Steps, 2017

Dismissed as disposable pop trash in the 90s, shiny happy five-piece Steps returned in 2017 terrorise the dancefloor. That year, they talked to Christian Guitenane…

Once upon a time, the mere mention of the name Steps would send shivers of fear down the spines of those who found sparkly pop as horrifying as being stuck in a lift with Gemma Collins.

But 20 years after they first burst onto the charts, something’s changed. Pop’s shiniest, happiest, disco dandies have, against all the odds become respectable, credible and, dare we say, cool? Well, yes actually. It would seem that they are. 

When the all-singing, all-dancing 30-something boy-girl pop combo returned to the charts in March with Scared Of The Dark, it wasn’t just the devoted fans who’d supported them back in the day who revelled in the gloriousness of the intricately constructed and produced new track.

So, too, did the sorry saps who’d hidden away in the pop closet for so many years only now to find the strength to fight the feelings they’d stifled for so long.

And so it came to pass, that for a few hours Scared Of The Dark usurped Ed Sheeran’s reign at the top of the iTunes chart while their critically-acclaimed comeback album Tears On The Dancefloor piqued the interest of old and new fans who were in need of a little hope and joy.

The positive reaction came as a massive surprise not just to those fans but also to the band themselves.

“The press have been so good to us, I have been shocked by how people have accepted us and wanted us,” a genuinely surprised Faye Tozer tells Classic Pop when we catch up with three of the band.

“We’ve had weird and wonderful people interested in us this time round. Even punk magazines have mentioned us, all sorts. Maybe we are a bit retro now; maybe it’s fine now to say it’s okay to like Steps from time to time!”

It’s time to begin − now count it in…

Of course, back in 1997, as Britpop reigned supreme in the charts, Steps were a group you either loved or hated. But even the most devoted fans would say they’d be hard-pressed to fall totally for Steps Mk1.

Initially they had been conceived and developed as a one-hit novelty act whose schtick was to sing the boot-scootin’ line-dancing song 5,6,7,8.

Even today, the very suggestion of it fills our hearts with dread. But for Tozer, Lee Latchford-Evans, Ian ‘H’ Watkins, Lisa Scott-Lee and Claire Richards, this was their chance to hit the big time.

“We were employed to front that one single,” Faye recalls. “And as far as we were concerned we were going back to
our jobs afterwards.”

Lee added: “We were told by the guys behind the band, Steve Crosby and Barry Upton, that the idea was for us to release a line-dancing song,” Lee says of the band’s origin story.

“There was no label and no money but we were all hungry to get started and we were like, ‘okay then, we’re in’.”

While the rest of the band were hoping that this line-dancing combo would kickstart their careers, self-confessed pessimist Claire Richards was less optimistic about a fruitful future.

By this point in her young life, the pop-loving lass had already been one third of a flop girlband called TSD so wasn’t overly hopeful.

“I thought TSD was going to be my big break,” Claire remembers. “But it wasn’t, so this time I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.”

StepsClaire’s confidence was dented even more when producers twiddling the knobs balked at 5,6,7,8 themselves.

“The engineers and musicians in the studio were mortified,” Claire recalls, “they didn’t want to do it. I remember them saying to me, ‘when you want to come and record some proper music, let us know.’ I don’t think they actually put their names on the record. Which is silly really.”

Regardless of what anyone thought about the record, 5,6,7,8 went on to become a Top 20 hit and caught the attention of pop supremo, Pete Waterman, who saw something special.

Not only did he think they had great pop voices, they also had a natural chemistry. He knew he’d stumbled upon something special and realised that what the world needed was a modern day ABBA… So Steps 2.0 was born.

Step One: We can have lots of fun!

Pete dusted off a couple of Bananarama’s Please Yourself album tracks and repackaged them for Steps. The lead single was Last Thing On My Mind, a track which had barely scraped the Top 75 for the ’Nanas back in 1993. However, for Steps, the tune became their calling card.

“It was a huge surprise and wonderful that Pete Waterman had a vision for our future at that time,” Faye recalls. “We suddenly very quickly changed from being a line dancing band to a pop band.”

And so the group set about recording Step One, a collection of new songs and little-heard covers that were all given a glistening pop sheen by the likes of PWL studio whizkids Topham and Twigg, Andrew Frampton and Pete Waterman.

It peaked at No.2 and impressively would go on to sell 1.4 million copies.

Against the odds, the public really seemed to buy into the group, replicating the easy-to-follow dance steps and giddily abiding by the colour schemes set out by the group for each single. However, critics were fast to dismiss them as trashy pop.

