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Steps debate the merits of entering Eurovision

By Mark Savage

BBC music reporter

Published

image copyrightBMG

image captionSteps (L-R): Claire Richards, Lee Latchford-Evans, Lisa Scott-Lee, Ian “H” Watkins and Faye Tozer

Steps were once described by producer Pete Waterman as “Abba on speed”, but would they ever follow in the Swedish group’s footsteps and compete in Eurovision? Claire, Lee, Lisa, H and Faye discuss the pros and cons.

Very few people read album credits these days.

Fewer still know the names of the composers who write for the Eurovision Song Contest.

But in the microscopic portion of the Venn diagram where those two groups overlap, there will be feverish excitement about the new album by Steps.

The record features contributions from no fewer than seven Eurovision alumni, including Robin Stjernberg, who represented Sweden in 2013, and Thomas G:son, who actually won the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest as composer of Loreen’s Euphoria.

His contribution to the Steps album, Something In Your Eyes, was itself a contender for Sweden’s Eurovision entry in 2011 – although it didn’t make it to the final.

Figure captionWarning: Third party content may contain adverts

So would Steps ever consider competing in Eurovision themselves?

“We have a split camp, I’m afraid,” says Faye Tozer, instantly dashing our hopes. “Although there’s one person that would really like to do it.”

“That’s me!” declares H – aka Ian Watkins, the band’s self-appointed cheerleader.

“But to actually do it as a band,” Tozer continues, “is not something that I personally want to take on.”

image captionSteps sold millions of records in the 1990s with hits like Tragdey, One For Sorrow and 5,6,7,8

The quintet proceed to debate the merits – or otherwise – of appearing at Eurovision for several minutes. Here are the highlights.

H: “It’s just a huge joyous, celebration of all things pop and I adore it. You shouldn’t take it too seriously – but now it’s more of a political contest than a song contest.”

Faye Tozer: “And for that reason, I’m out.”

Claire Richards: “The thing is, I can see exactly why people would want us to do it. But I think, because of the legacy that we have in the band, I wouldn’t want anything to bring us down from there.”

Faye Tozer: “In an ideal world, everybody has this vision of Steps, going to Eurovision and being the perfect act, with the perfect song, and we turn it around for the UK. But I think in reality, it’s just never, ever going to happen so it’s weighing up whether it’s worth that risk to us or not.”

Lee Latchford-Evans: “I thought we weren’t even in the EU anyway?”

Claire Richards: “We’re still in Europe. Just because we’re not in the EU, doesn’t mean we’re not in Europe!”

Lee Latchford-Evans: “I suppose Australia do it, don’t they, and they’re hardly in Europe.”

H [to the BBC]: “What do you think? Should we do it?”

BBC: “Actually, I do think the right song and the right band could turn it around.”

Claire Richards: “There’s also an argument to be had that, even if you don’t come anywhere near winning, it is a massive platform to promote new music.”

H: “Doing the act in the middle would be much more fun for me.”

BBC: “And you can only do better than Madonna did two years ago.”

image copyrightBMG

image captionThe band split in 2001 but reformed 10 years later after a warts-and-all documentary on Sky One

Interviewing Steps during Covid-19 is, as you may have gathered, a chaotic delight.

“My dog is snoring, sorry,” declares H at one point. “And mine is constantly barking,” adds Lee, as his pooch drowns out Lisa, who’s joining us from Dubai, where she runs a dance school. Later on, there’s a two-minute interruption from a washing machine repair man… although that one’s my fault.

You don’t get this on Graham Norton, that’s for sure.

Despite the pandemonium, Steps are hugely entertaining and professional – as befits a band who managed to transform a line-dancing cash-in act into an arena-filling pop juggernaut.

Along the way, they’ve turned out some classics (Tragedy, Deeper Shade Of Blue, One For Sorrow) and a fair few duds (Words Are Not Enough, You’ll Be Sorry). They toured constantly, often playing matinees alongside evening shows to keep their younger fans happy, and sold 20 million records worldwide.

‘Half a bed’

It wasn’t all glitz and glamour, however. If you don’t write your own songs, royalties are thin on the ground – especially when you have to split the money five ways.

After the band’s first album sold 1.2 million copies 1998, Steps were living off just £50 a week each. Claire told FHM the most lavish thing she’d been able to buy from her earnings was “half a bed”. Her parents had to pay for the other half.

“Oh God, I don’t remember that – but it’s probably true,” she says. “I don’t think I moved out of my parents’ until I was 23 or 24. But eventually we did make enough money for me to buy a house.”

By 2001, Steps were definitely in the black, thanks to a string of sold out tours, and an impressive 13 top five singles in a row. But behind the scenes, inter-group grievances were simmering away.

image copyrightPA Media

image captionThe band have announced a tour for November 2021, with Sophie Ellis Bextor in the support slot

There was tension over One For Sorrow after Claire was given all the lead vocals, making the rest of the group feel unwanted. And when they toured North America with Britney Spears in 1999, H travelled between gigs on the star’s private jet, leaving his band-mates to slum it on overnight bus journeys.

“I do suffer with insomnia,” he later offered by way of explanation.

Still, no-one expected the announcement, on Boxing Day 2001, that the band had split up. The official line was that it was a unanimous decision, with the quintet wanting to bow out while they were still on top. In reality, H and Claire had resigned two hours before the final date of Steps’ greatest hits tour by shoving a letter into their bandmates’ hands.

The rest of the band were blindsided. “I’ll never get over the way Steps ended,” Lisa said in the Sky documentary Steps: Reunion, which brought the band back together in 2011. “Did you really hate us?” Faye asked H and Claire, as they squirmed in their seats.

‘Finger on the button’

The TV show led to a reunion tour and a fairly uninspired Christmas album, but it was only after going independent in 2017 that the band truly rediscovered their groove. Freed from record label interference, they set about making the definitive Steps album, carefully selecting all the material themselves.

“You’re looking for melancholy, a bit of drama, a ton of darkness, a cheeky key change and a banging beat – and then you’ve got a Steps song,” says H.

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Taking control for the first time gave the band a new lease of life, says Faye. “It’s a really amazing to have our fingers on the button – because I think we have more knowledge than anybody of what our fans want, and who we are.

“Often, when we have demos sent to us, they are really not Steps songs,” she adds. “I think people have the wrong idea of what Steps is because they think that we’re a twee pop band – but actually melodically and lyrically, it’s never been like that.”

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionThe band’s 2017 reunion was greeted with positive reviews and sold-out tour dates

Their new album doesn’t just feature contributions from the cream of Eurovision’s songwriters, but some of the biggest names in pop – including Sia, Gracey, Greg Kurstin (Adele, Paul McCartney), MNEK (Beyonce, Little Mix) and Fiona Bevan (Ed Sheeran, One Direction).

Many of those writers grew up listening to Steps; and it feels like the stigma that surrounded the band’s unashamedly feel-good pop in the post-Cool Britannia 1990s has ultimately been forgotten.

“We were looked at a certain way back then,” says Lee, “and maybe we’re not looked at in that way any more. A lot more cool, credible people are coming on board and writing songs for us and getting involved.

“We can only be proud, can’t we? We worked very hard for all these years. We stuck to our guns, we’ve never changed, we are who we are. And it’s doing really well.”

Steps’ album, What The Future Holds, is out now on BMG.

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