Rick Astley is having ‘a mad year’. ‘Let’s face it,’ he tells Weekend. ‘I’m 50. I’m middle-aged. I haven’t had a record out for years – never mind a hit. So it’s a bit strange to suddenly have a number one album. A bit of a surprise, if I’m honest.’
The singer's first studio album in more than a decade, 50 – which finds Astley taking stock of life on the occasion of his half-century – topped the charts on its release in June, and has so far shifted more than 100,000 copies. ‘It’s the most personal record I’ve ever made,’ he says. ‘It means something to me, and I think, somewhere along the way, that has been transmitted to a radio-listening audience. It’s about the things that have happened in my life, and where I am right now. Turning 50 was a moment I knew was coming and I wanted to celebrate it, and own it.’
The title is also, we assume, a playful take on Adele’s 19, 21 and 25 albums? ‘Yeah, there is a bit of that going on,’ he confesses. ‘I’m a big fan of Adele. Although apparently she isn’t going to do that with her albums any more. I hope I’ve not put her off.’
The 50-year-old Astley still boasts the same boyish good looks, and the cast-iron quiff remains mercifully intact. ‘I have a quiff whatever happens,’ he says. ‘It’s just there. It’s just having it. I’m a hairdressers’ nightmare.’
The album was recorded in his home studio in Richmond, Surrey. As well as writing the songs, he plays all the instruments on the record. You’re basically Prince, suggests Weekend. ‘That is definitely pushing it,’ he laughs. ‘But I think there's an element, within every artist, that wants to own their record.’
It’s no small irony, then, that this songwriter and multi-instrumentalist should have made his name with Stock, Aitken and Waterman, who dominated the late 80s charts with their ruthlessly efficient, hi-NRG production line pop, none of which appeared to require much creative input from a roster of artists including Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Bananarama.
When Astley’s first single, Never Gonna Give You Up – showcasing his rich, soulful baritone against an infectious dance beat – was released in 1987, people naturally assumed the 21-year-old with the gravity-defying hair and slightly awkward dance moves was just another SAW pop puppet.
‘The word puppet is not very nice,’ he muses. ‘But it is absolutely true that they made those records. I wrote four songs on the first album, none of them singles. I wrote five or six on the second, and got a couple of singles, so I had a bit of sway, and that didn’t happen to many of their artists.
‘But I had been in the building since I was 19, making tea. They'd signed me, and then got unbelievably busy, so I got pushed to the back of the queue. I was making tea on number one records! But I learnt things. If I learnt anything from that building, it was the old phrase “don’t bore us, give us the chorus!”’
Never Gonna Give You Up was an instant smash, topping the charts in 25 countries, including America, and sparking a run of 13 worldwide hits with the likes of Together Forever and She Wants to Dance With Me. Which was when the unassuming boy from Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire, realised that being a pop star perhaps wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
‘I did enjoy lots of it, of course I did,’ he stresses. ‘But I’d grown up thinking I wanted to be famous and successful. And I kind of did that - but emotionally I didn’t feel any different.
‘When you see famous people walking out of hotels and all the lights are going off, some of them look like animals caught in the headlights, and others are kind of like, “this is where I deserve to be”. I look at those people and go, “I’m glad it’s you!” Because I just didn’t like it.
'If you don’t have the desire to be in the ring, you have to stop, because you’re going to get hurt.’
He thinks, in part at least, he was hoping success would ‘fill a bit of a hole’ left by his often difficult childhood. ‘My mum and dad divorced when I was very young. I’m the youngest of four, and they’d had a son who’d died before I was born. Obviously that leaves its mark on a family.
‘There are many reasons people want to be on stage. Some want the attention; they want some kind of hole filling. But it doesn’t work. Pop music isn’t going to do that for you. You've got to go and find that somewhere else, haven’t you? You have to find it within yourself… Blah blah blah,’ he adds, a little self-consciously. ‘I’m sounding like a book.’
And so, in 1993, with 40 million record sales under his belt, Rick Astley retired, at the grand age of 27. In the years that followed, he kept a low profile, helping his wife, Danish film producer Lene Bausager, raise their daughter, Emilie, who’s now 23. He made a tentative return with a new album in 2001, followed by a covers collection four years later, and has been slowly easing his way back into performing ever since.
Over the past decade, he’s also taken the world by storm entirely accidentally thanks to ‘Rickrolling’ – the ubiquitous meme in which web users are mischievously redirected to the video for Never Gonna Give You Up.
The song – which has now racked up more than 250 million YouTube views – is such a phenomenon that Astley was invited to perform it at New York’s famous Thanksgiving Parade. More recently, Melania Trump was accused of Rickrolling this summer’s Republican Convention when she promised her husband Donald would ‘never, ever give you up and never, ever let you down’, while one activist group even used the song against ISIS.
Astley insists he’s not bothered if the prank wasn’t necessarily intended as a compliment. ‘It’s fun, it’s a gimmick,’ he says. ‘I was just like, well, whatever. It’s doing what it’s doing and it’s got nothing to do with me.
‘To be honest, it wasn’t like I was ever ashamed or running away from those songs. People want to hear the hits, and I like singing them. I like having a few songs in my bag that everyone knows. I see that as a slight suit of armour.
‘Although I don’t do the dance any more,’ he adds, with a twinkle. ‘I’m not insured.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, November 10, 2016
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