Think back to the days of Cool Britannia: Oasis and Blur ruled the charts, people couldn’t get enough of Pulp, and it felt as if everyone had that same Moby CD.
But when it comes to which 90s chart-toppers can still storm the Top 10 today, even music snobs have to admit it is none of those.
Could it be a band the industry once considered too “uncool” for certain parties? The one critics once frowned upon for being “manufactured”?
Could it be… Steps?
Twenty-three years after their first million-selling single, the band is back to cheer up 2020, as they release what they hope will be their 4th number one album, the tricky second record after returning from hiatus in 2017.
Even better, the fabulous fivesome feel as though they have finally got something even more satisfying: some much overdue Respect.
Ian “H” Watkins, 44, says: “Can you believe it? Twenty-three years ago everybody thought we were a joke. We were signed on a one single deal.”
“Some people probably still do,” laughs Claire Richards, 43.
“Well the joke’s on them,” adds Lisa Scott-Lee, 45. “It’s come full circle. In the early days we felt like the underdog and we really had to prove a point.
“But our stats speak for ourselves. They’re ours for ever. And the fact we’re releasing new music – and the fans want us to release new music – well, we’re enjoying longevity now.
“That’s a word when you’re starting out that you dream of. So we get more respect now – I think we’ve earned it.”
And they have. They’ve sold more than 20 million albums, had hits in four decades, 13 consecutive top five hits, nine sell-out tours and their first single 5, 6, 7,8 has been streamed more than 3.7million times.
The title track for their new album What the Future Holds was written by the uber-cool artist Sia, and hit No1 in the iTunes download charts.
What of those years of critics sneering at their clever dancefloor fillers and choreography? “It’s character building,” says Lisa, who also runs a performing arts school in Dubai.
The band have had to sit on the new album since the first lockdown. As we meet on Zoom, they are confident, full of banter and not scared to say what they think. But as bona fide pop “stalwarts”, they are quick to stress they have not been without their share of Tragedy.
Both H and Lee Latchford-Evans, 45, have faced years of homophobic slurs (many before H came out and all to the confusion of Lee’s wife). Claire’s body image issues have made her terrified for today’s youth. And then there are still raw feelings about that 2001 Boxing Day when H and Claire left to form a duo.
The latter was thrashed out during their 2011 reunion but while they have decided it is Better Best Forgotten, bring it up and things threaten to get as chilly as H’s nights on Dancing on Ice.
However, H claims it was all the fault of… Robbie Williams. Although he stresses neither the band or him might be here if he had not taken Robbie’s advice. It was a caution he wanted to share with Little Mix, who last week said people did not understand how hard being in a band is, when Jesy Nelson went on a break.
“What they’re probably experiencing, we did, B*Witched did, SClub did,” says H. “At one point we didn’t know what country we were waking up in.
“Once in Australia I didn’t stop crying – it was for days. I was having a breakdown. We were a machine. We were told where to go, what to do, what to eat – we never had any control. From that point we said, ‘No. Hang on, we’re human, not robots’. One time at Top of The Pops I was having another mini-breakdown. Robbie Williams said, ‘I know that face – it’s time to leave’. I remember it as plain as day. Not long after that I left.”
Cue four bandmates on Zoom screaming: “So it was Robbie’s fault!”
Had he not made a change, he says: “Maybe I wouldn’t have been here today, I don’t know.”
Claire is hoping the time will come when she is no longer being defined by her dress size. She was reportedly told she could only be in the band if she lost weight. Surely the industry has changed?
“That is true,” she says. “And no I don’t think it’s changed at all. This generation are so obsessed with how we look.”
Of the chatter about her size, she adds: “It is frustrating. For a long time that was all I was kind of known for. I was a little lost, I wasn’t doing music. It’s annoying people forget why you were here.”
H steps in as unofficial cheerleader: “Claire, you were still a role model to millions. You should actually champion who you were back then as well.”
Claire adds: “We used to worry if we were going to be airbrushed in a magazine. Now everybody does it on their phone. I’m scared for kids. It’s terrifying.”
But she, Lisa and Faye Tozer, 45, no longer have qualms. Since Steps reunited in 2011 and in 2017, when they released their first new music Tears On The Dancefloor, the band run the show.
They are signed to BMG, home of Kylie Minogue, for the new album but it is still as Faye puts it, “their baby”.
Their costumes are more “risque” than ever for their tour, which the pandemic postponed until the end of next year. “That comes with being over 40,” says Faye. “We don’t care what people say.”
And their choreography won’t be getting easier – even though Lee needed part of his spine removed four years ago. “We keep saying, ‘Can we tone it down this time?’,” laughs Claire. “And every single time we end up doing more.”
“It took a year to recover,” adds Lee. “It was really scary, I didn’t know if I’d perform again.”
Among their fans are mini-Steps. Faye has Benjamin, 11, Claire has Charlie, 13, and Daisy, 11, Lisa has Jaden, 12, and Star Lily, 11, and H has twin boys, Macsen and Cybi, four, with his ex Craig Ryder. He is finding lockdown with two boys a challenge (a bit rich as H stands for Hyperactive).
“They’ll test me to my limits,” he laughs. “I realised felt pens weren’t going to cut it in the first week. There’s not a toilet roll or washing up bottle left in my village – I’ve been crafting!”
Fortunately he not only has his Steps WhatsApp group on hand, but his Twins support group – including pals Sally and Ronnie Wood. “We cry and drink wine on FaceTime,” he laughs. So what does Rolling Stone Ronnie think of the album? “I haven’t asked! But I will and I’ll teach them all the routines!”
“I would love to hear that conversation,” adds Faye.
Getting Ronnie Wood to dance to 5,6,7,8 wouldn’t be his proudest achievement. That was when he and Matt Evers made history as the first same sex couple on Dancing on Ice this year.
“It was probably the most important two minutes of my career,” he says.
Now no one knows What the Future Holds, including Steps, who admit: “We made a mistake calling the album that because we can’t predict the future.”
But when it comes to feelgood tunes for 2020, the tracks of Cool Britannia are the Last Thing On My Mind.
Steps’ new album What the Future Holds is out tomorrow. Their tour takes place in November and December 2021 and tickets are on sale now.
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