Rick Astley: you probably know him as the double-denim wearing singer from the 1987 pop hit ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, who retired from the music industry surprisingly early. Despite releasing several singles which made it onto music charts across the globe, he left the industry after only a few years in the spotlight in 1993.
Suddenly, more than a decade later, internet trolls breathed fresh life into his career.
For those among you who haven’t been subject to a friendly ‘rick roll’ or several, it essentially involves receiving a link to a relevant website, only to be redirected to Astley’s first big hit ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. The music video, complete with enviable 80s dance moves, is ridiculously catchy and has racked up more than 91 million views on YouTube thanks to this crazy phenomenon.
This bizarre internet joke was started by some students in America, and has subsequently made its way across the world. 20 years after its release, ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ landed back on the charts, and Astley’s music career was rebooted.
But what does the man himself think of all this?
“It’s pretty cool. I can’t complain”, says Astley, unless he’s the one getting rick rolled. Back in 2007 when rick rolling was still a relatively undiscovered gem, friends of the British singer occasionally tried to rick roll him. ‘I didn’t really get it, at first – it was a bit difficult to grasp, because no one had explained it to me,’ he confesses. ‘I just thought… why is he doing that? Why is he sending me an email, of my old song?’ Does he not think I’ve seen that video? Does he think I really have to go on YouTube to see it one more time?’
Initial confusion aside, the creator of this masterpiece has stumbled across a couple of unforgettable rick rolls himself. “Somebody’s cut up Obama’s speeches so that he ends up saying ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ to the track, which I think is absolutely genius” he laughs. “And the series Madmen; somebody edited all the series together so that they ended up singing ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’”.
“My all-time favourite … somebody had climbed onto a gas tank and put the first seven notes of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ in the right order. So, not only did you have to read music to be able to get that joke, you had to sort of know the song as well, just the first seven notes – and I just thought: genius.”
Although Astley didn’t come out of retirement purely due to the new-found popularity of the rick roll, he does admit to appreciating the gesture. “People have got too much time on their hands. But it is amazing.”
“That’s the power of the internet, isn’t it? It’s just changed the whole dynamic of what people listen to, and from what era, and everything. It all just melts into one,” he says. The internet popularity of Astley’s song has also had a noticeable effect on the kind of people he sees in the audience.
“In Australia – I think it was in Sydney – I got five guys on the stage because they were 18 or whatever they were. I got them on stage to sing a bit of ‘Never Going to Give You Up’. I stopped the band… and I’m kind of thinking: ‘you’re 18, what the hell are you doing?’’
“But I don’t have a big young fan base, no. I mean, I do have some people who love getting on the Facebook page that I have… I think that’s one of the great things the internet has done for music.”
And that it has. “The amount of kids that I speak to who love Fleetwood Mac, or you know, Eurhythmics and the older Depeche Mode … and I think, ‘how do you know that shit?’’
“I think that the only negative is that there’s an awful lot of stuff on the internet, in terms of music. Having said that, it’s also the window for people to be able to show what they can do,” muses Astley. “On the one end, you could say it’s a more level playing field because you don’t have to have a manager, you don’t have to know someone – you’ve just got to do something really creative and something really great to get your hits. That’s the demo tape.”
In a similar way, performance competitions in the form of television shows, such as X Factor and Australia’s Got Talent have provided budding singers with new ways to get themselves noticed. “You don’t exactly get bands doing it very often because they want to do it a different way,” he says. “But there’s usually a few people in there that are really, really great; so at the end of the day, they probably would have had a chance doing it the more conventional way anyway.”
“The only negative for me is that it doesn’t really handle people very well afterwards. But you know what? Neither does the music business,” discloses the singer. “The music business spits people out when it wants to. It’s a tough business. When they’ve had enough, they just go: yep, we’re done, finished, out, and that’s it. When you’re done, you’re done.”
“But I think a lot of business is like that, really. It’s just unfortunately, this business deals with people’s emotions and it deals with human beings. It’s not a tin of paint they’re selling, they’re actually selling somebody, you know what I mean? So it gets a bit difficult.”
One of the reasons Astley retired after a short time in the spotlight was the nature of the music industry itself. “I just felt like getting out of it before it was going to drive me mad, you know… I think music became a business, which I know it is – but as a kid, all I really wanted to do was get in bands and play. I think after about 4 or 5 years or whatever I had of it, it just felt like doing something else. I felt like a travelling salesman… I very rarely actually made any music.”
