How does Rick Astley handle one of his songs being part of the biggest internet meme of all time? He rolls with it, obviously.
“Listen, let’s face it, ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ has sort of become something else,” he says. “The video and the song have drifted off into the ether and become something else, and I’m ever so grateful for it.”
That song turns 35 this year and is still very much alive, buoyed by a second chapter as a gentle joke wherein someone baits you with an enticing online link, which points instead to the video for this 1987 dance-pop smash. It’s called Rickrolling.
Thirty-five years later, Astley is singing it this summer on tour with New Kids on the Block, Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue for the 57-date “The Mixtape Tour 2022.” A remastered version of his 1987 debut album also has been released featuring, of course, “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
“I’m never going to have a song as big as that ever, and I kind of knew that while it was happening. I kind of thought, ‘We’re never going to beat this.’ But I also kind of thought, ‘Well, how bad is that?’”
There has always been much more to Astley than just that song. After blowing up in the late 1980s, he left show business frustrated and has only recently reemerged with the strong albums “50” in 2016 and “Beautiful Life” in 2018.
“Often the second act can be more enjoyable because you’re more in control and you savor every minute,” said Alistair Norbury, president of repertoire and marketing at BMG UK, which signed Astley.
The passage of time — and the fact that Astley is such a sweet guy — has softened any sharpness. He says he understands how the past can look different with rose-colored glasses. Rock stars have lately told him they love his voice.
“And I’m like, ’Really? I thought you would have strung me up in the village square,” he says, laughing. “They probably would have done at the time, but I think over time, I think it just changes your perspective.”
Astley, 56, is the youngest of four who grew up near Manchester, England. His sister played a lot of progressive rock and adored David Bowie. A brother was a huge Queen fan, and he remembers Queen’s “Night at the Opera” album played on a loop. Astley soaked it all in, from Stevie Wonder to The Smiths.
He was in a band in school — they once performed “So Lonely” by The Police with Astley on drums and singing — that wiped the floor with rivals at a battle of the bands. He would go to gigs and dream of being a music star.
He remembers being astounded one day when he spotted the bass player of The Smiths walking through town. “This can happen?” he recalls thinking. “You can be from a town that I buy my records in but last week you were on ‘Top of the Pops?’”
Astley was only in his early 20s while recording his debut album, “Whenever You Need Somebody,” with the songwriting and record production trio known as Stock Aitken Waterman, who had crafted songs for Bananarama and Dead or Alive.
“I sold a lot of records. I was having a lot of hits, and then it was getting to a point where it’s like touch and go — how is this going to go now because you have to make another record?”
Burned out and frustrated, he walked away at 27. “I think I just didn’t have it in me. I just didn’t. I didn’t want to do it,” he says.
He admires pop stars like Madonna or Kylie Minogue for their longevity. “I actually don’t know how they’ve done it,” he says.
Being a pop star messes with your head and Astley says that happened to him, too. “I think my days were numbered anyway, but I think I just managed to get out before they threw me out, you know?” He didn’t perform for 15 years.
Unlike other pop stars, he hadn’t invested his ego in his looks or others’ perceptions. “I was never cool. I wasn’t cool when I had my hit records,” he says. Astley has nothing but compassion for those chewed up by the fame monster. “It must be unbelievably painful.”
Astley reemerged from self-exile in 2016 with “50,” named, with a hat-tip to Adele, for his age at the time, a strong album that veers from gospel to electro-funky.
Norbury recalls hearing the first few demos on the album and being impressed. He asked Astley’s manager who wrote them. The answer was “Rick Astley.” He asked who was the co-writer?” The answer was, “Nobody.” Who produced? “Rick.” Then who played all the instruments? “He played all the instruments.”
Norbury calls Astley “probably one of the hardest working people in this business and always does it with good humor and with a spirit of collaboration and partnership.”
Rickrolling started in 2007 — at the infancy of YouTube — and it confused Astley at the beginning. His song and video for “Never Gonna Give You Up” were being used as part of an internet bait-and-switch, but what did it mean?
“I was overthinking it and worrying about it and wondering what it was. And our daughter said to me — she was about 15 at the time — she just kind of said, ‘You do realize it’s got nothing to do with you?’” She also predicted: “There’ll be something else next week or tomorrow.”
“She was slightly wrong because it’s still kind of kicking around here and there,” says Astley. “But the sentiment of what she was saying was, I think, really, really valuable. I embrace my past, but I don’t have to embrace the Rickrolling thing in the same way because I accept the fact that it’s got nothing to do with me to some degree.”
The song has racked up 1.2 billion streams on YouTube and 559 million Spotify listens. Time Out magazine was always a little puzzled by Rickrolling, asking why anyone wouldn’t want to hear the buoyant megajam, saying it is “three and a half of the most effervescent minutes in the ’80s canon.”
Astley, of course, sees “Never Gonna Give You Up” differently than the people who use it to try to mess with friends. He acknowledges the video is “unbelievably late-’80s cheesy” but “it’s a good memory. It’s like a fond memory.”
For Astley, it is the song that led him to Copenhagen, where he met his wife, Lene Bausager. Without that song, he wouldn’t have his daughter or have traveled the world. “I’ve been to some of the most amazing places in the world that most people have on a bucket list.”
He thinks back to the days when he was a new artist looking up to established acts. Now he’s a seasoned pro with an arsenal of songs, including an instant crowd-pleaser.
“At the time, I was like green with envy and felt totally insecure and all the rest of it. Now, when I walk out on a stage and sing those songs, I just kind of think, ‘Yeah, how lucky am I? Ain’t that great?’”