Let's get the Rickrolling thing out of the way. In 2007, it was fun to dupe people into unwittingly watching Rick Astley's video for "Never Gonna Give You Up," his 1987 debut single that went to #1 in the US, UK and many other territories. On April Fools' Day, 2008, YouTube got in on it, sending web surfers looking for funny cats or sneezing pandas to Rick's video. Astley, who hadn't released an album since 2001, was suddenly back in the zeitgeist. With good humor, he participated in several related stunts, like emerging from a float at the Macy's Thanksgiving parade to Rickroll the audience. He's routinely asked about his famous meme, and he's fine with it. He appreciates the opportunities it has given him, like hanging out with one of his favorite bands, the Foo Fighters.
When he was 18, Astley came to the attention of Pete Waterman of the British songwriting/production team Stock-Aitken-Waterman, the hitmakers for Bananarama, Kylie Minogue, Samantha Fox and many other pop stars. Astley apprenticed at their studio for a while before recording "Never Gonna Give You Up," which was recorded in October 1986 but not released until July 1987, giving the trio time to groom him for his inevitable success. It became the top single of 1987 in the UK, and the hits kept coming: His next seven singles all made the Top 10 in Britain; his American follow-up, "Together Forever," also rose to #1.
Astley wrote four tracks on his first album and six on the next one, but craved more creative control. For his third album, aptly titled Free, he used other producers and attained a more adult sound, best heard on the gospel-tinged hit "Cry For Help." His fourth album was released in 1993, then he went dark, with only limited releases over the next 23 years (that 2001 album was issued only in Germany), and no output during the peak Rickrolling years. Then came 50, his 2016 album (the title reflecting his age, Adele-style), which debuted at #1 in the UK. In 2018, he followed with Beautiful Life, which like 50, was written and produced entirely by Astley, who also played every instrument. 50 is very intimate, with songs that delve into his upbringing for the first time. Beautiful Life has more grooves, notably the title track, which gives off a Nile Rodgers vibe.
In this rather revealing interview, Astley talks about his sudden success and how his hardscrabble upbringing helped him cope with it, leading to his second act.
Rick Astley: No, that's a trade secret and I'd have to kill you if I told you, Carl.
It's pretty simple. I have a room at the back of the house and, we call it the studio within the family and friends but it's not a real studio, it's just a garage really, a converted garage. It's very nice. It's like a man cave, it's got nice things in there, but it's a room, basically.
I like going in there and just doing it for fun. The only thing is that my fun ideas and projects become a record. I made the last album, 50, in that garage, and I did that really to mark being 50 and say, "That's what I'm capable of." But I wasn't intending it to be an actual real record. It was just something I might put on the internet and maybe sell at gigs to fans.
So, the whole process of writing really just comes from fun. It truly is not a mystical thing. I don't see it that way.
I guess where the real things come from, which is deep inside one's psyche, soul, whatever you want to call it, God knows how you explain that. That's almost like getting into the chemistry of the human mind, isn't it? But, for me, I like going in that room and enjoying myself, and at the end of it, I hopefully come up with a song. It's that simple.
Songfacts: At what point did you realize that 50 was more than just a vanity project?
Astley: I think when we – I say "we" because my wife manages me, so she's been a big part of the whole process - played it to friends. Some of my friends are big songwriters and producers and all the rest of it. I've played things to people over the years and they nod and they say polite, nice things, but they don't look at you in that way and say, "You need to release that." That's what a couple of them did and I thought, I'm going to go and have a chat with BMG, who I used to be with.
There's been some conversations over the years because they own the back catalogue, but we've not had a conversation really, up until recently, about, "Do you want to make a record?" There hasn't been that sort of a thing.So I went in, played them the stuff and they really, really loved it. I'd mixed quite a few by that point, or at least done rough mixes, so they weren't buying into, "Hey, that guy Rick Astley sold millions of albums, maybe we can sell tens of thousands of albums." It wasn't like that. It was, "We like that music. We like that stuff you've made in your garage."
