Rick Astley interview: ‘Being an Eighties pop star was like being a travelling salesman’

·16-min read
'Vintage wine is the wine to be drinking': Rick Astley
'Vintage wine is the wine to be drinking': Rick Astley

The end of Rick Astley's pop dream, when it came, was sudden, tearful, traumatic and probably in contravention of a fair few articles of the Highway Code.

Since gate-crashing the UK charts in 1987 with Never Gonna Give You Up, the Stock, Aitken and Waterman protégé usually portrayed as a studio teaboy-done-good had worked non-stop. The single was Number One here, in America and in 23 other international territories.

In the US, in fact, “we had a couple right off the bat,” he says now, deploying not the royal “we” but the solo artist “we”, recognising that his achievements were the result of teamwork. He’s referring to 1988’s Billboard #1 Together Forever, although the youngster from Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire missed out on the transatlantic double-double courtesy of fellow SAW artist Kylie Minogue – her single I Should Be So Lucky denied Astley a second and companion UK chart-topper.

As the singer and main songwriter with his name on the posters and concert venue awnings, he did all the legwork – and it paid off. There followed a dozen Top 30 hits around the world. By 1993, the smalltown kid with the big-time pipes had sold some 40 million records.

But that year also brought a different kind of hit. By that time in Astley’s truly international career he’d endured “quite a few” bad flights, and his stress levels had “just been building up and building up”. Then came a flight home from Berlin, which involved an abortive take-off and/or landing (his memory is, not unreasonably, clouded) and was generally “pretty s_____. And as we were landing I was clutching these magazines so tightly I was almost putting holes in them. And I threw them on the floor of the plane, and something in me went: ‘I’m done.’

“I didn’t say anything at the time. But a day or so after, we had to go to New York, to appear on a big TV show, which was possibly going to help the album at that time start [selling]. And we’re on the M4 on our way to Heathrow, and I’m thinking: ‘If I get on this flight, I’m not coming home. The plane won’t make it, I won’t make it, that’ll be it.’

“And as I’m computing this, I’m also saying to myself: ‘Well, if you’re that frightened, why are you doing it?’ So I turned to my tour manager and said, ‘I can’t do this’, and I got the driver to pull over on the hard shoulder and got out. Which was a bit weird!” he smiles ruefully. “But I was crying a bit as well.”

Clear-eyed as ever, even in the midst of his torment Astley could see how this would play out professionally with the record company: “You can’t do this anymore? OK, well f___ off then!”

To be legally clear, “they didn’t quite do it like that!” he laughs. “And through lawyers we did a whole thing where they said: ‘Yeah, fine, you can go, we don’t owe you anything, blah blah, whatever…’ But the point is, the emotion of it was, I knew: if you do this now, you’re probably not gonna get another go. Because I’d be known as that artist who can’t be relied on.

“So I kinda knew that was gonna be me, saying goodbye to it. But to be brutally honest, I wasn’t at the peak of my career. I wasn’t anywhere near it. I was hanging on, trying to see if we could have another hit record.”

“It’s a very unforgiving business, the music business,” the 54-year-old exhales. “It’s amazing and incredible and I count myself unbelievably fortunate. But I was also lucky in the sense that I’d begun to have had enough of it, round the time it and everybody had had enough of me.

Rick Astley performing at the BPI Awards, 1986 - Getty
Rick Astley performing at the BPI Awards, 1986 - Getty

“So it was quite nice to go, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’, and for them to say: ‘Well, that’s good, because we’ve got to give you a fortune to make another record, and we’re not sure we’d have a hit with it anyway.’ So we were able to shake hands, leave, and walk out the back door.”

And that was it. Rick Astley was done. At the age of 27 he retired from the music business. Emotionally relieved, not to mention financially secure, he never looked back. Not for a couple of decades or so, at least.

I’m putting words into his mouth here, but Rick Astley has had a good lockdown, quasi-lockdown and whatever state of suspended in-animation we’re in the by the time you read this.

Like many of us, there were chunks of time spent “sat on my arse watching Netflix”. When the musician wasn’t drinking in front of the telly at his home near Hampton Court near Richmond, southwest London, he was out at the pub, managing his involvement in a pair of London brew-pubs run by Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, founder of Denmark’s Mikkeller Brewery.

That partnership is both financial and, ah, creative. Astley now has three beers he’s helped develop: a pilsner called Astley’s Northern Hop, a sessionable “London lager” and an amber ale. Then there’s “Rick’s Spontan”. It’s prominently advertised on the blackboard in the newest of those pubs, Mikkeller Brewpub in Exmouth Market, in Clerkenwell, east London, which is where I’ve met Astley today.

“You can try it,” says Astley, “but it’s really sour.  I’m not a beer geek or freak, I’m really not. We kinda fell into it,” he says, referring to his Danish wife, Lene. As well as being his business partner in the restaurant-pubs, she’s also his manager.

Rick Astley outside the London brewpub in which hes an investor
Rick Astley outside the London brewpub in which hes an investor

“And we just like the guys,” he continues, referring to the owner and his brewer buddies. “It reminds me of hanging out with road crew and musicians. They’ll talk about a f______ snare drum for hours – and these guys will do the same with hops. And there’s a bit of a camaraderie in it, too.”

