Steps were the quintessential late-Nineties British pop group. Formed by manager Tim Byrne with songwriters Steve Crosby and Barry Upton, who posted an advert in The Stage newspaper and auditioned thousands of hopefuls, the smiling five-piece were enthusiastic, energetic and didn’t care about looking cool. Steps’ gloriously unironic performing style seems quaintly innocent today: the whole point of their handography-packed dance routines was you could try to copy them at home. Play their chart-topping cover of the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy” to any millennial pop fan – or their parents – and they’ll still raise both hands to their heads like Steps did in the video.
Because I grew up on Steps and remember buying their singles on cassette for £2.29 from my local Woolies (RIP), interviewing them in 2020 is a fun and unexpectedly comforting experience. I’m offered the option to speak to the pop stalwarts over Zoom, which has become de rigueur this year, but am told I can meet them in person if I prefer. Pandemic or no pandemic, these seasoned showbiz troupers who came up in the era of Smash Hits and CD:UK have booked out a central London bar for a day of old-school, face-to-face promo. As a fan, I obviously shoot down the Zoom offer – it’s a day before the “rule of six” is announced so I have no qualms about being in the same room as the five group members and their PR reps. Lisa Scott-Lee has even flown in from her home in Dubai, where she now runs her own performing arts school.
I’m given a Steps branded face mask when I arrive and find the group members – Scott-Lee, Lee Latchford-Evans, Claire Richards, Faye Tozer and Ian “H” Watkins – sitting safely spaced out in a large corner booth. There’s no hugging or handshaking, but otherwise it’s very much business as usual. When Watkins asks whether I like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s hot-button hit “WAP”, Scott-Lee politely reminds him he’s not here to “plug someone else’s single”.
Clearly no fools, Steps have never cheapened their brand by joining other Nineties acts on a naff nostalgia tour. But even so, their latest comeback must have exceeded the expectations of even staunch Steps fans. When they couldn’t tempt a record label to sign them a few years ago, they released their 2017 album Tears on the Dancefloor independently and had the last laugh. Led by the fabulously catchy single “Scared of the Dark”, a song which made no attempt to chase contemporary pop trends and was all the better for it, the album entered the charts at No 2 and went gold. The subsequent arena tour sold 200,000 tickets – pretty impressive for a manufactured band whose supremely cheesy debut single “5,6,7,8” was written off as a novelty hit back in 1997.
Though they proved their mettle as an independent act, Steps are now signed to BMG, a major label which has enjoyed success in recent years with other legacy pop acts including Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley. “Having that big machine behind us means we can reach out further,” Tozer says, a point neatly underlined by their slick new single, “What the Future Holds”. Written by pop heavyweight Sia, it’s an unapologetic banger with a refrain that feels especially poignant in these uncertain times: “One foot in the past, and one foot in the future.” Their sixth album, also called What the Future Holds, will follow in November, and another arena tour is booked for late 2021.
Richards points out that being signed again means “less penny-pinching” this time around, but it doesn’t sound as though Steps were ever seduced by pop star excess. Watkins says that back in the late-Nineties, “our peers never questioned what came in and out of their pockets”, whereas Steps always realised they’d eventually foot the bill for every aspect of their marketing. “We've always been very astute and business-savvy, which is why some of our videos back in the day cost about 10 grand when our peers were spending so much more,” he says. “We always recouped [the budget]: every single, every album, every video.”
At the start of Steps’ career, this thriftiness was motivated by necessity. They were initially signed on a one-single deal and “5,6,7,8”, which mixed country violin riffs with techno beats and had them line-dancing in the video, didn’t exactly guarantee a long-term career. “We had very, very little payment at the start,” Watkins recalls. “We were living in hotels and we would make sandwiches in the morning from the [complimentary] breakfast to eat throughout the day. I can also remember having £50 a week: £40 would go on rent and then I’d have £10 to live on. We’d buy potatoes, ketchup and tuna flakes with that £10 and that would be it. I think that kind of s*** makes you appreciate everything.”
Nor were they afforded lavish costume budgets. “On the same promotional tour, we’d maybe have two T-shirts to last us months,” Watkins says. “All Saints and Five and S Club 7 would be all dripping in designer, whereas we’d be there in our same little sad red-and-black top.” Richards adds with a laugh: “My costume was red PVC trousers and a red mesh top, which really aren’t very good washable items!”
