Steps Came Back and Quite Frankly Ethered Us All
We have a lot of feelings, so here's a roundtable discussion on their new single "Scared of the Dark", the unexpected banger of the month.
Where were you on Thursday morning, when the 10AM news droned out on Radio 2? Just getting into work, maybe, making a bit of small talk about your sweaty back and how "it's so warm today, wow, is spring here already?" Maybe you're one of those people who wakes up at 5.45AM to commute to the nearest big city and you were doing that thing where you start sneaking glances at your packed lunch even though it is quite literally only 10 o'clock in the morning. You're reading Noisey dot vice dot com, sexy youth music site, so there's every chance you were just waking up.
But if you were asleep, you may have missed something monumental. Something … and we don't want to sound dramatic here, but something culturally important. Did you suffer through another listen of Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk", on Ken Bruce's show (where this is the honest-to-god press shot) right after 10AM? Did you then stick around for long enough to hear the resurrection of Steps, like a gorgeous death rattle exhaled from the ruin of a group that couldn't decide whether it wanted to split up for good throughout the entire 2000s? Good. Because you made the right choice.
Steps, as we predicted in January, are making a comeback this year. And they seem to have decided to absolutely not fuck this up, by releasing single "Scared of the Dark", a bombastic, ABBA-referencing pop beast that will most certainly soundtrack someone's post-divorce drinking this year. We have a lot of feelings, so here's a roundtable making sense of them, featuring Noisey's own Emma Garland, Daisy Jones, Lauren O'Neill and Tshepo Mokoena.
Emma: When I heard Ken Bruce exclaim, "yes!" in time with the final, aggressive toot of "Uptown Funk" – with more earnestness than all the texts I sent this morning denouncing the new Wetherspoons avocado bagel – I did not think my life as I knew it would change. How wrong I was. How very, very wrong and emotionally unprepared. I would like to preface this by saying how much I enjoy the false sense of security Steps lulled us all into by naming their comeback album Tears on the Dancefloor. Because we all thought it would be a load of crap ballads, didn't we? We were ready for tears of boredom and low-tempo Sophie Ellis-Bextor ripoffs or, at best, a diluted attempt at something "cool" like that All Saints comeback nobody remembers. We were not ready for what I'm going to claim on record is the greatest British pop song since, now that I'm thinking about it, "Murder on the Dancefloor". The dramatic string section at the beginning – how dare they? This is "Raining Men" via Broadway. This is ABBA 2.0. This is an iconic Bridget Jones montage waiting to happen. Someone else say something please.
Daisy: My first thought upon hearing this was … wait … wait… have I not heard this before? Have I not, in fact, screamed this loudly down someone's voicemail during a 4AM Uber ride home no less than five times in my life already? How can that be possible? But then I realised, no, no you dumb fuck, that was Toni Braxton's 1996 classic "Un-Break my Heart", to which this melody is almost entirely identical.
Lauren: Actually, Daisy, I thought it was a bit more like Take That's 1992 classic "Could It Be Magic."
Tshepo: I'm going to have to be That Guy: that truly sickening key change from the end of the verse to the pre-chorus is what lends this song its lift. When they go "say you're mine and" then lurch up to "stay by my side" the lead vocalist – and tbf, the songwriter Fiona Bevan, who I recently interviewed about the tracks she writes for other people – drags your sorry ass up to the heavens. That reliance on minor notes (ie: the sad-sounding ones), and a key change between the verse and the following song segment is also what leant "Un-Break My Heart" its "I feel like shit but also don't you sort of feel like you're flying while listening to this" vibe. That Steps layered their signature four-to-the-floor club bass, strings and whizzing synths over this, and employed a total of three modulations (I checked with Fiona) is quite frankly rude. I just played that pre-chorus refrain on a virtual piano to sound out why it slaps so unbelievably hard. Send help.
Lauren: Bang-on vintage Steps here. Lisa Scott Lee is still endearingly bad, reminiscent of a shy girl after a rosé on the karaoke at a hen do (remember: if Lisa Scott Lee can be a professional singer, you can do anything, and I say this with utmost admiration for LSL). Elsewhere, Claire is still bellowing at the top of her voice for no discernible reason, and H and Lee continue to serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Order, my friends, has been restored, and my god, it sounds like gay heaven, doesn't it?
