to set in.  The trio had scored their last number one production the year before in 1990 with Kylie’s rather pedestrian cover of “Tears On My Pillow”.  It might have been a wise move for Kylie to move on to the more street-cred label Deconstruction, but this was actually a stronger album than the two released on that label.

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The first of the ten tracks on display was lead single “The Word Is Out” which saw Stock and Waterman experimenting with New Jack Swing.  It was the  jury that was out with this one as well as the word, as with its number 16 UK Chart placing it became her first ever single to miss out on the UK Top 10.  It’s a chunky little opener and I have always liked it.  It almost has a group feel to it as it features an uncredited male vocalist taking a bit of the lead just before the end.  It’s a great opener, rather than classic Kylie.  I think it shows that the producers were not stuck in a groove, the criticism being levied towards them at this time was that their songs were beginning to sound the same.  This is a definite attempt to keep up with the sounds that were current in 1992- I just think that New Jack Swing was not always dated that well.  The single did make the Top 10 in Australia and Ireland.

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Cover version time up next and Kylie’s version of the great song by Chairmen Of The Board “Give Me Just A Little More Time” became the big success off the album when it was released as the third single becoming her sixth track to reach number 2 in the UK.  This an affectionate cover version with a nod towards the original artists as Kylie includes lead singer General Johnson’s trademark “Brrrr”. Like other Kylie covers, the chart-topping “Tears On My Pillow”, and “Celebration” they do not challenge the originals in terms of quality.  This, however, is the most successful of the three by far. (I think “The Loco-Motion,” which let’s face it, is going to be a fluffy novelty track whoever sings it does actually challenge Little Eva’s as a fun track for a generation who did not know the original)

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“Too Much Of A Good Thing” has a Madonna feel to it and a nod towards House Music.  It is the first on the CD where Kylie also takes writing credits alongside Mike Stock and Pete Waterman.  “Finer Feelings” was the fourth hit single taken from the album.  Four hit singles show that this album was certainly no slouch quality wise.  It shows a mature Kylie, some distance away from “The Locomotion” and “Hand On My Heart”.  Kylie references sex on here, for goodness sake!  The whole thing comes across as really quite sophisticated and was perhaps a precursor to the type of tracks which appeared on the first Deconstruction album.  Although the UK bought enough copies to take her to number 11, her native Australia were not so sure as it became her first single to miss out on the Top 50 over there.

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There’s a definite nod towards the American market with the slightly Disney sounding ballad duet “If You Were With Me Now”.  To this point in the US Kylie’s SAW debut had reached number 28, but “The Loco-Motion” had passed expectations and reached number 3.  From then on things had been a bit of a struggle (the non UK single “It’s No Secret” crept into the US Top 40 at number 37) but there was enough kudos to persuade an artist who looked like he was on the way to become a big US Soul star, Keith Washington, to record with her.  Her first duet, with Jason Donovan “Especially For You” had charmed and topped charts but it was one heck of a cheesy track.  This, still a little schmaltzy felt like a much more mature track and took the pairing to number 4 in the UK Singles chart.  It became the first hit single to credit Kylie for her songwriting.  The duo, in what was then common in pop music, did not record their vocals together and only met for the filming of the video (where oddly, they also do not appear together – somewhat like the Patti Labelle/Michael McDonald track “On My Own”).  Here once again the song’s lyrics have been interpreted literally.  Washington, incidentally, had topped the US R&B charts with his debut single “Kissing You” and won a Soul Train Award but lasting success eluded him.  He puts in a good vocal on this track and is well matched by Kylie’s.  If it was an experiment to garner American sales, however, it did not work.  Kylie would have to wait another ten years for her next US hit.

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Title track “Let’s Get To It”is a rare thing.  It was perhaps the first great Kylie track not put out as a single.  It’s a real earworm of a song and probably my favourite on the album.  It’s mid-tempo classic Kylie, builds well and stays in my head long after each listen.  Both “Right Here, Right Now” and “Live And Learn” are good quality album tracks and good examples of dance-floor Kylie.  “No World Without You” shows a different side of Ms. Minogue.  It is a nicely-performed, melancholy, sparsely accompanied ballad.

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At the time eyebrows were raised by closing track “I Guess I Like It Like That” which boasted a harder dance sound than Kylie fans were used to.  It sounds like a track that might have had a big gospel disco diva such as Martha Wash or Jocelyn Brown on it.  At six minutes in length, it’s almost twice the length of most of the other tracks on the album.  It’s club music rather than commercial dance and this was somewhat of a departure.  It contains samples of 2-Unlimited, Salt N’Pepa and the Freestyle Orchestra and yet the whole thing blends well as a cohesive, contemporary track and shows that , in case there were still any doubters out there that Kylie was no pop puppet and that there was considerable diversity there.  And that is one of the reason why this ex-Australian soap star has had a music career now pushing thirty years.

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Kylie with Pete Waterman

Despite the disappointing sales this is a Kylie album that has stood the test of time and was a glorious final hurrah for the team who made her famous.  It was a brave move to leave this nest, but the time was right and there would be even better for her to come.

Let’s Get To It  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £10.88 and used from £1.44. It can be downloaded for £7.99. In the US it is currently $24.95 new and used from $21.06 and downloaded for $9.49.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.