This song was written by the British production team of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. It was inspired by a woman Pete Waterman had been seeing for three years. Rick Astley was staying with Waterman at the time, and after a three-hour phone call with the woman, Astley said, "You're never gonna give her up." Aitken and Waterman then changed the story a bit and made him the one who was vulnerable.
Rick Astley worked in Stock, Aitken and Waterman's studio for two years, operating tape machines, singing on recordings for other singers, learning the trade and famously making the tea, before the production trio wrote and produced this song for him, which became Astley's first hit. It was recorded in October 1986, but wasn't released until July 1987, as the producers were waiting for the right environment to break a new artist.
In the UK, this was the biggest single of 1987, staying at #1 for five weeks. It topped the charts throughout Europe.
The music video, directed by Simon West, finds Astley singing at various west London locales, including an empty club where he gradually inspires a bartender (played by dancer Clive Clarke of the Top of the Pops dance troupe Zoo) to bust a move. Apparently, Clarke had been nursing a serious hangover when his attempt to do a stunt flip went awry and he landed on his head. Luckily, he wasn't injured and nailed the stunt on another take.
That wasn't the only snag during the one-day shoot. According to VH1's Pop Up Video, Astley's manager got into a two-hour argument with West over whether the singer's sleeves should be rolled up.
In the UK, this was followed by "Whenever You Need Somebody" and a cover of "When I Fall In Love
." Those went to #3 and #2, respectively. His next five UK singles also made the Top 10, giving him a record for placing his first eight singles in that stratum.
In America, the follow-up single was "Together Forever
," which has a similar sound and was considered a sequel of sorts to "Never Gonna Give You Up," with Astley now settling into a permanent union with the girl he would never give up. That one also went to #1.
This is the song you heard when you got Rickrolled
. The internet craze originated in 2007 when various websites, including an online anti-Scientology group and a Radiohead site, posted links that resembled normal clickthroughs offering more of a news story, but instead took users to the 1987 video of Rick Astley singing this song on YouTube. Astley was aware of this internet prank, which became known as Rickrolling and resulted in millions of hits for this song on YouTube.
Astley himself was Rickrolled a few times before realizing it was an internet trend and not just a buddy messing with him. He spoke to the LA Times
about the phenomenon: "It's a bit strange to have videos of when you were a young guy out on the internet. It makes me laugh - I'm sure it annoys a lot of other people. It's a bit spooky. It's just one of those odd things when something gets picked up and people run with it. That's what's brilliant about the internet."
Astley has always written songs, and four of his tracks made his Whenever You Need Somebody
album. His first hit that he wrote was "She Wants to Dance with Me," which appeared on his second album; a more personal song, "Cry For Help
," was part of his third album - his first after parting from Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
In a 2018 Songfacts interview with Astley
, he talked about connecting with "Never Gonna Give You Up," a song he didn't write. "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," he said. "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," he added. "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."
The track was inspired by popular club hits of the '80s from Colonel Abrams, known as the Godfather of House, and Steve Arrington, former frontman for the funk band Slave. McGuire explained: "Mike [Stock] and Matt [Aitken] would use the template that they thought would be ideal for a given artist, and the launchpad for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' consisted of Steve Arrington and Colonel Abrams. They thought their music would fit well with Rick, so someone brought in the records, one of which was Colonel Abrams' 'Trapped', and after we'd listened to them and analyzed them we started to replicate the sounds, trying to adopt their ethos rather than sample or rip them off in any way."
Recording engineer Mark McGuire told Sound on Sound what the production trio's expectations were for their "assistant" Astley: "Rick was the nicest artist I worked with there. He was extremely down-to-earth, but also incredibly shy, and although Pete Waterman had spotted him [playing the UK club circuit with a soul band named FBI] and wanted him to record, he feared that Rick would be too shy in the studio to get anything done. So he asked him to work there for a while, get to meet everyone, hang out with them and have a laugh, so that he wouldn't be intimidated when it was time for him to record. He was, therefore, employed there as an 'assistant,' but not really to work as an assistant. It was merely a way of introducing him to the studio."
