OVER COFFEE in a smart London hotel, Rick Astley is explaining his antidote to middle age. “I still play in a band, with a couple of friends. We have a rock trio, we’re called the Luddites and it’s a midlife crisis band,” says the 50-year-old singer. But aside from performing with this three-piece, Astley has another solution for getting over the midlife hump — staging the pop comeback of the year.
In June, his album 50, poignant and entirely self-composed, went straight to number one. This was 29 years after his first LP, Whenever You Need Somebody, acquired global sales of some 15 million. It was also the culmination of a gradual re-emergence since Astley retired, wealthy but disillusioned, at only 27.
The industry’s surprise — that an artist who was formerly a product of Stock Aitken and Waterman’s manufactured Hits Factory (the training ground for Kylie Minogue and numerous others) could renew his shelf life so successfully — was palpable. Yet 50 has recently certified gold for 100,000 UK sales.
“You can’t really do it in sports, but in music, or to some degree in acting, you can go through those wilderness years when you’re not the leading man anymore, and at some point you can pull it round,” he says. “Now there’s people looking at what I’ve done going ‘Fair enough, good on you, rather than ‘Oh, there’s that tosspot again.'”
Astley, I soon learn, has a self-effacing sort of sense of humour. He’s attentive, too, and retains much of the boyish charm that put him on a million bedroom walls in the late ’80s. