Steps – One For Sorrow

Released: 24th August 1998

Writers: Karl Twigg / Mark Topham / Lance Ellington

Peak position: #2

Chart run: 2-6-6-7-10-18-25-32-38-46-60

Having put to bed any doubts that they could function as more than a line-dancing novelty, Steps returned with their third single. And just like that, One For Sorrow was the moment everything fell into place for the group.

The whole “ABBA on speed” aspect of Steps’ identity was still a big part of their marketing. And while they’d made visual reference to it in the video for Last Thing On My Mind, here they went one step (pun intended) further and fully incorporated the influence into their sound. It was smartly done, too, because while there are parallels between One For Sorrow and The Winner Takes It All, the song is careful never to tread so heavily on ABBA’s turf that it becomes a blatant copy. Instead, it stays on the right side of paying homage to their Swedish pop heritage, while introducing a distinctly ’90s twist. Essentially, there was no barrier to entry; One For Sorrow could be enjoyed by enthusiasts and newcomers alike.

And there was much to enjoy here. It’s one of those songs where everything makes sense; even the track opening with the sound effect of rain when it bears no relation to anything in the lyrics or the production. ‘Just, because’ is a perfectly valid explanation as any other in the context of the late ’90s. The first verse goes for a classic fake-out with the balladesque opening drenched in a beautiful keyboard melody as Claire Richards wistfully recounts a love gone wrong: “All the laughter that we shared would be a memory, I cannot count the tears you’ve cost me, if I could have seen”. Stirring synths are introduced towards the end of the first verse, but One For Sorrow revels in the tease, managing to wait 50 seconds before the beat finally kicks in. The time spent provides a chance to bask in the quality of the production and the way the synths mirror the evocative performance of the vocals. This is pop music with a heart.

When the song breaks into full production at the chorus, it delivers everything and more. There are drum kicks aplenty as the track bounces to life. It’s also one of the best examples of the classic paradoxical Steps chorus: decidedly miserable lyrics performed in the most deliriously uplifting manner: “Oh, I know you’re somewhere else right now, and loving someone else no doubt”. It’s a brilliant moment in ’90s pop music. And what’s more, it felt special at the time as well. This was a cut above what most other bubblegum pop groups were doing and a rather remarkable transformation considering it was only two singles since 5,6,7,8.

Although Claire’s prominence on One For Sorrow would end up proving to be a controversial move behind-the-scenes, no one could contest that she delivers an incredible performance. This track is the perfect showcase for the power and range of her vocals. There’s a neat transition to show the two extremes of the song next to each other when the vulnerable slowed-down section gets a brief reprieve as the middle-eight (the rain also reappears…) before kicking back into an uptempo finale with some additional backing vocals. The chorus is structured in such a way that it could continue cycling forever, although, for radio edit purposes, it fades after the song hits the four-minute mark.   

Of course, it would be remiss to overlook the fact that One For Sorrow became somewhat infamously problematic for Steps themselves. It’s hard to imagine a four-minute pop song (particularly this one) being the source of tension that simmered beneath the surface of the group for most of their career, eventually resulting in an acrimonious Boxing Day split. Thankfully, it’s all in the past now. But there’s no escaping that One For Sorrow is, for all intents and purposes, a solo effort by Claire Richards. Perhaps controversially, in this case, it seems appropriate for the song. Steps worked well as an ensemble, but it’s the consistency of delivery here that evokes a sense of feeling.

From the mournful pensiveness of the opening verse through the fragility of the middle eight to the determined resilience in the final chorus, One For Sorrow tells an emotionally resonant story in a way that few other Steps singles did. And yes, it is unfortunate that the group’s major chart breakthrough reinforced a misinformed notion that manufactured pop groups had one or two good singers while everyone else stood (or danced) around and looked pretty. But even if Claire often took the lead, this is the only single where it was to such an extent that no one else got a look in. By the end of the Step One campaign, there was absolutely no reason to dispute the value of every member of Steps making the group what it was.

There are many different versions of One For Sorrow, and they’re all great, which is a testament to just how well the song is crafted. There’s even an acapella version, which is essentially a candlelight reading of the track and what would have happened in a parallel pop universe if it never exploded into a full-on uptempo after the first verse. Several remixes were commissioned, but perhaps the most significant was the Tony Moran US Remix, which served as Steps’ debut single in America and was also released in the UK as a double-A side with Chain Reaction. It’s a markedly different beast from the original.

The music video for One For Sorrow opted for a simple, but effective approach, in what is still one of Steps’ most distinctive and recognisable efforts. There are several different shots, mostly revolving around selling the friendship dynamic between the group, as they cycle, stroll and picnic around the Italian countryside. There are some nice touches, though; the sequence during the second chorus where Claire is walking ahead of the others – who look like they’ve been paired up romantically – emphasises the isolation being portrayed within the lyrics. In hindsight, watching the group cosy up to one another is a little jarring with their purely platonic norm.

Nonetheless, the video works. It’s bright, colourful…and then introduces a sunflower field. Yes, the pièce de résistance in the One For Sorrow video is the dance sequence. Tragedy may well be the most iconic Steps routine, but without a shadow of a doubt, One For Sorrow visually looks the best when the group is performing to large audiences and a sea of hands shoot up during the: “Well I’m one for sorrow, ain’t it too, too bad?” section. It’s not their most complicated (or even synchronised) routine, but it’s undoubtedly one of their most memorable.

One For Sorrow duly became Steps’ first release to crack the top five, and their first of five singles to peak at #2. Indeed, quite fittingly, it’s also their last to reach #2 as well when it charted alongside Chain Reaction in 2001. It’s easy to forget – given the stratospheric success the group would enjoy with their next release – but during the summer of 1998, Steps were everywhere. They promoted hard and reaped the rewards. This was a proper breakthrough and one that very firmly established the template tentatively laid down with Last Thing On My Mind. Moreover, despite the ABBA comparisons, One For Sorrow ended up giving the group their own point of reference. The song contained a benchmark formula that would be revisited by Steps, and, indeed, some of their pop peers.

It’s unsurprising then that the single remains the group’s third-best seller on 509,000 copies (it was ahead of 5,6,7,8 in pure sales, but has since been usurped due to streaming), and one of their most enduringly popular hits.

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