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.