So that was a real positive. It wasn't like, "What is he going to do? Who are we going to put him with?" What they heard they felt they could get on the radio. We haven't done that outside the UK, in truth, because it's really hard to get on the radio in America, as you probably know better than I do. [True that.] But, in the UK, we get A-listed on the biggest radio station there is. So, it's bizarre.
I've just done a radio show this morning on BBC Radio 2, which is the biggest listened to radio station in the UK, but Radio 1 is where the young people will be on BBC, and we have independent radio. But, to get on a radio show and play live my new song, I would have never dreamt I would be doing that. It's insane. It's crazy. It's like a film.
Astley: My first trip to America, I believe, was in January or February of 1988. We'd had a couple of singles in different parts of the world, Europe obviously, that had done really well, but when we came to America it was like, That's all fine, you start again when you come here. We don't really care until you prove it here.
Songfacts: Were your songs already hits by then?
Astley: No, no, no. I did loads of promo. I did months of promo. My first trip was New York - frightened the hell out of me. I was used to getting off a plane and someone would say, "Oh, you've had three hits, one was #1, another was number three. You're still on this list... You're doing the biggest TV show." I come to New York, and everyone goes, "Whatever!"
It's a bit of a shock, if I'm honest. And I genuinely think that's why a lot of British artists don't do that well in America sometimes. It's because they think, "I just want to go back home. People send nice black shiny cars for me and treat me like a rock star, and here they go, 'Whatever.'" It takes something to actually get a foot in the door in America.
But that's one of the things I liked about it. Because, I worked with Stock-Aitken-Waterman [Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, Pete Waterman], who had become this really big production team and everyone talked about them all the time, which is fine, because it got me into radio stations and all the rest of it. But, when I got to America, nobody knew who they were unless they'd really done their homework. So, it was kind of nice for me starting again. It felt like, "OK, we're starting with a pop record, let's go." I liked it.
Songfacts: So, you must have done all the radio station events and all that stuff.
Astley: Yeah, I guess compared to some people I didn't do that much, but I remember doing it for weeks and weeks and weeks. And, I remember constantly looking at maps thinking, How big is this bloody place? Because you can look at the States on a map and go, "Yeah, it's big," but when you're going from station to station you just think, this is enormous.
Yeah, it's a crazy place, America, there's no doubt about it. But if you really want to say to the world, "That was a proper hit," you've got to have a hit in America. If you don't do it in America, then it's not really worldwide, is it?
Songfacts: And your first two singles over here went to #1.
Astley: They did, which was kind of bizarre. The first one, "Never Gonna Give You Up," had done it in so many countries that it wasn't a total shock and surprise. It was just like, "Oh my God, it's happened there as well." But, there was a part of me that thought, I might be one of those guys who manages to squeeze one past them and that might be it. And then the second one, "Together Forever," I don't think it was as big a song, but it went to #1 and it got a load of play.
Yeah, I think I had five Top 10s in America. [Yep. "It Would Take a Strong Strong Man" (#10), "She Wants to Dance with Me" (#6), "Cry for Help" (#7).] Compared to some artists that's no big shakes, but for me that was pretty amazing. I looked at a lot of artists who were massive in the UK and maybe Europe as well, and they just didn't seem to get anything going in America. I was just one of those lucky ones that, for whatever reason, that first song translated, it worked.
And, yes, I did do some leg work. I did do interviews and went round the stations, but one without the other doesn't mean anything. You've got to have a bit of luck on your side. You've got to have that song that just clicks.
Songfacts: You don't sound British when you sing.
Astley: I don't but there's not that many British artists who do, to be honest. I grew up youngest of four, and I listened to everything from pop to progressive rock. My first concert was a band called Camel - they had flute solos that went on longer than my singles. It's crazy music but beautiful, as well.
But I was into early Beatles, a bit of Motown, Stevie Wonder's later years, as well, and all kinds of everything. And I think that if you've grown up listening to certain singers, you can't help it, you just adopt it.
I think the biggest influence with me was a lot of black American male singers. Going back to some of the older ones, Bill Withers is a favorite, Al Green I loved. I went to see him live at The Greek one time in LA and he didn't let me down, it was just amazing. And then people like Luther Vandross, James Ingram, a bit of Alexander O'Neal. People like that who were making mainstream pop records but still had a lot of soul and a bit of spice to it.