The past six months have also seen him “in the studio a bit”, the long-tail dividend of a remarkable comeback for Eighties pop’s boy wonder that began with his chart-topping 2016 album 50, titled after his age at the time. Although, going by the Dorian Gray-ish looks of him (quiff? Check. Cheering boy-next-door face and demeanour? Double-check. Swearily relaxed Lancastrian chat? That as well) it would more appropriately have been called 40.

One of those studio projects is an updated version of his song Every One of Us. It was originally the lead track on last year’s The Best Of Me, freshly written for the greatest hits set. But a producer friend realised the embracing and inclusive lyrical sentiment made it the perfect Children In Need charity song to accompany the Unsung Hero Award, a category in December’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards.

Astley has filmed a new video, which features cameos from sports stars including Gabby Logan, Alex Scott, Gareth Thomas and Tanni Grey-Thompson, and from actual heroes like Captain Tom Moore and various unsung volunteers who, according to the organisers, have “made a big difference in their local community through sport during Covid 19”.

Astley is firmly behind the cause, “because over the last six months there’s an awful lot of people doing things in the background who are never gonna get any credit for it. And obviously, thankfully, the NHS have been recognised a bit. Whether that will die down and every one will just forget again, I don’t know. But as far as I’m concerned, people who work in that world need to be paid more and looked after more…"

Astley has also found time to “build something in the back garden”. A fancy shed? “Get in,” he begins with relish, rubbing his hands together. “It’s basically just a roof – it’s quite big, though – and an area to sit in. It could be a pergola, but a pergola doesn’t have a roof. No, it’s just a roof. I’m not getting above myself. But it does have some chunky wood going on.”

He taught himself via YouTube, and drew on the skills learnt at the knee of his dad, who had a garden centre. “There were always tools hanging about, and if something needed cutting off or bolting together, one of us just did it,” says this youngest of four. “I’ve always said – and I might still do it – I’d like to make furniture out of wood. I’d like to have those skills. I think it’s nice to get your hands dirty sometimes.”

That said, Rick Astley has long been vocal about an unhappy childhood, and how music was his escape route. “I wanted to get out of Newton. I wanted to get out of the home I was in ’cause mum and dad split up when I was very young. It wasn’t a great atmosphere to be in. I just wanted to be out and doing something else. And as I got to being a teenager, I thought: I really wanna be out of this. I just don’t wanna be here anymore.”

Spotted performing locally by music producer Pete Waterman, he moved to London and quickly became a star of the SAW label. He has fond memories of the pop promotion carousel, notably performing on Top of the Pops and the musical riches thereon.

“You’d have Def Leppard on, maybe a U2 video, and someone like myself, just doing an out-and-out pop song, no doubt about it, stand in front of the mic and mime, done. Then there might be The Cure or Depeche Mode. The Smiths were on a lot! I think Morrissey thought that was kitsch and ironic.

“So I’m not saying music generally was more eclectic then – but what got in the mainstream Top 20 was. The Top 20 today is very, very urban. Rap has now just become part of the mainstream of music, hasn’t it? Whereas then, records were bonkers-ly different, but they were all in that Top 20. Def Leppard were actually on the show the first time I did it.”

He knows this because a crew from BBC Look North accompanied him to the studios, for “local lad makes good” news item. “And they interviewed a few people who were on it, like the presenters, and Joe Elliott from Def Leppard. And when it was on telly, my dad was like: ‘Oh aye, that Jeff Leppard knows what he’s talking about.’”

In the ultra-commercial environment of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman trio’s hit factory, competition came from his stablemates – the aforesaid Kylie, “big time”, and also her fellow Neighbours graduate, Jason Donovan. But Astley soon outstripped them.

“A friend of mine never lets me forget that, either with a single or an album, I kept U2 off the top of the charts. Whenever they’re in the news, he texts me: ‘…and you kept them off Number One!’ I find it quite funny that he’s still thinking: ‘You wanker, Rick.’ Although I think he’s proud of me in a way, too.”

Internationally, things were no less intense for a singer still in his mid-twenties. “What I didn’t realise was, they had the same kind of shows as us. You get used to Ant and Dec – that’s just normal TV. So [when you go abroad] it’s just another mad weekend TV show. And someone from the Italian label goes: ‘16 million people watch this every weekend!’ And some of those shows went on for four or five hours! They’d start at four in the afternoon on Sunday and just go on for ages.

“So when you get to Italy, and you don’t speak the language, you’re singing – then there’s someone juggling next to a camel. Then they go in Italian: ‘And here’s Rod Stewart!’”

It was a different kind of intensity in America. There, his US TV promo woman was all over him. “She’d say: ‘I love it when you come over.’ ‘Oh, thank you…’ ‘No, no, no: because I can get you on anything!’

