Steps – Gold

Steps – some human atom in the five-faced hundred-bodied pop machine that was Steps – decided to call their greatest hits album Gold. You know, like Abba’s greatest hits album, Gold. It was a good joke because it acknowledged what everyone knew – that Steps’ songs were cut to a pop template whose number one source was Abba – and drew some of the sting from any critical complaints about that.

Not that the critics, me included, cared much about Steps. They’ve been a minor pleasure for me at best – Lisa vaguely fanciable, H exactly punchable, the songs sweetening the occasional minute in a pub or a shop. Standing in the HMV queue with Gold in hand, I had heard of half the songs and remembered half of those. I bought it because I was in the mood for pop and I’m glad I did, because it wasn’t until I started playing it and liking it that I caught the other, secret joke in the title.

Steps’ album was the second Gold of 2001 – the first was a collection of rock songs by Ryan Adams, which I’ve not heard all of. I feel like I’ve heard it, though, because I’ve read a lot about it. I also feel like I’ve heard it because everything I’ve read about it, pro or con, has stressed how Ryan Adams is copping licks and attitudes from a great and good rock lineage – Neil, Gram, Mick and Keith, Bruce, all partying down between the tracks of Gold, haunting its grooves.

The case for this gravedigging, advanced for instance in UNCUT, is that Ryan is the next great rock star, paying respect to his elders in order to bring their music up to date and keep the flame alive. “Fuck that”, I thought, and turned the page – who needed that great-tradition shit? It’s one of my oldest pop prejudices – I love old music but I don’t love music that tries to sound old, that tries to turn the clock back. Maybe music now is better than ‘then’, maybe it isn’t, but now is what we’re stuck with and in my guts I’ve always felt that, musician or writer, you deal with that or give up.

But here I was listening to Steps’ Gold, and suddenly it hit me – just when “One For Sorrow” sneaks a riff from The Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It?” into its coda – that the Steps album and the Ryan Adams album are one and the same. Steps are by a fair way the most traditional of all our recent pop bands1, and the songs on their Gold are working and preserving a tradition as surely as any song by Adams could. It’s a tradition of upbeat, melodic pop which takes in Abba and Chic and disco-Motown and Hi-NRG – and acceptance of hi-NRG is as near as the tradition comes to dealing with the more recent rhythmic and stylistic advances made in hip-hop, R & B and dance music. (When Steps’ do try a smooth R’n’B pop ballad, on “Words Are Not Enough”, it’s horribly ill-fitting).

Steps’ particular traditionalism is almost certainly down to manager Pete Waterman. When the band aerobicise their way through “Tragedy” or cover “Better The Devil You Know”, you get the feeling Waterman’s staking his own claim to pop influence – the Kylie song was one of his, and the NRG bounce he worked in the early 80s has left its mark on the way pop bands approach their cover versions. So Steps are his answer, if you like, to the new machine-pop the Spice Girls started off – proof that an old operator can still crank out the hits, and a reminder of how pop used to be, all four-four beats and chiming cod-classical keyboards.

I’ve not often read critics praising Waterman or Steps for their pop classicism, the way Ryan Adams gets respect for being respectful. This isn’t because Steps were bad at it – “One For Sorrow”, “”Better Best Forgotten”, “It’s The Way You Make Me Feel”, and several other hits here are absolute belters – but I’d guess because people don’t think it matters. Chartpop lovers and haters alike often see the music as ephemeral and disposable, so the idea of a pop tradition is either a hindrance or a nonsense.

But it matters to me. Since I made the Gold connection I’ve been able to pinpoint why I’ve never got too upset when people have sneered at Steps – their borrowings are never cheeky, never unexpected, they simply press my buttons in an order I know I like. You could call that craftsmanship, or you could call it boring. The first thing I think of when I think of Steps – the key memory I have of them – is H in shiny blue, a smirking pop pierrot, taking his irritating wackiness and suddenly twisting it into creepiness. That was the one time they surprised me, and it was in a video (“Deeper Shade Of Blue”).

Still, though, I like Steps’ Gold and – far as I know – I don’t like Ryan’s Gold. Why not? The similarities between these records expose my stock answer – blah blah unoriginal blah blah homage blah blah corpse-fucking blah – as the partial dodge it is. Like a lot of people I reach for theories and moral high grounds to justify some very plain preferences. The fact is, I like histrionic piano breaks and corny melodic swoops, and I don’t like rough-edged voices and rhythm guitars. I can invoke the shock of the new when I’m talking about the pop music I adore, sure, but the stuff I just enjoy needn’t have any theoretical redeeming features.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who cling to principle to justify liking Ryan Adams and hating Steps. I’m equally sure that just like me if you put their preferences under the microscope they’d end up having to admit that they just, you know, like the sounds more. And the lesson of this is? That Steps were good but not great? That Ryan Adams isn’t the Antichrist? That it’s more fun to admit to and run with your prejudices than get bogged down trying to justify them? Yes, that seems about right. It’s even more fun, though, to outwit your own prejudices entirely – if Pete Waterman had managed that then maybe Steps’ Gold would have been more than agreeable variations on pleasant themes.

1Not counting Westlife and Will Young, whose devilish mission is essentially to dismantle the entire last fifty years of pop.