There's something going on vocally that was very American. R&B is a weird word because I don't know what R&B is anymore, I really don't, because it's been so many different things through so many different decades. But, they had something about them from a vocal point of view, those records that I listened to, and I ended up trying to emulate it a bit.
Songfacts: You didn't have a real personal connection with those early hits. What was that like for you?
Astley: Well, to be honest, I didn't have a personal connection to anything that was going on, because it felt like I was watching it from the other side of a screen. It happened so fast.
If you don't write the song and you haven't produced it, it's your song, but it takes a bit of time to bed in and for it to really become your song. Even some of the greats, Whitney Houston, or even going back to Frank Sinatra, they didn't write and produce the music.
So, when I sing "Never Gonna Give You Up" now, that's my song. I don't care who wrote it, I don't care who produced it, it's my song. I just think it takes time, and I don't think it takes 18 months or two-and-a-half years. It takes longer than that because it has to go out there and just live somewhere. Even back then, people would say, "Oh, we're getting married to that song in a month's time," and I'd just go, "That's lovely," but I couldn't relate to that because I was a kid. I hadn't experienced anything, and I hadn't really had those songs around me and part of me to take ownership of them. It takes time to go, "Yeah, that's part of my life, it's part of my DNA."
So, at the time, it was just all a blur. It was like happening to this guy who's on the other side of this plexiglass and we're both having a good time, but I don't know which one I am sometimes. I don't know whether I'm me looking at him because you go on TV and you kind of take it for granted. What you don't take for granted is watching it back later. That takes some getting used to and I still have to get used to it right now because I'm doing a bit more TV again. That is a weird experience. You've watched a program all your life as a kid, and you're on it. All of a sudden, from the couch in your living room you're looking at yourself on a TV show you grew up with. That is weird. That takes a bit of time to get used to.
Songfacts: Unlike Frank Sinatra and Whitney Houston, you are a songwriter. So, you're going to have a bit of a different experience when you're doing something of your own versus a song that has been written for you.
Astley: Even on that first album I had, I ended up getting four songs on there that were mine. Within the Stock-Aitken-Waterman production thing, the whole idea was that they write the songs, they produce the songs. But I managed to get four on there and I wrote a couple of singles later.
I think the first single I had was called "She Wants To Dance With Me," and that was a bit of a hit in America and different parts of the world - obviously the UK. That was a bit of a turning point in my mind because I thought, as simple as that song is - because it is fairly simple - it worked.
I'm not fooling myself or anybody else in the sense that if you've had a couple of big, big, big songs, you don't have to deliver the best song in the world to have a hit because you've already got a little spot on radio, you've already got a little place in somebody's heart. So, it doesn't have to be the best song in the world, but it's got to do something to gain a Top 10. That's just the rules. It has to have something.
So, I felt reasonably confident that I might be able to do that again, so I decided I wanted to write a bit more and get more involved in that. I had a song called "Cry For Help" on the first album away from those guys and I wanted to do things on that record that I'd never really had the opportunity to do, which is work with musicians, people who actually play the drums, because I played drums as a kid and I loved it and I still love it now. And I wanted to make a slightly different record.
Songfacts: Tell me about the lyric for "Cry For Help."
Astley: For me, it's that thing that you can go through life and you can be around someone and you know that there's something wrong, you know there's something going on, but they don't want to say anything. They don't want to do it.
I co-wrote that song in 1991 and I think the world has changed even since then. People do talk more about their feelings and they do open up. I'm feeling very, very conflicted about saying this, but I wrote it with Rob Fisher, who was a great songwriter and had his own band as well with a guy called Simon Climie called Climie Fisher, the band was. Rob passed away quite early, and I think he had some problems. I'm not even sure I was aware of it at the time, and I don't know whether that was connected to that, but I sensed that not everything was completely okay in his life.
But, I've definitely been around people like that. My mum and dad even had a son that passed before I was born, and they never talked about it. That is the hardest possible subject to talk about, I guess, for parents to their other children, but it just never got spoken about.
