Steps on how they made 5,6,7,8 – 'We spent years trying not to perform it!'

‘We had giant models made of our heads and got dancers to do it looking like us’

Claire Richards, vocals

When I auditioned for Steps, we had to dance to a demo of 5,6,7,8. I remember thinking: “Thank God it’s a line dance.” I wasn’t a trained dancer and learning a proper routine would have probably scuppered my chances. But, after the management told me I’d made it, they said: “That’s going to be the first single.” I was like: “Oh no!” Line-dancing was something your mum did. I was 19 and wanted to go clubbing.

Next we auditioned for Pete Waterman and the Jive label. They signed us on the basis of one mimed performance – we just put on that demo of 5,6,7,8 and didn’t even pretend to have microphones. But Pete saw something in us. I remember him saying: “Hold on tight, this rocket is about to take off.”

When we recorded the final version, we all went in to sing our vocals separately. In those days, we were still on tape, so you had to wait for this massive machine to rewind. All the girls’ voices are really heavily layered, so there’s no distinct voice on the song. Lee did the rap section, because H [Ian Watkins] raps with a Welsh accent.

Watch the video for 5,6,7,8 by Steps

Musically, 5,6,7,8 is quite confused. I think the techno element was an attempt to make line-dancing cool, and the lyric strikes me as two British writers trying to write about all the moves at a barn dance: “Foot-kickin’, finger-clickin’, leather-slappin’…” Apart from Pete, the producers didn’t want to be there. They thought 5,6,7,8 was going to die on its backside.

Britpop was still around and it was always: “Oh, you’re manufactured, you’re not real.” Everyone thought it was a novelty single and we were a novelty act. We’d play three clubs a night. There were some hairy moments – dancing on a stage the size of a box, giving it everything you’ve got while trying not to fall off. Just imagine: people are clubbing, then we turn up and do 5,6,7,8. We’d always get abuse from someone. But, by the end, we often had them.

Our stats speak for themselves. Although 5,6,7,8 never hit the Top 10, it was the biggest-selling single of 1997. It’s now had 35m streams. No one imagined that song would be the foundation of a 24-year career. Last Thing on My Mind was our next single, which changed the formula completely, making us a band that could have chart hits that were real songs.

We spent years trying not to perform 5,6,7,8. We even had giant models made of our heads, like on TFI Friday, and got dancers to do it as us. But, for the 20th anniversary, we threw everything at it. Swinging saloon doors, cowboy hats, hot pants – it was brilliant. We’ve made peace with the song.

Pete Waterman, co-producer

When I arrived at that Steps audition, I didn’t know they’d been turned down by every other record company. I was the last-chance saloon, like: “If you’re not very good, we’ll show you to Pete Waterman.” I wasn’t bowled over by the song, but they looked fantastic. H was the biggest character, like a Butlin’s Redcoat, and that’s not being disparaging. Lee looked great, but it was these three strikingly different girls that made the group.

I played the demo of 5,6,7,8 to my co-producers, who hated it. They thought I’d lost my marbles. Their reaction was: “Oh my God, we want a hit, but not at this price.” It was so bad that they all said: “We’re not putting our name on that.” That’s why, if you look at the credits of the song, there’s only one name listed as producer – and that’s mine.

Heresy! … Pete Waterman.
Heresy! … Pete Waterman. Photograph: David Rose/The Independent/Rex/Shutterstock

That original version was too close to Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky. So what happened – and this made the song – is that we beat the track up and made it a techno record, not a cowboy record. When I heard the final version, I just went: “It’s brilliant. It’s Abba on speed.”

I remember getting a call from Tony Wilson at Granada Television, asking us to be on his show, The Other Side of Midnight. When I walked in, he pulled me to one side and said: “You’ve outraged the country and western groups – they’re all out for your blood! This techno line-dance record, they’re going mad about it! It’s heresy!”

We wanted to make something joyous, and 5,6,7,8 is an unashamed pop record. It goes for the jugular. I still don’t think people realise just how big Steps were. Some people called 5,6,7,8 a novelty single – but if a novelty single is selling 500,000 records, I’ll take one every day of the week.

• Steps’ latest album, What the Future Holds, is out now. The band tour the UK from 2 November.

Contributor

Interviews by Henry Yates

The GuardianTramp

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