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Aug 14

STEPS – “Heartbeat” / “Tragedy”

Popular40 comments • 1,713 views

#810, 9th January 1999

steps This is the first Popular entry I’ve written in the Southern hemisphere. And while it wasn’t a big hit down under – or, I think, anywhere except the UK – “Tragedy” moved one of my marvellous Australian hosts to asset that it was the greatest pop performance of all time. His other comment was that this review should just be the “Tragedy” dance, done by me, as a gif. I’ve spared you that, at least.

But that’s “Tragedy” summed up – it’s a record with an outsize reputation in some quarters, and certainly it’s Steps’ big cultural moment. And it’s also a cover version with an extremely easy dance step. This was part of Steps’ initial concept, when Pete Waterman decided he could do more with them than the line-dancing cash-in they started off with. Steps by name, Steps by brand: each single would come with its signature dance. It was a shrewd gimmick, though it’s the other half of the concept that interests me more – Waterman decided Steps would stand out in an age of bubblegum and R&B inspired groups by offering “ABBA on speed”: big, melodic, heart-on-sleeve pop.

Did it work? Not on “Heartbeat”, the rather flaccid double A side of “Tragedy”. On other singles – the verses of “Last Thing On My Mind”, for instance – there were hints of Waterman’s concept coming off, but mainly Steps demonstrate why so few people borrowed from ABBA after the 1970s: it seems very hard to do. ABBA themselves performed a constant dance at the edge of a black hole of schmaltz – a risky, if ultimately productive trialogue between magnificent songwriting and singing, cornball urges, and the wintry ghosts of the bands’ personal lives. Reproducing that strange chemistry for the high street discos of 90s England was a foolish proposition, so Steps didn’t really try. Instead they went all in for big choruses and soapy melodrama, and wrung some very enjoyable hits out of it. “Heartbeat” isn’t one – it’s hardly unpleasant, but its verses aren’t memorable enough to earn the scenery-munching delivery they’re given, and the chorus smooths any tension over rather than builds on it.

Nobody was buying the record for “Hearthbeat”, though. Steps had been around for a few singles by now, establishing a style that made a cover version an obvious move. Cheap, thumping, pop-dance production, with high-drama vocals and big tunes you’d cheer when you recognised: a lot of records could be slotted into this template. The Bee Gees’ uptempo disco numbers were a particularly good fit. They sounded dizzily urgent in any case, and had spent the late 90s being plundered continually by one-off house spivs called things like “Blockster”. A re-spray of “Tragedy” was obvious a thing as could be imagined, and Steps’ version is yearning, immediate and fun enough to cash in fully.

The interesting question, then, is why didn’t Steps run with this particular baton? For all that Pete Waterman likes to present himself nowadays as a kind of “Simon Cowell with integrity” figure, and claims a deep pop sensibility, it seems odd that “Tragedy” is Steps’ only big cover hit. The days of the faceless pop-house version were fading – farewell, ye Clocks and Mad Houses – but this is still far from the last pop cover we’ll see.
Even if they never really followed up “Tragedy”, Steps didn’t arrive or leave in a vacuum. The melodramatic approach stuck around, too. “Tragedy”, like most Steps songs, was warmly received by London’s gay clubland, now a stronger force in pop than ever, with a headline slot at G-A-Y a standard milestone on the pop star’s journey. Labels like Klone and Almighty made a living for themselves out of versioning pop and rock songs into hi-NRG anthems, adding on passionate vocals and hands-in-the-air house beats. “Tragedy” is a more mainstream application of the same trick – there is no song so pop that it can’t get more so.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Chris Retro on 1 Sep 2014 #

    Remarkable chart run – in the age of ‘straight in at #1, and straight out again’ this charted at #2 in mid-November (as their previous single had, One For Sorrow (the only Steps single I really like)).
    It stuck around the Top Ten over December as Tragedy caught on at all the festive parties & nights out, and stole a week at the top during a piss-poor week for new releases early January.
    That it was still in the Top Forty at the end of that April is remarkable in any age – in 1999 it was phenomenal.

  2. 27
    Lazarus on 1 Sep 2014 #

    #21 – I imagine a jump of 72-2 must be the biggest ever recorded inside the Top 75, it would be hard to do better.

    After fifteen years the mind plays tricks; I thought that Tragedy was the one radio picked up on straight away – you would expect that, being a familiar song – and that Heartbeat was the slow burner that kept the record high in the charts well into the new year – much like Wham!’s Christmas effort from 1984/85. Count me as another who much prefers Heartbeat – and if Tragedy’s ‘wedding’ video is probably better remembered today, kitsch points surely have to go to Heartbeat: the band are staying in a log cabin for Xmas; ‘H’ is abducted by munchkins for the benefit of the Snow Queen; and the rest of the group, for some reason, decide to rescue him. Enjoyable nonsense.