I'm not saying that's exactly what it's about, but it's the theme of it. It's that moment when you can cry for help and you can actually say to someone, "I'm dying here. I'm bleeding." We all need that moment where we sort of say, "Right, I've just got to talk to someone," and that's what it's about.
Songfacts: What was the first really personal song that you wrote about yourself?
Astley: About myself? Oh my God. On these last couple of albums, 50 and this new album Beautiful Life, I'm probably a little bit closer to talking about things from my self. I've always written songs that I guess are love songs, and even on these records I think they're still love songs, they've just got a bit more depth to them lyrically because I'm 52 and I've lived a bit. I'm the parent of a 26-year-old daughter. I've experienced things and I've got a bit more weight to put behind certain things.
Having said that, there's also songs on the new record that I wrote simply because, after playing 50 a lot live, I realized people my age and older still want to dance. They still want to just get up and dance at a gig. They were happy to hear the old songs and to dance to them, but they danced to a lot of the stuff on 50. They got up and clapped their hands and sung the songs with me, and it gave me a lot of confidence to think, I'm allowed to write something up tempo if I want to. Doesn't mean I can't do it just because I'm 52.
Songfacts: 50 certainly seemed like it was a confessional album, like you were letting loose a lot of, as you say, your psyche, your soul.
Astley: Yes, I'd say that.
Songfacts: I'm wondering what song, in particular, either on 50 or Beautiful Life, is one that really does express Rick Astley?
Astley: There's a song called "Keep Singing" which is the first song on 50, and that is a little story about my life. In fact, the opening lines are, "When I was a boy I saw my daddy crying at the steering wheel," because I did see that sometimes. He wasn't that kind of a guy normally, but I've seen him just lose it. He had a child that passed away, he's got four kids, split up from my mum. I saw my mum lose it as well, but I was around my dad a bit more because I lived in his house. I saw my mum every weekend. I saw her every day at first when I was very young, and then I saw her at the weekends.
But I saw my dad lose it a few times, and you don't ask him why, you just know. For me, getting into the church choir just felt good, even in that very British, white-as-can-be, northern little town in England. I wasn't particularly religious, but just going somewhere and singing with a bunch of other people felt good.
Getting into school plays and musicals and stuff, that also felt good because I was right front and center, in front of people singing, and they liked it. And I felt I might belong here. This might be somewhere I can just forget about everything else. I didn't have the worst childhood, but somewhere in me there was something not quite comfortable because of the way my home was, and I think music helped me and singing helped me be somewhere else.
Even listening to music does it for people, of course it does, and we read that and hear that all the time, and I think it definitely did it for me. And I think singing is the next step of that because you're actually doing it, you're making the music, never mind just listening to it. So, that song I definitely think is very personal to me.
Songfacts: How did it feel to not only get that out but to have so many people connect with it?
Astley: Well, the weird thing was, when I wrote it I wasn't really anticipating many people hearing it. I made that record literally in my garage. I played every note of every part of that record and the new record Beautiful Life. When I made 50 I was doing it because a few fans on the internet had requested it and at gigs they said, "We love the old ones but please make a record." It goes over your head a bit because you think, Yeah, I'm kind of irrelevant now. Nobody really wants new music.
And I just thought, I'm reaching 50, I'm going to make some music. I'm going to call it a record but it's not really going to be a record. It's just some songs and I might put it out somehow on the internet somewhere. So in a way, when you're under that sort of thinking, you let go lyrically a little bit more because you don't think thousands, and certainly not millions of people might hear it. You just think, I'm just doing it for me.
So, I didn't anticipate lots of people hearing it, and we sold quite a lot of copies here and I was on TV singing that song quite a few times. So, it was kind of interesting and I did have to think, What have you done here? You've bared your soul maybe a bit too much. But, then I think to myself, no, because people have said to me that they've had things echoed in those lyrics. So, I'm glad I've done it.
There's a song called "Angels On My Side" on that record, as well, and it's the sort of thing that I've always had somebody there looking after me. I've got two older brothers and an older sister. My mum and dad did the best job they could under the circumstances, with them both being a bit broken, and I think I've just always had someone looking out for me. And that went even for my career.
