Released: 6th May 2002
Writers: Graham Stack / Paul Rein
Peak position: #3
Chart run: 3-12-26-37-47-55-63-49-34-37-69
From the ashes of Steps rose the group’s two most prominent vocalists to form a duo. What could possibly go wrong?
As a concept, H & Claire made perfect sense. While Claire had always dominated the vocals in Steps, somewhere around the second album H also started to take more of a lead role within the group. Following the dissolution of Steps in 2001, the pair decided to form a duo and it was surely an easy sell to prospective record labels: essentially you get all the key elements of the group with three fewer members. But it was never quite that simple. Behind-the-scenes squabbles about Claire more lines than everybody else belie the fact that Faye and Lisa actually contributed significantly to Steps. Sure, there are songs like One For Sorrow and When I Said Goodbye where that’s not the case, but for the most part the division of vocals was never quite so one-sided as claimed during the group’s infamous reunion in 2011.
It then began to emerge that in contrast to the amicable split painted in Steps’ parting press release, H & Claire had actually quit the group moments before taking to the stage for the final date of the Gold Tour. That left them with a bit of a problem. Having opted to walk away, they couldn’t just stick with the same production team, since people would question why they’d left in the first place. Instead, they’d need to find a new direction that differentiated itself from Steps, which undoubtedly played a significant part in dictating their choice of first single: DJ.
DJ, show us what you got
Keep our bodies movin’
Turn the music up
DJ, don’t you ever stop
You know what to play
To make this party rock all night
Despite some simmering tension now underpinning this solo venture, DJ isn’t a bad song. Indeed, credit where it’s due, H & Claire’s debut single makes a decent stab at evolving the duo’s sound and bringing something different to the table. The track opts for a more mature disco style, while also giving the pair an opportunity to delve into some of the production effects being employed by their pop peers. The most obvious example being the distorted, robotic vocal that provides the: “Keep my body movin’, turn the music up” mid-song breakdown, which readily recalls Don’t Stop Movin’ by S Club 7.
Whether anyone wanted a slice of aloof disco-pop from H & Claire is another matter. Still, it’s certainly a bold attempt at credibility, and the pair do their absolute best to avoid the bombastic cheeriness they were known for. In that regard, DJ is an achiever. This is a more minimalistic sound for the pair which – even with a few blips and bleeps in the instrumental track – avoids pulling on any of the recognisable production gimmicks that most would have expected. The: “Ooh-ooh-WOAH” hook is insanely catchy; arguably more so than the chorus itself, which is toe-tappingly pleasant, but unlikely to be the thing that sticks in your head once the track has ended. For better or for worse, DJ makes no half measures in distancing itself from Steps, where the temptation might have been to take a ‘same but different’ approach.
Vocally, DJ is a competent performance by both H and Claire. There are times when H delivers affectations within the verses that feel somewhat unnecessary (“Everyone’s feeling GRRD…”); but perhaps that was in part because his prominence on the song was now one of necessity, rather than suitability. Otherwise, there are no real surprises and the transition of Claire’s: “Tonight play it on and on and on and on and ooooon” into an electronic whirr before the final chorus is probably the highlight. However, the most curious thing about the song – and indeed H & Claire as a duo in general – is that they never really sound like they’re singing together. DJ, for all intents and purposes, may as well be a performance by two solo singers that was spliced together in post-production. The chorus is just Claire singing and ad-libbing over herself; at best H makes an occasional contribution, but the end result is something that doesn’t sell the notion of H & Claire as a duo, even though there were already examples – like When I Said Goodbye – of their voices harmonising beautifully.
Indeed, this became a recurring theme during the promotion of the single. DJ included a brilliant B-side Over You, which was a latter-day Steps mid-tempo by any other name. The track was performed on CD:UK, and makes the same decision to omit H’s vocal from the chorus. Except here Claire’s ad-libs are much more pronounced, and so it leaves her looking unsure as to which part she should be
miming singing along to when she’s harmonising with herself (to the extent that during the middle-eight – the only bit of the song H & Claire actually do sing together – Claire forgets to put the microphone to her mouth). There is absolutely no faulting the amount of hard work the duo were putting in. They’d taken on the commitment of presenting SM:TV alongside the launch of DJ and a rigorous promotional schedule. But despite the best of intentions, it appeared H & Claire had spread themselves a bit too thin, because they were so much more polished than the way they came across.
That same sentiment can be extended to the music video, which is arguably DJ’s weak link. From an aesthetic perspective, it’s consistent with the cool, disinterested disco-pop sound of the song. It features a very nice looking garden party, lots of flashy water features that obscure the screen from time to time and – of course – a DJ playing to a crowd of trendy extras (although he absolutely would not be playing an H & Claire track in real life). The visuals are perfectly complementary to the music. The niggling issue again is H & Claire, who spend very little time together as a duo. And even when they do, there’s no hint of this being two people who’d spent the last five years together. Instead, they spend most of the video propping up the garden scenery while staring moodily at the camera. It’s reminiscent of the videos for Here & Now and You’ll Be Sorry, which adopted a similar vibe, and it feels insincere. H & Claire weren’t cool; that was the whole point. As a chance at a second first impression, the video doesn’t play to the duo’s strengths or capture how much they had to offer.
Despite misgivings and growing ill-feeling from scorned Steps fans, there is a lot to like about DJ, and the track went on to reach #3 in the UK. It was a decent showing, and for the chart geeks out there, was the only position in the top-five that Steps had never peaked at. Perhaps more significantly, it was the victor in a chart battle against Faye Tozer, whose duet with Russell Watson entered the chart at #10 the same week. Small victories aside, DJ was a bit of a one-week wonder and promptly dropped down the chart in subsequent weeks. This was a solid start, but it left the future feeling a little less certain than anyone probably would have liked…