Though “5,6,7,8” only climbed to No 14 – disappointing at a time when the Spice Girls were regularly entering at No 1 – it hung around long enough to become a gold-selling single. When I mention that it’s now their most-streamed song on Spotify – ahead of “Tragedy” – Steps aren’t remotely precious about it. “If you play ‘5,6,7,8’ to a little kid, they absolutely love it,” Richards says matter-of-factly. “And it’s used in a lot of dance schools,” Tozer adds.
After “5,6,7,8,” Steps were picked up by Pete Waterman, who gave them a snappy slogan that doubled as a musical vision: “Abba on speed.” Scott-Lee recalls being told by the pop impresario in an early meeting, “Hold on tight, kids – this is gonna fly!” and in fairness, it really did. Before they disbanded in 2001, Steps had released four multi-platinum albums, including a Greatest Hits, and racked up 13 consecutive Top 5 singles. Like many groups of their era, their discography includes a few unnecessary cover versions, but superior Steps originals like “One For Sorrow”, “It’s the Way You Make Me Feel” and “Better Best Forgotten” – the latter co-written by Waterman – offer a pure pop rush that’s still potent today.
After the usual individual endeavours – solo singles, reality TV, musical theatre – Steps first reunited in 2011 for a fly-on-the-wall documentary series and arena tour. They released a pretty uninspired Christmas album the following year, but 2017’s Tears on a Dancefloor gave them a genuine second wind: suddenly Steps were a viable pop group again, not just a nostalgia act. The five songs I’ve heard from the new album pull off the same nifty trick: they sound exactly like Steps but are also a little fresher than you first realise. It’s a bit like bumping into an old friend and thinking, how the hell do you look so good? Botox?
Watkins says he thinks fans have remained loyal because their classic hits were classier than they were given credit for at the time. “Our songs weren’t targeted at children like all the other [pop] acts,” he says. “They were actually quite sophisticated, which is why parents didn’t mind coming along to our concerts. And now we have the grandparents too – we saw three generations of fans on our last tour.”
Steps tried co-writing their own songs on 2000’s third album Buzz, but today they’re happy to gather bangers from experienced pros who know their sound. A decent Steps song needs a soaring chorus, a hint of melancholy and ideally a key change to seal the deal. “And a Steps song has to be genderless because it needs to be open for everyone to interpret it however they want,” Tozer says. “You’ll notice we never sing ‘he’ or ‘she’,” Richards points out, something which has endeared them to LGBT+ fans. She was touched on the last tour to see a fan wearing a T-shirt saying: “Thank you for letting me be who I am.”
Any inter-group grievances were dealt with years ago. There was one notorious incident: when the group toured North America with Britney Spears in 1999, Watkins got to sleep on her private jet, while his bandmates had to slum it on a tour bus. But that’s long forgotten, and now all five members seem relaxed and happy to be together again after coronavirus delayed their album launch by six months.
They were originally planning to announce What the Future Holds in March. The only slight prickle of tension comes when I bring up the special, non-competitive Brit Award they won for being the “Biggest Selling Live Act of 1999”. As Latchford-Evans points out, they genuinely did sell more concert tickets than anyone else that year, but Richards concedes that “we did only get [that award] because of the whole Belle and Sebastian thing”.
At the previous year’s Brits, Steps were widely expected to win the prize for Best British Breakthrough Act, but got surprisingly pipped by Belle and Sebastian. Many had doubts about the result, and Waterman even demanded a recount. “We should have got Best Breakthrough the previous year – that was the one that was stolen from us,” Richards says. “It was all just politics,” shrugs Scott-Lee.
Still, they laugh it off pretty quickly and Scott-Lee says it was more annoying to be asked to pay £500 for their own individual Brit Award trophies a year later. “I’m not paying for an award they gave us, so I told them to stick it,” Watkins adds defiantly. As I get up to leave, Scott-Lee asks if I’d like a (socially distanced) photo with the group. The answer is of course yes. I wear my new Steps face mask on the Tube ride home; no one can see, but behind it I’m beaming.
What the Future Holds is out on 27 November