Article on 50

Not long after the hit song that made his name, Rick Astley retired from music. Now he's back with a new album – but he never really went away

Hero image

Last month, a speech by Melania Trump at the Republican national convention resulted in an unexpected beneficiary: 1980s Newton-le-Willows pop star Rick Astley. In it, the prospective First Lady pledged of her presidential candidate husband Donald: “He will never give up and most importantly he will never let you down.” The result? A 19 per cent upsurge in streams on Spotify for Astley’s 1987 chart-topper Never Gonna Give You Up.

Offbeat moments like this have been commonplace over the last decade of Astley’s career. “I saw that,” he says of Trump’s accidental Rickroll. “But the thing is, I can’t get away from it because friends email me every few days about that song, saying: ‘Have you seen this?’ I’m like: ‘For one, I don’t actually care. And yes, I have seen it.’”

How does Astley feel about the possibility of Trump leading America? “Oh, that’s a difficult one,” he admits. “It does seem a bit bizarre that a guy with his reputation could end up becoming the leader of the most powerful country in the world – certainly the western world. But then again, what did we have with Bush Jr? What was he all about? That was a guy who read children’s books upside down and didn’t realise he was doing it when he was being told the Twin Towers had been hit. I don’t believe that one person at the head of it is actually making the decisions anyway.”

Besides, Astley is disenchanted. “You don’t know what to think anymore in politics. I mean, look at our own. It’s beyond farce. You couldn’t even write a TV comedy and put this in and have people believe it.”

“I was once in a remote Italian ski resort and signed two nuns’ Bibles.”

Despite his face appearing on countless young Remain protesters banners with the slogan “Never Gonna Give EU Up”, he recently confessed he “couldn’t be arsed” to vote either way for Brexit. “I’m not a big believer in politicians full stop, to be honest,” he says. “I tend to feel whatever happens, the people who are just keeping their bills paid and heads above water are always the people who are going to suffer. That’s the sad thing.”

The reason we’re talking to Astley today is because, in another unexpected career twist, he’s returned to the top of the charts after a gap of 29 years. Released in June, his comeback album 50 (his first since 2005’s Portrait), beat new efforts by Tom Odell and Paul McCartney to reach number one – and at the time of writing remains in the top 10. With its title a hat-tip to Adele, he recorded the album in a studio in the garden of the Richmond home he shares with his wife, Danish-born film producer Lene, who also manages him, to commemorate his fiftieth birthday. A collection of soul stompers that position him as Sam Smith’s dad – and a leftfield deviation into acid house – Astley claims it’s the most personal work he’s ever unleashed.

“It’s a bit nuts,” he says of the album’s success. “It’s hard to put perspective on it. Obviously I didn’t expect it. I made the record more for myself and the fans that have been putting things on Facebook like: ‘Do a new record, you lazy bugger.’”

Nearly 30 years ago, his quiff cast a huge shadow over pop. Discovered by handbag house trio Stock, Aitken and Waterman, he famously graduated from making tea for Dead or Alive, Bananarama and Mel and Kim to having his debut single, Never Gonna Give You Up, reaching number one in 26 different countries. He even asked “how many sugars?” to Simon Cowell, then trying to find a hit for Sinitta.

“I couldn’t go anywhere without being recognised,” he remembers “I was once in a remote Italian ski resort – high up in the mountains – and signed two nuns’ Bibles! I didn’t think that was even allowed. I was worried it might be some kind of sin or rule break!” By the time he retired in 1993, aged just 27, he had sold 40 million records worldwide.

In contrast to the unashamed Thatcherite glamour of the period, Astley’s charm rested on a boy-next-door anti-image. “I remember people telling me about glamour and excess – I never saw any of it,” he laughs, never anything less than a torrent of self-deprecation. “Even my bloody wife flew on Concorde – I didn’t! The most glamorous thing I’d do was have a private helicopter chartered so I could travel to a kids TV show and have the piss taken out of me by a puppet.

“It used to niggle me that people didn’t realise I’d written songs that had been top 10s in America. But Stock, Aitken and Waterman weren’t about credibility – they were about hit records. And thankfully they wrote me a couple of them that set me up for life.”

His exit from pop came after an emotional breakdown on the M4. “I developed a fear of flying and came to realise afterwards – after doing therapy over it and trying to work out what the hell was going on – I just didn’t want to be doing what I was doing anymore. I had to fly to New York and was on my way to the airport, and I just looked at my manager and said: ‘Do you know what? I just don’t think I can do this anymore.’