“And that’s because she could book me on breakfast TV, on a talk thing, on late night with whoever… Anything. Because I wasn’t offensive. There was no chance of, hang on a minute, we’re about to start talking about sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. She could get me on a show, they’d have me singing, sitting on the sofa… ‘and now… pancakes.’ Which was amazing for me, but it did also mean you never stopped.”

Rick Astley on stage with Mary Berry at Camp Bestival in 2018
Rick Astley on stage with Mary Berry at Camp Bestival in 2018

The promo woman in Copenhagen also loved him. So much so that they were married – he and Lene have now been together for 31 years. As a record company wingwoman, tasked with sorting out his visits to the Danish Top of the Tops, Lene was a calming, reassuring presence.

That would be something Astley came to rely on in ways he could never have envisaged – and luckily, it was mirrored by what pretty much amounted to his entourage: a tour manager who became his manager, “and a bit of a surrogate father and a best friend – and my best man.

“We actually did have a lot of fun together. But he’s never drank in his life, never smoked, obviously not done drugs. Some people could look at that and think: ‘How boring.’ But while it’s a bit over the top to say he saved my life, I definitely think he saved me from a lot of shit, I really do.

“Because if I’d have been travelling with somebody who was like: ‘Right, we’re done,’” he says with a clap of his hands, “‘let’s get down the bar and [whistle and wink] see what’s happening…’ – I might have had more fun, who knows?” he smiles. “But I also genuinely think, even under the constraints of what we had going on, it probably would have finished me off.

Astley is self-aware enough to know how this reads and looks. “It’s probably a bit boring for people to read that, how tiring it was to be a pop star in the Eighties. But it was, because it wasn’t what people think it was. You were a travelling salesman ­– you’d rush into town, try and sell your wares to as many people as possible, [then move on]. I didn’t feel like that at the time, but in retrospect, that’s what it was.”

Rick Astley, second from right, as Joseph in a school nativity, aged 5
Rick Astley, second from right, as Joseph in a school nativity, aged 5

So, yes, he’s forever grateful to his former manager, who goes by the name of Tops. “I think without him, I might not have come out with any money, for one thing. I know it’s crass to talk about money, but I don’t think it’s crass at all. I’m f______ grateful.”

And then, six years after he’d started, Rick Astley was done. The hits were proving more elusive. The travelling was killing him. He and Lene had had their daughter. He’d earned enough to retire by 27, so why not do just that?

He remained in happy obscurity for much of much of the next 20 years. Then, around 2007, just as he was starting to gig again, the phenomenon known as Rickrolling took off. All across the internet, pranksters fiddled with the hyperlinks for a wide variety of topics, so that every single one led to the video for Never Gonna Give You Up.

And they’re still at it now, it seems. On Astley’s current Wikipedia entry, some wag attributes to him the writing of a 2009 Time magazine article about a character called “moot”. “Yeah, he’s the guy who’s meant to have invented Rickrolling.”

An American born Christopher Poole, “moot” also invented the anonymous messageboard 4chan. “Well, there you go. It is weird, all of that. Obviously I’m super-aware of it, because I can’t not be – every friend I’ve got, wherever they are in the world, they go: ‘Have you seen this?’ So it’s just a bit mad.

“And I don’t know how other artists would react to it. Let’s say Nik Kershaw – I’m friends with Nik, we’ve hung out at gigs, got a bit too drunk here and there, and I really respect him as a songwriter and musician. But if someone had done that to Wouldn’t It Be Good?, I don’t know what he would think of it.

“Because I’m not kidding, it is absolutely ridiculous. Now everybody knows that song, from the age of four or five, up to, well, close to death. It was a popular enough tune in its day, a Number One right round the world, and I think it stood the test of time. But with Rickrolling…” He exhales. “I dunno. It’s weird,” he repeats.

He certainly doesn’t see it as a piece of malicious trolling. Equally, he’s not going to credit it with the success of his comeback, “but I’m sure it’s not done any harm… I just see it as a tool, an amazing thing, that can only have done me good.”

Now, 32 years on from his breakthrough, Rick Astley is firmly back, and pursuing what we might call a tripartisan career: craft beer artisan, active current musician and also retro star. He nods as if to say: fair play.

“I think, to be honest, there’s an element of retro in everything I ever do!” he observes gamely. “It doesn’t matter if I’ve just had an album out of new music that’s done well – I’m also going to play a load of songs that are retro!

“It’s funny," he says. "If you use the term ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ about furniture or clothes or cars, it’s great. But if it’s music, the response is: ‘Ooh, do I want to be doing that?’ But vintage wine is the wine to be drinking!”

Rick Astley – level-head, devotedly married and delighted with this multi-faceted lot – will happily embrace it all. And possibly dance the Astley Northern Hop to celebrate.

“Age is a weird thing,” he reflects. He’s a fixture on the Eighties revival circuit, as exemplified by the Rewind festivals, “where there’s a huge big line-up of people whose records I bought, and I find that a bit odd. I’m sat backstage on top of Mark King from Level 42’s flight case for his bass amps! That is odd, and it’s lovely, amazing and great. But it’s a privilege, too.”

Every One of Us By Rick Astley and The Unsung Heroes is out now. The BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards are on December 20. mikkeller. com

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