Pre-millennial pop was a different planet, in some respects. Physical formats (CDs, magazines) were the big-hitters; stars were shaped behind-the-scenes rather than on TV competitions; songs could be simultaneously massive yet dismissed as “throwaway”. British five-piece Steps (aka Faye Tozer, Claire Richards, Ian “H” Watkins, Lisa Scott-Lee, and Lee Latchford-Evans) originally bubbled out of this late Nineties world: fashioned as a frothy gimmick band with line-dancing choreography, and infamously likened to “ABBA on speed” by pop mogul Pete Waterman.
Steps were always brightly frivolous; in the best pop spirit, they have also proved gloriously confounding – and nearly 25 years after their debut, with a split, a 2011 reformation, and seven studio albums under their sparkly belts, they were on storming form for the first of two London dates on their national arena tour.
To be precise, four-fifths of Steps were on storming form, because poor Tozer (“smiley Steps”) was still isolating. Despite the ongoing pandemic – or partly because of it – the show went on with resolutely escapist style. Following an upbeat kitchen disco warm-up from Sophie Ellis-Bextor (still going impressively strong after her recent 24hr charity danceathon), the band emerged from a sci-fi “cube” that had displayed a hot pink neon countdown to showtime, and launched into a non-stop two-hour set that was hi-NRG, high camp, and packed with infectious anthems right from the fantastically melodramatic opener What The Future Holds (a 2020 single penned by heavyweights Sia and Greg Kurstin).
Steps have always commanded a mighty rapport with their fanbase, partly because their tunes and moves felt universally accessible; I remember being struck by this the first time I saw them, playing a pop all-dayer in 1998. That fanbase has evidently grown with them; the 02 arena crowds mostly comprised excitable thirty- and fortysomethings (including myself), who cheered rapturously each time a different band member sang their part – and even for Tozer, simply appearing onscreen.
The concert staging was headily reminiscent of a late Nineties pop extravaganza, with sleek yet enjoyably silly set-pieces and costumes: a space odyssey; a Sixties shakedown; a “Stepflix” period drama; hyperactive backing dancers in a variety of surreal get-ups; a revolving turntable stage for numbers including Take Me For A Ride.