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?
Fundamentally 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; the behind-the-scenes squabbles about the fact that Claire dominated the vocals belie the fact that Faye and Lisa actually contributed significantly to Steps. Sure, you can pick out songs like One For Sorrow and When I Said Goodbye as examples where that’s not the case, but for the most part the division of vocals was never quite so one-sided as was claimed during the group’s infamous reunion in 2011.
As it began to emerge that H & Claire had actually walked away from the group in contrast to the amicable split that was painted in Steps’ parting press release, the duo was left with a bit of a problem. Having opted to walk away from the group, they couldn’t very well stick with the same production team, since people would rightly question why they’d left in the first place. Instead, they would need to find a new sound – one that differentiated itself from Steps – and that undoubtedly played a significant part in dictating their choice of first single: DJ.
Tonight, live all your fantasies
Tonight, play it on and on
We know that this is going to be extremely triggering for some readers, but we ask that you cast aside your trepidations (or outright anger) about this solo venture because honestly, 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. You sense that it was going for a more mature disco sound – whilst also giving the pair the 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 very readily recalls Don’t Stop Movin’ by S Club 7.
Whether anyone wanted a slice of aloof disco-pop from H & Claire is quite another matter. Still, it’s certainly a bold attempt at credibility, and the pair do their absolute best to avoid sounding like they’re having fun. In that sense, DJ is an achiever; it’s 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 from their duo. 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 you feel the temptation would probably have been to do ‘the same, but a little different’.
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 a symptom of the fact that 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 vocal highlight. However, the really 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 literally just Claire singing and ad-libbing over herself; at best H makes an occasional contribution, but the end result is something that doesn’t grasp the notion of H & Claire as a duo.
Indeed, this became a recurring theme during the promotion of the single. We simply can’t let DJ pass without mentioning the actually-quite-brilliant B-side Over You, which was basically just a latter-day Steps mid-tempo by any other name. The track was performed on CD:UK during the promotion for DJ 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. And 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 you start to wonder whether – despite the best of intentions – H & Claire had spread themselves a bit too thin because they were so much more polished than the way they came across.
You could extend that same sentiment to the music video – and arguably this is 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 at this function, that much is certain. In itself, it’s 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 all a bit reminiscent of the videos for Here & Now and You’ll Be Sorry, which adopted a similar ‘oh look at us, aren’t we cool now’ vibe, and it doesn’t work. H & Claire weren’t cool, and that was the whole point. It’s a shame really because as a chance at a second first impression, it doesn’t capture what the duo had to offer.
If you separate the song from the visuals, there’s a lot to like about DJ. And despite misgivings and ill-feeling from scorned Steps fans, the track nonetheless peaked at #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 achieved as a peak. 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…