  3. 28
    Chelovek na lune on 1 Sep 2014 #

    #27 There’s a much later bunny that climbed 73-1, before beginning a fairly rapid descent, but as far as I am concerned the reason for this is as forgettable as the bunny. But it’s a long way off…

  4. 29
    enitharmon on 2 Sep 2014 #

    It’s a matter of taste of course, but just for comparison and trying to be fair I went to YouTube and played Steps and the Bee Gees back to back, and it seems to me a no-brainer. The most annoying thing to me about the Steps version is the relentless, unvarying, emotion-free drum track right to the fore. The Gibbs sound like the experienced professional entertainers they were; Steps sound like the quintet of stage-school brats they were.

    Popular is very much in the age of the actor who can sing a bit (or more likely mime convincingly). It’s nothing new of course; Kylie and Jason have been there recently and the phenomenon has been around for most of this story. Tab Hunter, Anthony Newley, John Leyton to name but three from the first decade. (Anthony Newley could not only sing, of course, but he could write a damned good song too – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfJRX-8SXOs&list=RDOfJRX-8SXOs – I don’t think any of Steps would do this). But we are now entering the age of the stage-school kid deliberately built up through a role in a soap and then given a ready-made hit record. A veritable warren of them in fact.

  5. 30
    iconoclast on 2 Sep 2014 #

    #29: I’m right with you there! Just don’t get me started on programmed drums, or stage-school kids, or I may not be responsible for some of my actions.

  6. 31
    enitharmon on 2 Sep 2014 #

    Tommy Mack @ 22 “Helium-voiced”? Does this mean that Barry White, say, or late-period Leonard Cohen are xenon-voiced? I see there’s concern about the abuse of xenon, perhaps these artists should also be investigated!

  7. 32
    Ed on 2 Sep 2014 #

    Isaac Hayes may be Xenon-voiced. Late Leonard Cohen is Radon-voiced. Barry White is Ununoctium-voiced.

  8. 33
    lonepilgrim on 2 Sep 2014 #

    we need a periodic table of vocalists

  9. 34
    enitharmon on 2 Sep 2014 #

    @33 Yes – brawlers in the alkali metal column with Liam Gallagher as rubidium perhaps – who would be caesium or francium? Big drinkers for the halogens? I was going to suggest Keith Moon for fluorine but he wasn’t a vocalist.

  10. 35
    wichitalineman on 2 Sep 2014 #

    Re 34: Judging by Keith Moon’s backing vocals on Happy Jack and Bucket T, I’d guess he was a helium abuser.

  11. 36
    Tommy Mack on 2 Sep 2014 #

    #34 Johnny Rotten for Francium surely? Joe Strummer: Carbon. Freddy Mercury: too obvious…

  12. 37
    Tommy Mack on 2 Sep 2014 #

    #30 Give me stage school brats over music school brats and their sepia-toned Jools Holland music any day. (Obviously give me revolutionary headcases over either…)

  13. 38
    sukrat on holiday in mïd wåles on 2 Sep 2014 #

    blizzard of ozzmium

  14. 39
    Weej on 3 Sep 2014 #

    I wasn’t into Steps at all at the time – not because of an intrinsic dislike of their style of music (in fact it was not far away from B*witched / Aqua etc) but because they had a whiff of the winkingly ironic about them, which I considered to be a capital crime. I was in halls at the time, with no TV and only radio 4, and Steps looked and sounded like the swarms of normals I’d suddenly found myself surrounded by at my low-grade polytechnic (I was a terrible snob I’m afraid)

    This is the first time I’ve listened to Heartbeat or Tragedy since the 90s, then, and I’m surprised at how well they hold up. Tragedy is heavily, unashamedly overproduced, bringing the beat and the Brian May-style thousand-track guitars right into the foreground. It knows what it wants to do and it does it perfectly. Heartbeat isn’t bad either, despite the ridiculous video – one of PW’s best ballads, not a high benchmark, but there you go. Neither song is indispensible, of course, but both are still much better than expected.

  15. 40
    Rory on 5 Sep 2014 #

    I’m afraid I don’t share the love for either A-side here. Steps are the essence of a certain ’90s UK pop sound that never really translated to the other side of the world. (4 + 4) / 2 = 4.

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