“It definitely bothered us,” Claire says defiantly. “We were young and we took it all very seriously. It was our career and when you’re selling the kind of records that we were – and don’t forget we were selling out arenas – people still thought we were a joke.

“A lot of our contemporaries were being given designer clothes but no one would touch us with a bargepole. It was a bit upsetting, if I’m honest! We really didn’t understand why we didn’t get the recognition from the industry.”

The group maintain that their enduring success is fan-driven. “The fans have stuck by us and have given us everything. They loved us, they love us still and don’t care about what the industry says,” Claire adds, looking genuinely touched by the support.

“That’s the most important thing that we can take away from the early days and this time round it’s opened our eyes as to how incredible the fans are, and that’s how they have always been for 20 years.”

Every step you take I’ll be watching you

After Step One and a sell-out arena tour, work started on the group’s eagerly anticipated second album Steptacular. With a stronger and more cohesive sound, the album stormed in at No.1 and shifted well over one million copies. Input from the band was once again minimal, but that was fine with them.

“We were so busy going from country to country, “ Faye remembers. “It was a crazy time in our lives. We were busy performing, enjoying ourselves, meeting amazing people and going to amazing parties. I don’t think we had any idea how the music was going to sound. We just left it again with Pete and our management.”

The standout track of the album was the moody club track Deeper Shade of Blue, which became the song that once again pushed them toward credibility. And the new direction was just what the band felt they needed.

“We were over the moon that we could go in slightly clubby direction,” Faye squeals. “We went down a more credible sounding route, something that would match what was going on in the charts.

“Up until then we had always felt like we didn’t have a place in the charts. Although that was our triumph in the end, that we were doing our own thing.”

The mature sound continued into the band’s third album Buzz, which again was a massive selling chart-topper. The album featured a divisive cover of Kylie’s Better The Devil You Know. While die-hard Minogue fans were appalled, the band and their younger fans loved it.

“I actually think it’s better than Kylie’s version,” Claire, a devoted Kylie fan herself, boasts. “Actually someone who worked at PWL for years told me they liked our version more than her’s, too. I can no longer hear Kylie’s version in my head anymore.”

Like Steptacular, Buzz continued to embrace club and dance sounds inspired by the likes of Ultra Nate, but it was the album that gave the band their first opportunity to flex their writing muscles.

Given an opportunity to choose a producer or songwriter they would like to work with individually, Faye opted for 80s legend Cyndi Lauper. After some initial hesitation, Cyndi invited Faye to stay with her at her house in the US.

“She was an absolute dream,” Faye reminisces. “She was as crazy and as wonderful as I wanted her to be. We recorded and wrote all over the house and she did backing vocals on one of my demos.”

When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on

In 2001, Steps fans were devastated when on Boxing Day the group announced they were splitting up. Little did anyone know at the time that the break-up hadn’t been as amicable as first thought.

Instead of the band mutually agreeing to take some time out, H & Claire had surprised their bandmates just minutes before their final tour date in Manchester (which was being televised live by Sky that night) with a letter of resignation.

“I don’t know why H and I split when we did,” Claire says. “I think I just couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t like confrontation at all. I will go along with something for as long as I can deal with it. I will just put up with it until I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Although the hectic schedule played a part in her decision to quit, she admits that the animosity from other members of the band, irritated that she was given so many of the lead vocals, hurt her, too.

“Obviously there were tensions between certain members of the band because I was given a lot of the lead lines. To be honest, I always felt uncomfortable about the whole singing situation. And it just got to me and upset me.

“I don’t think anyone did this on purpose but I always felt I like I had done something wrong because I was getting most of the vocals. But all I was doing was going in and doing what I was told.”

Looking back, Faye says that she, too, was having reservations about her place in the band and reveals that she had thought about walking away long before it was a seed in H and Claire’s mind.

“I went through a stage when it all felt a little bit too overwhelming for me,” she confides. “I think I felt it took over my life and that scared me. I think we were heavily overworked.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Faye says she now thinks that the split in 2001 was in fact “perfect timing”. She said: “We left at the top, even though it was painful at the time. I think it was actually for the best and that is why we are here today! We lived to tell the tale.”

Lee, too, says that H & Claire’s resignation came as a mighty surprise to him but is philosophical about what happened. “I’m a massive believer that things happen for a reason,” he muses.

“I wouldn’t go back and change anything, good or bad. It helps you grow, you learn from mistakes.”

He added: “Was I ready for it to end when it did? I’d have to say no. We were all very hurt, we were all quite shocked, and to be honest, I really didn’t believe it for a long while. I just thought they were having a moment.