“To be honest, I had a few tears. I’m not embarrassed to admit that. I’m not the brightest tool in the shed, but I knew this was my career over.

“In pop music, if you have a break, you’re basically signing off – and I knew that. So I felt: I’m done, I’m finished, this is destroying me as a human being – and I care more about being a human being than a pop star.”

He considered becoming a hired-gun songwriter and had a studio built. He had a year of “decompressing” and trying to build a “normal life”, concentrating on being a dad to his now 24-year-old daughter Emilie. “Without me being an arse, I was proper famous at the end of my career. I couldn’t go into a pub or café without half or more of the people there pointing at me. It took time for that to disappear.”

He didn’t take to songwriting. “I was trying to write hit songs for what back in those days would have been a Britney Spears or whatever. I got disillusioned with trying to write songs for people I didn’t really think could sing. And Autotune arrived in the 1990s in a massive way. I used to find that depressing. Thankfully we’ve come through that now – the biggest artists in the world like Sam Smith and Adele are phenomenal singers. Even – dare I say it – in the late 1980s, pop went a bit naff, but now it’s cool again.”

He made enough money to avoid the Bermuda Triangle of reality TV that’s swallowed up some of his contemporaries. “I’ve no interest in being known just because I can survive a couple of months in a jungle. As an experiment, the idea of Big Brother is incredible, but it’s just turned into a bunfight. It’s a joke.”

And anyway, he’s gained an enviable cultural currency from Rickrolling, an internet phenomenon whereby users click on an ostensibly enticing link that redirects them to the Never Gonna Give You Up video, featuring Astley shuffling awkwardly in high trousers and a three-sizes-too-big Next suit jacket. Sports events, Scientology protests – it’s the meme that refuses to die. YouTube even got in on the game in 2008 by changing every video link on its homepage to a Rickroll. That same year, an online campaign resulted in his winning MTV’s surreal Best Act Ever award.

“To be honest, I don’t even acknowledge it anymore because I don’t mean to be an arse, but someone does something with that song on the internet almost on a weekly basis,” he shrugs. “The only ones I take notice of are the clever ones and the ones I like. For instance, the Foo Fighters had an ongoing fight with the [notoriously homophobic] Westboro Baptist Church in America, and Rickrolled them on the back of a pickup truck blaring that song out. To think the Foo Fighters – who I’m a fan of and actually cover in my mates’ midlife crisis charity band – even know who I am is funny to me.”

There’s a feeling that the tribute is affectionate: that Astley himself is in on the joke. “It’s [Rickolling] not really about me. I think they just needed a cheesy 1980s video. It lives on on the internet and that’s fine. And it hasn’t done me any harm, that’s for sure.”

Events took a potentially threatening turn last year. In the wake of last November’s Paris attacks that claimed 130 lives, the hacktivist collective Anonymous announced it was flooding all pro-Isis hashtags with Rickroll videos. Did Astley ever worry about his own safety? “To be honest with you, I don’t even want to talk about that because of exactly that. I think that one’s just best left alone.”

When Rickrolling took off, he harboured concerns about the effect it may have on his daughter, who studies art in Copenhagen and missed his early fame. “She didn’t grow up with me being famous. If I’m in Tesco or Marks and Spencer, no one bats an eyelid. I was worried about it embarrassing her but she’s been cool with it. And compared to families always in the limelight – like the Beckhams – she’s had it easy.”

Does he ever get sick of the immortal song? “When I quit, I definitely felt if I don’t hear Never Gonna Give You Up for a long time, that’s fine by me. But now it’s like a shield – it’s part of a suit of armour. Wherever I am in the world – even if they don’t like it – I know pretty much everyone in that room will know that song. I’ve grown to appreciate it rather than hate it. I empathise with artists that had a mega-hit and think ‘Oh God, here we go again’, but nearly 30 years later, it’s still massive – and I now love that.”

With a UK and US tour in the pipeline, Astley is enjoying every moment of his second wind. Asked if there will be another album, he’s healthily cynical – aware enough of the fickle weather-vane of public taste. “I’m thinking about it in my head a little bit. I think I’d like to think I’d make another record because it’s got my juices flowing. But I also think, being northern, I’m too much of realist. I worry: does lightning strike twice? And do I want to fail next time?

“I’ll probably have a better answer once the year has finished. Then again, I’ll probably say: ‘Oh bugger it, I’m retiring again.’”

50 is out now on BMG. Rick Astley’s 2017 tour starts on 16 March in Manchester (

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Article on 50

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.