Steps – Chain Reaction

Released: 24th September 2001

Writers: Barry Gibb / Maurice Gibb / Robin Gibb

Peak position: #2

Chart run: 2-4-6-10-14-26-29-29-41-54-62-69

After four years at the top of the pop game, Steps were gearing up to release the obligatory greatest hits compilation. And although Diana Ross might not have been an immediately apparent artist to cover, Chain Reaction transpired to be a stroke of genius. It took all the core Steps elements and shoved a rocket up their arse, resulting in one of the group’s most deliriously brilliant – and bonkers – moments.

The months leading up to the release of Gold – The Greatest Hits had seen the group drifting into a weird middle-ground in chart terms. The singles were continuing to perform well, no doubt. But with lower sales and shorter chart runs, Steps were becoming much more of a fanbase-driven act. Accompanying this was a newfound critical appreciation of the group; their image and sound had certainly matured during the Buzz campaign. In some respects very successfully (It’s The Way You Make Me Feel was a brilliant evolution in the Steps sound), while in others a little less so (we’re still not huge fans of the Here and Now aesthetic). Either way, more recent releases had been met with approval from commentators who previously treated Steps’ success begrudgingly. In that sense, this was the perfect time to release a greatest hits compilation; it was a chance to remind both fans and critics alike of the journey to this point, while everyone was on the same page.

Chain Reaction was – at least initially – an eyebrow-raising choice of song to cover. It’s link back to the group was nothing to do with Diana Ross, but instead the writers of the track: Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb. It was a fitting nod to Tragedy that for such a landmark moment in their career, Steps would perform another track penned by the Bee Gees. But we can’t discount Diana Ross from the equation either; Chain Reaction wasn’t a very Steps-sounding song and how on earth do you go about covering a song by inarguably one of the distinctive voices of Motown and one of the most successful female singers of all-time? The answer, as it turns out, was to turn the track on its head and take a completely different approach.

The sensual disco tones of the original Chain Reaction were swapped for a Safri Duo-esque drum beat and production that was unabashedly bigger in every sense than anything else in Steps’ oeuvre. With continuous runs of crashing beats and swirling synth sound effects, it rapidly becomes evident that comparison to the original track is futile; the two songs are very different and share little in common beyond the core melody and lyrics. And even they are given a slight spin, with the line: You taste a little then you swallow slower” subtly switched to the more PG: “You taste a little then you follow slower”. Whether that was necessary is debatable, since it’s not long before the situation has escalated somewhat: “I wanna get your love all ready for the sweet sensation, instant radiation; you let me hold you for the first explosion”. Sex isn’t necessarily a topic Steps had tackled head-on for the most part. And when they had – see Experienced from the Step One album – it felt a little awkward and memorable for the wrong reasons. So, while Chain Reaction does put the group back in that territory from a lyrical perspective, it is not packaged as a sexy song.

No, this is Steps in party mode. And don’t they just bring their A-game? Whether it’s due to the material or the occasion, as a performance everything about Chain Reaction feels sublimely heightened. Faye is the one who best captures the essence of the original track, with a soft, almost purred half-verse that provides probably the only moment that could be considered remotely understated. Lisa Scott-Lee on the other hand barrels into her half-verse with the same enthusiasm that made her middle-eights such a reliable component of many Steps tracks. H does, of course, get a half-verse – and by this point, it would have felt a bit weird for him not to – but along with Lee, the pair are employed a little more tactically. H’s: “Uh” grunts that punctuate Chain Reaction gives it a slightly silly, tongue-in-cheek edge, while the male background vocals are used to anchor the verses, which proves necessary amidst such a high-octane carnival of production. Front and centre of the song though is Claire. We already know she has range, and if you want a nuanced, emotional performance, then One For Sorrow is your gold standard. But if you want to experience the sheer full-force of her voice, then we can think of few other Steps songs where she lets rip in the way that she does on Chain Reaction. The velocity with which she ad-libs the final choruses is staggering; it cuts right through the song and brings the number to a jubilantly buoyant close.

The music video for Chain Reaction also found Steps back in much more playful territory, even if it was very much a concept of two halves. The first sees the group playing doctors and nurses, presenting a fascinating insight into what the NHS was like before years of austerity hit the service. A patient (H) arrives by ambulance and is immediately greeted by a doctor (Lee), who wheels the stretcher through into the hospital. The front desk is staffed by a receptionist (Claire), and a nurse is loitering nearby (Faye). Both approach the stretcher – presumably not expecting any further patients to arrive in their absence – and proceed to accompany the patient and the doctor through the hospital, where they’re joined by another doctor (Lisa). It’s not necessarily the most sustainable model of healthcare, but up until that point, one could have few complaints about the level of service. But suddenly things escalate unexpectedly. The patient is wheeled through into the operating theatre, while the hospital entourage starts readying themselves to perform surgery. The fact that the receptionist would be in any way involved in the procedure is probably the least of H’s concerns at this point. Particularly in the absence of any diagnostics or, you know, anaesthesia. Just as it seems Chain Reaction is about to take a macabre turn, we head (literally) into the light, and the video completely switches gear. It turns into something resembling an extended DFS advertisement, where Steps drape themselves over some lovely furnishings in shots intercut with the obligatory choreographed routine. The visuals of this latter half of the video are refreshingly bright, something that was desperately welcome. Honestly, we would have quite liked the hospital concept to have been maintained for the duration of the video; there was so much scope for it to have been even more whacky. But perhaps it was deemed that the post-operative phase was a less exciting part of the patient journey.  

Accompanied with a blitz of promotion, Chain Reaction (alongside a remix of One For Sorrow) peaked at #2, which was a satisfyingly fitting result as the chart position Steps had most occupied since their debut in 1997. Furthermore, spending four weeks in the top ten and selling more than 200,000 copies, the single succeeded in giving the group their best commercial performance since Say You’ll Be Mine / Better The Devil You Know almost two years prior. And just a few weeks later, Gold – The Greatest Hits topped the album chart for a total of three weeks; it was a moment of triumph for Steps. So often the underdogs of pop music, finally their contribution was recognised and celebrated. But having defied the odds and remained steadfast where so many other acts had come and gone during the intervening years, there was a dawning sense of realisation: what next? The answer – as it turns out – would be with us far sooner than we wished…

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