“I certainly don’t like the way it happened, but I do think that things happen for a reason. And had that not happened I’m not sure we’d be here again now. We could have just faded away.”

Almost six months later H & Claire released an album of their own, Another You Another Me, but their former bandmates merely pretended it wasn’t happening.

“To be honest,” Lee pipes up. “I cannot name two songs off their album. I know they had a track called DJ, I think. But I didn’t buy the album, or listen to it.” Funnily enough, neither, it turned out, did the record buying public – the album failed to make the Top 50.

While her bandmates may have been secretly laughing their pants off at the disappointing performance of Another You, Another Me, Claire reveals that she was absolutely mortified.

“I was devastated by the way the album did. I really was. And that was the reason why I stopped doing music for a long time. The lead-up to the release of the album had been so positive. DJ was No.2. We had three Top 10 singles and I think the album was a good record. I still stand by it now.”

When the second single Half A Heart halted at only No.8, she remembers their label panicking and demanding at the 11th hour that she and H record a super-Steps-sounding track called All Out Of Love, penned by the group’s writers, Carl Twigg and Mark Topham and Andrew Frampton.

Claire was heartbroken: “I really hated it. I fought against releasing it, which is weird now because I think it’s really good.”

Claire retreated from public life and focussed on family. “That experience really scared me off music,” she recalls. “I am not a risk taker, which is probably why I have never released any solo material.”

Let’s take a chance on a happy ending

Ten years later, the group were reunited for a confrontational Sky TV show where they came face to face for the first time since that Manchester gig and eventually cleared the air. The subsequent UK tour was a sold-out success and their second greatest hits a chart-topper.

It looked like Steps had been given a new lease of life. But their then manager Steven Howard (who had previously worked with Lulu) had other ideas and decided that it would be a good idea for them to release an album of Christmas ballads to support a special festive theatre tour that he had roped them into.

Light Up The World turned out to be even more disastrous than H & Claire’s solo effort. Claire said: “We had this idea to do a Christmas album. Originally it was going to be full of upbeat Phil Spector-type songs.

“But then our manager said he didn’t want us to do that and wanted us to have less Christmas songs so it had more longevity. That was stupid and a mistake. He didn’t get us.”

So here we are in 2017, with a new album of dance songs, which they have released by themselves and without a label.

“We have completely different management [Peter Loraine who was behind The Saturdays] so we knew that it wouldn’t be like it was that time,” Claire says. “There was a bit of umm-ing and aaah-ing about whether we should have released just a single, a repackage or an EP.

“Eventually we decided that a brand new album was the best way to go. I’m glad we did as it’s really a good album and the reaction to the single has been incredible.”

The record, which has been produced by The Alias, has been described as “all killer and no filler”.

“We had everything to say about this album,” Faye explains. “It is so exciting. It’s the first time we as a group could pick and choose the songs that we think the audience wants.”

Their triumphant return marks the group’s 20th anniversary and appears to have been orchestrated with foresight and panache -– unlike the Spice Girls, whose own 20th anniversary celebrations collapsed when Posh and Sporty refused to sign up.

“We’re gutted they haven’t been able to pull it together,” says Faye. “Our power of having so much success this time is we’ve come back with the original line up.

“We would never have reunited if someone didn’t want to do it. We always said we would never come back if someone didn’t want to. It was all or nothing, five or nobody.”

And it’s clear that the affection for the band remains, 20 years on. Why have Steps managed to keep that fire burning in the hearts of their fans while the likes of S Club haven’t?

“We were honest and open – that’s why the public jumped on us more than S Club and Spice Girls,” Lee suggests. “We were having fun, we weren’t trying to be anything other than a pop band.

“In a way, we were kind of punk rock, in that people loved us in spite of the fact we did the opposite to what was deemed as acceptable and cool.

“It was like we were sticking two fingers up to the people who thought we were rubbish, knowing that we had that loyal audience behind us.”

And that loyal audience have stayed true to this very day. And Lee understands why. Steps were not just a happy-go-lucky pop group. He reckons they were a much-needed soundtrack and safe place for young people struggling with aspects of their lives.

Lee said: “We have a big gay following and we have always had messages from people telling us that we really helped them during a difficult time in their lives. I’m not saying we were solving third world problems but we had a lot of people who really took the band to heart.”

So with the album out and filling the cold grey world with colour and warmth again, can we expect them to stick around a bit longer? “We are going to play it by ear,” Faye teases.

“We didn’t think we were going to get this response and we think we have a bit more left in us. It looks like it’s more positive so it looks like there could be more after next year!”