I didn't leave my career penniless and kind of crazy, on the verge of insanity, which is how an awful lot of people tend to end up in pop music. I got away with it really. I ended up making what I considered to be real money, keeping hold of most of it, and having a very comfortable, relatively sane, great life since. That's not a normal story for people who got into pop music the way I did.
Songfacts: I'm struck by how grounded in reality you always have been. Even in 1987, you were talking about how this was basically a five-year thing for you. You're able to see yourself the way people see you. It's remarkable.
Astley: Well, I am from a small town in the north of England, and people are realistic up there because, being brutal about it – and I like that word, being brutal, to use that kind of terminology – you have to be honest with yourself and you've got to be realistic because it's a very working-class town that had the shit kicked out of it in the '80s. All the things our parents and uncles did, they don't exist anymore. I'm from a coal mining area - it's not the conventional coal mining town when you see it, but there was a mine there and it did get closed. There was industry there and all of it's gone.
People from a place like that have always had a very realistic viewpoint because we're not the chosen ones, we're not going to become internationally famous pop stars. That doesn't happen. You grow up with that mindset. And even though it did happen to me and I did believe, because I had to in order to get that moment, I don't think it's ever really left me. I'd much rather be, not pessimistic, but honest about what's really happening. So, we had a Platinum #1 album in the UK. That is insane. That is bonkers after all these years. But it hasn't really done much anywhere else, and I'm OK to say that. Most people at record labels, they just kind of whistle and look the other way. I'm like, "Look, it didn't really take off anywhere else, that's OK."
We can do gigs. We just toured in America again this year a little bit, so we can get around and we can have some fun with it in different territories, but getting on the radio is almost impossible for me. There's just nowhere to put me, so you've got to face up to that.
Songfacts: What did you learn in terms of songwriting and production from Stock-Aitken-Waterman?
Astley: Every song they wrote was about a hit. They didn't want to write album tracks, they weren't interested in that. And one thing I don't like about the way I approach songs sometimes is that I've got that sort of ingrained in me a little bit. I have calmed that down now, but I've always had that thing of, "Well, if it's not a hit what's the point in finishing it?" Because I was around that for a couple of years, and young years where it gets ingrained.
There is room for somebody to make a collection of songs, you don't have to call it an album anymore, but someone should be in a position to make 10, 12, 15 songs that as a group go together, but are not all radio worthy, not all worthy of being a hit, even, but they've got something about them that is really great within that collection and it fits well together and would make a nice evening to go and listen to at a gig. But, I've still got a little bit of that thing in me that says, No, they've all got to be a hit, just because I was around it.
Songfacts: Did they have a rule that said every lyric had to be positive?
Astley: I don't remember that. It's very possible. I think they just had a very different viewpoint on it.
I'd signed to their production company to make a record, but then they became massive and it all took off, so I got put on the back burner. So, I ended up making tea for loads of the artists and getting sandwiches and just becoming a tape-op really, back in the days of that sort of a job.
Anyway, I hung around the studios a lot and it was an odd place to be, because they had a hit every week or two, and that's not normal. I knew it wasn't normal, but I didn't really grasp it. I've been in loads of studios since then, and you just think, "Someone's in Studio A - that record's never going to be heard. Someone's in Studio B - That one might get heard. Someone's in Studio C - they may as well not finish it." That's the truth of it. It's not nice to say, but it is the truth of it. And that building that they had, almost every record they made was a hit. It was just ridiculous. It was crazy.
Songfacts: You must have felt you were next in line when you recorded "Never Gonna Give You Up."
Astley: I did, yeah, and I always thought it was a really great tune. I don't have any embarrassment saying that because I didn't write it.
And when radio has decided they're OK with a certain thing - back in the day it might have been Motown or when rock went massive in the '70s - when they've said, "Yeah, we're into playing that right now," you know the next one is going to get a fair crack of the whip. And that was the way with Stock-Aitken-Waterman, certainly in the UK and Europe. Their songs did end up sounding a little bit similar. Each one had a certain distinctive sound, because that's what they were after. So I thought, "Mine might get a go then. It might actually get a go." And, sure enough, it did.
August 3, 2018
Rick's website is rickastley.co.uk
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