Astley went from being a shy, soulful singer to a pop sensation almost overnight, but was fortunate enough to have had solid support all the way through. “You need to have people who actually care about you looking after you. It’s a business, but somebody has to take care of the human being at the pointy end of that. I was lucky that I had good people around me.”
“I just think it’s too easy to get overexcited by being offered a record deal and saying ‘yeah’ and just doing anything. You’ve just got to be very careful – you need somebody good to kind of deal with all the other crap. Trying to do it all would be an absolute nightmare,” admits Astley. “No wonder people go mad… It turns you into a narcissist, I think.”
Instead of being caught up publicity for up to “eight hours a day”, Astley used his retirement from performance to take a look at the production side of things. “I got to see a little bit of how that worked and I think that’s where my fascination for being in the studio kind of came from. I still love that atmosphere now, it’s great.”
“I built a studio in London, and I used to go there five days a week. I taught myself a lot about actually making records,” says Astley. “I had a go at being a writer-producer as well, but it’s just a different discipline, really. It’s really difficult to hold songs down to the point where they’re hits for someone else – I kept wanting to sing them! I’d write songs in a different way to what I’ve been listening to – you’ve just got to move with the times.”
The singer’s time in his own studio was noticeably different to his early memories of production with Pete Waterman. “They were like a little bubble within the industry … they worked really hard, they were talented, they knew exactly what they wanted to do. They didn’t want to do records that were competing with cool bands. They were making pop records, simple as that.”
“I just sort of thought: ‘yeah, whatever, I’ll get to live in London for a couple of months, we might bash a single out, and we’ll see what happens’. And a year later, they’re the biggest production team in pop music.”
These days, Astley has toned down the touring and does around 50 gigs each year. Earlier in 2014, he graced the concert halls of South America, playing some classic crowd favourites mixed in with newer material. “‘Together Forever’, ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’… when you start one of those songs, and the audience are all singing along, there’s a really good feeling about that. It’s a bit of a bizarre feeling occasionally because you kind of think ‘my god, that song’s so old,’’ he jokes.
“But it’s also nice to sing something new, whether it’s something I’ve written or whether I’m doing a cover for a bit of fun. I just like singing and playing, you know? That’s the bottom line of it. It’s got nothing to do with the music business, you’re just out there doing what you’re doing.”
Lucky for Astley, he doesn’t have too many issues with the audience during his performances. “They just get a bit loopy sometimes over certain memories, because that’s what music does. It transports you to a time when you were 15, you know what I mean? And it does that with me – I hear certain bands, and I think: ‘oh my god’, it takes me back to the under 18s disco night at the cricket club on a Monday night,” he remembers. “If I have that effect on someone then I think that on the one end, I owe them a bit of gratitude to some degree.”
“Twenty, twenty five years later, they still queue up… people still want to come out and hear me sing those songs,’ he says. ‘I do genuinely feel grateful for, you know, the things that have happened to me in my life… I kind of think to myself: ‘I’m a lucky bugger’. I just try and enjoy it.”
“I count myself lucky today still,” says the singer appreciatively. “That’s got me to the situation where I’m still doing gigs now. I’m grateful for it, because it’s tough, you know what I mean? I’ve got my little place in that musical world, and people still want to hear those songs, and I just think that is an amazing thing after all these years.”
Rick Astley will be bringing his ‘Together Forever’ tour to Australian shores in November this year.
Rick Astley Tour Dates
19TH NOVEMBER WHITLAM THEATRE REVESBY WORKERS CLUB, SYDNEY
21ST NOVEMBER TIVOLI, BRISBANE
22ND NOVEMBER TWIN TOWNS EX SERVICES CLUB, TWEED HEADS
24TH NOVEMBER ROOTY HILL RSL CLUB, SYDNEY
25TH NOVEMBER ENMORE THEATRE, SYDNEY
26TH NOVEMBER CANBERRA THEATRE, CANBERRA
28TH NOVEMBER CHELSEA HEIGHTS HOTEL, MELBOURNE
29TH NOVEMBER PALAIS THEATRE, MELBOURNE
30th NOVEMBER COSTA HALL, GPAC GEELONG
2ND DECEMBER FESTIVAL THEATRE, ADELAIDE
For tickets and info visit www.rickastley.co.uk