Tshepo: I hadn't realised how much I missed Claire's nope-no-inside-voice-for-me belting until about 48 seconds into this. Steps earned a reputation for being borderline shrill when they first convinced children around the world to learn their dance routines back in the late 90s. And here you can hear again what happens when you have two Big Singers in one pop group: they're constantly vying for your attention, seeing who can hit that money note with the most conviction. Tbh, this is what I've always loved about them, so I'll happily listen to Faye and Claire duke it out in the vocal stakes while Lisa looks on, with that sweet little smile of hers, wondering what sort of pizza topping she'll enjoy later.
THE SONG'S RELEVANCE IN THIS, THE YEAR OF OUR LORD, 2017
Lauren: A few months ago I was reminded of Steps' iconic ballad "Heartbeat" and since then I have been convinced that no other vocal group should ever have been let near a drum machine before or since. I think Steps' specific magic lies in the fact that their music is basically timeless – Steps operate outside coolness, they do not bow to trends and we know that this has not changed for 2017 because their promo images make them look like they're at a wedding or Christmas party that could feasibly have taken place at any point over the last 40 years. What I am trying to say is this: a Steps song has classic pop integrity. Steps will not be trying "like, a tropical house sort of vibe?" anytime soon, and for that I applaud them. "Scared of the Dark" would have worked ten years ago, and it'll work ten years from now. Steps will always be relevant. They are the UK's ABBA.
Daisy: What does the term "relevant" really mean in 2017? Look around you: at Celine Dion's upcoming tour of England; at Radiohead, who are headlining Glastonbury 14 years after headlining Glastonbury; at this frank discussion about Gareth Gates' fringe on morning television; at all the memes, the endless memes, memes for days, memes for years, spiralling into the distance, until you cannot decipher what is meme and what is not meme. The point being, pop culture has folded in on itself, and Steps are relevant precisely because they are not relevant, and – I can't remember what my point was, sorry...
Emma: I for one cannot wait to throw my arms up to this in a club while furiously side-eyeing a man who has wronged me.
Tshepo: I jokingly included Steps in our piece on 2017's reunions, but didn't expect this. Twenty years since they formed, they've still got it: the disco sheen, the gay club-primed beats and the notion that seriously, where are H and Lee's voices in the mix?
DEBUTING IT ON BBC RADIO 2
Tshepo: I resent being made to listen to Radio 2 before hitting the age of 51, but this was worth it. It's interesting how a few years away from the industry can quickly turn a British band into a "heritage act", where Radio 1 or (lol) Radio 6 Music wouldn't even be considered. Are we some of the youngest Steps fans out there rn??
Lauren: Surely we can't be alone. Honestly, Radio 2 is the drone of impending death and I feel affronted on Steps' behalf, confirmed as they now are to be at least the third-best pop act in the UK (Little Mix I got u), that whoever is in charge of them condemned them to have their glorious comeback aired by a man named Ken who may or may not remember the war. Shoulda premiered on sexy youth music site Noisey ;-)
THE ULTIMATE IMPACT RE: THIS WHOLE COMEBACK
Emma: Apparently this comeback has been TWO YEARS in the making which, to me, says they're not fucking about. This isn't fan service, like an all-girl Liberty X or Spice Girls constantly trying to cobble together enough members for it to still be Spice Girls until Geri gets pregnant again and ruins everything and they have to start over. The determination on display here is so visceral it can only be a reaction to something. It's like Steps took one, withering glance around British pop: Emeli Sandé (whom?), Rag'n'Bone Man (ffs), Dermot O'Leary's increasingly exhausted face, and thought, enough's enough now, lads. Quietly, while we all scrabbling so desperately for something enjoyable to come out of the UK music industry that we collectively decided Ed Sheeran is really good actually, they graciously volunteered to save us from ourselves.
Daisy: As a general rule, pop band comebacks usually start with a tabloid announcement and a lot of semi-ironic nostalgia tweets, and end with two of the five members, coke-bloated and 40, sadly side-stepping their way through their hits on a karaoke machine at Lincoln Pride. I'm sorry to sound unjustly harsh, but that's how it goes, and I know this because I have seen S Club 2 no less than three times – for reasons I don't have time to explain – and I have witnessed Jon Lee weep his way through a slow acoustic rendition of "Reach for the Stars". That said, I have an unholy amount of faith in the comeback of Steps. I am convinced that if anyone can buck the aforementioned trend, it is the five humans who made sticking their hands by their head like hand-wings (see: "Tragedy") a thing. Also, watch when this track gets absolutely rinsed at Heaven this week – everybody knows that any successful comeback must begin at the gay clubs. I will be at all of them, ugly crying.