Astley was a very pragmatic pop star who understood that his runaway success came with an expiration date. When the hits dried up after his 1991 album Free
, his ego was in check and his finances in order. "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," he told Songfacts. "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."
Astley kept making music, but with limited release. He stayed out of the spotlight until the Rickrolling trend, when he participated in some well-paid stunts like appearing from a float at the Macy's Thanksgiving parade
in 2008, but he didn't push any product or make any new versions of the song to capitalize on its newfound notoriety. His next album didn't come until 2016 when he released 50
, which garnered enough interest in the UK to debut at #1.
Astley didn't post the official video to YouTube until Oct 24, 2009, two years after the RickRolling trend started. The first copies posted were unauthorized and uploaded for the purpose of the prank.
Nick Lowe takes a far more cynical view of this song's sentiment on his 1990 track "All Men Are Liars
." He sings:Do you remember Rick Astley?
He had a big fat hit that was ghastly
He said I'm never gonna give you up or let you down
Well I'm here to tell ya that dick's a clown
Though he was just a boy when he made that vow
I'd bet it all that he knows by now
During the album sessions, Astley also recorded a cover of The Temptations "Ain't Too Proud To Beg
," which ended up on his second album, Hold Me In Your Arms
When he recorded "Never Gonna Give You Up" with Stock, Aitken and Waterman in October 1986, it was clear that anything they issued was headed for the charts. When the song was finally released in July 1987, it seemed inevitable that it would hit, and Astley was ready for it. "Their songs did end up sounding a little bit similar," he told us. "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."
When the team brought Astley's demo to RCA, one exec refused to believe the rich baritone on the tape came from a skinny white kid from Manchester. Astley told Billboard: "So we brought him round to the reception at PWL recording studios and I sang for him... and then he was convinced."
This originally featured backing-vocal harmonies to play up Astley's soul-influenced vocals. McGuire said: "The guys revisited the track because they thought it sounded a little too soft and retro. They therefore decided to toughen it up and make it sound more clubby and contemporary by paring it down, stripping away the backing vocals before it was ready to mix."
In the '10s, this song became a trendy choice for comedic kids' movies. It appeared in:
Happy Feet Two (2011)
The Angry Birds Movie (2016)
The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
It was also used in the 2017 film The Disaster Artist.
This lent its title to a 2003 episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation, a Canadian teen drama series that names almost all of its episodes after '80s hits. This one is about an abusive boyfriend (named Rick!).
It was featured in several other TV shows, including Cold Case ("Churchgoing People," 2003), Doctor Who ("Father's Day," 2005) and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia ("Charlie Has Cancer," 2005).
In a 2007 Family Guy
episode based on the movie Back To The Future
, Brian plays this at the school dance instead of "Johnny B. Goode
," with Astley's cousin Marvin calling to tell Rick he's found the "mediocre, generic" sound he's been looking for.
The song also appears in a 2016 episode of South Park
where some characters get Rickrolled.
Stock, Aitken and Waterman are big names in Europe, but not in America, where Astley is their biggest success story. Thirteen of their productions made #1 in the UK, including "Respectable
" by Mel & Kim and "I Should Be So Lucky
" by Kylie Minogue. Only three topped the US chart and two of them are by Astley: "Never Gonna Give You Up" and "Together Forever" (Bananarama's cover of "Venus
" is the other).
British artists often had huge hits in their homeland but found the American market tougher to crack. Astley came to the States in early 1988 at a time when he was peppered all over the UK chart. In America, he didn't generate hysteria, but endeared himself to radio stations, which were very receptive. "Never Gonna Give You Up" climbed to #1 in March; "Together Forever" reached the top spot in June. Astley takes pride in his Stateside success. "If you really want to say to the world, 'That was a proper hit,' you've got to have a hit in America," he said. "If you don't do it in America, then it's not really worldwide, is it?"
Thanks to the Rickrolling trend, this became the song of choice for those looking to exploit internet voting. In 2008, when the New York Mets put their 8th inning song selection up for a vote, "Never Gonna Give You Up" won.
When Donald Trump's wife, Melania, spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention, there were echoes of this song in her speech. He "will never, ever give up. He will never, ever let you down," she said of her husband.