Monday, November 21, 2011

Stepping Back & Forward with Steps

I've rediscovered my love of Steps, a popular British quintet prominent from 1997 through 2001. 2011 heralded a reunion for Steps after a rupture in the group 10 years previously this December.

Soaring back into the British public consciousness on the back of a documentary detailing their mended fences, Steps has topped the U.K. album charts (digitally and physically) with their Ultimate Collection. The companion tour, already selling out, is making this reunion a fantastic realization for longtime fans. A new album might even be in the works.

My initial exposure to Steps was, and is, owed to my love of the Spice Girls. The Spice Girls, another United Kingdom export, were worlds away from the pre-fab pep pop Steps favored. What the Spice Girls did was open my ears to the international music scenes and that allowed me to find Steps in the spring of 2000.

Beating the pre-fab explosion that stole the U.S. by two years, Steps racked up the requisite silver, gold, platinum sales and nothing less than Top 20 chart placements at home. Lee Latchford-Evans, Ian "H" Watkins, Lisa Scott-Lee, Claire Richards, and Faye Tozer were conceptualized by Tim Byrne, Steve Crosby, and Barry Upton, movers and shakers within the U.K. popular music sphere.

Later, Pete Waterman, a former third of the production trio Stock-Aitken-Waterman, became involved in the songwriting and production duties for Steps. Waterman, with his S.A.W. peers defined pop music in England, Europe, Australia, and Asia from the late '80's through the early '90's. America caught the S.A.W. bug as well, but not as feverishly as the previously mentioned locales. Steps drew their name from their dance choreography that accompanied every single they released, their music often based in varying European and British dance. However, they did have a longer reach in their singles and albums than a momentary listen suggested. What made Steps stand out was their harmonies, they could sing.

Some of the Steps songs haven't aged well ("5, 6, 7, 8" anyone?). The rest retain a golden gleam of well written, sweet appeal ("One for Sorrow," "After the Love Has Gone"). Their covers promptly showed that Steps added their own personality to classics by Bananarama ("Last Thing On My Mind"), The Bee Gees ("Tragedy"), Diana Ross ("Chain Reaction"), and Kylie Minogue ("Better the Devil You Know"). Steps attempted a shot at American success. Combining elements from Step One (1998) and Steptacular (1999), they prepped a composite U.S. edition of Step One which arrived in 2000. In spite of the lukewarm reception Steps got in the U.S., it was on their third album Buzz (2000) that Steps began shaking their pop foundations. New Musical Express critic Peter Robinson stated in his favorable review of Buzz (NME ranked it "8/10"):
Even more so than second albums, third albums are notoriously difficult in pop. For while a second album can lodge itself in the slipstream of all the excitement that comes with a debut, third albums are there to see bands "standing on their feet" and "proving themselves," and-call the police!-"taking a more mature direction' by "writing our own material."

Buzz, the first album I ever imported, is one of the finest pop records of its time. The disco resurrection of "Stomp," touted in the liner notes as a tribute to Chic members Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, was unapologetic in its flying groove. Songs like these are why I'm sold on British pop, they don't fret and fuss like Americans do over (supposedly) appearing old hat when getting into great period pieces. Elsewhere, Buzz held one song written by each Step. Claire's "Hand On Your Heart" and Lisa's "Never Get Over You" were gorgeous stand-outs. Additional highlights included their world music pull on "Paradise Lost," the mirror ball spinner "Learn to Love Again," and the DeBarge borrowed "Wouldn't Hurt So Bad."

Steps disbanded after their Gold Tour, their recent Steps: The Reunion documentary filled in the dots of what went wrong. In the interim of the break-up and reformation, the former Steps tried their hands at solo careers and personality driven entertainment engagements.

"It's the Way You Make Me Feel"
Directed By: David Amphlett

In the decade since their break-up much has changed. Performers like Steps, as they do, tend to be appreciated when they aren't as ubiquitous. Now their work is being crowned by former cynics. For me, a strange homecoming has taken place. I don't believe in the idea of the "guilty pleasure," at least in music anyway. Every artist has their place and the responsibility to be the best at what they do, no matter what anyone may think. Steps did that.

They spoke of a more innocent time in my life and those of their (now) adult fans. The Steps brand of pop, often heartfelt, fun, and sometimes corny I've discovered has its place among the other music I've found since I was 16. I am probably the only black 26-year-old Midwesterner checking for Steps to keep on truckin' in these pop barren days, but somehow it feels full circle.-QH

[Editor's Note: All of Steps discography is in print, the mass of it available via import. For more information on Steps visit: Steps Official.-QH]


Moanerplicity said...

I'm just unhip enough to admit that I've never heard of this group. Looks like a visit to Youtube is due.

Happy Turkey Day in Q-ville.



QH said...

Check out the embedded clip I provided. One of their better videos and songs I think. Thanks again for the support.-QH

Diva Incarnate said...

Love that you even know who they are. They seem to very much be a singles act - I gave Buzz a go but found it a bit of a challenge. Quite disappointing considering how good One For Sorrow, The Way You Make Me Feel and Summer of Love are. Their covers were fine, but they relied too much on them - Better The Devil was completely unnecessary and impacted on Kylie's decision to perform a different version of it on her comeback Light Years tour. Last Thing On My Mind is my favourite of theirs. I even enjoy elements of 5, 6, 7, 9. Despite my singles act claim, they shifted a heck of a lot of albums - radio ignored them and they perhaps could have sold even more with airwaves support.

Phil said...

Great cheezy pop!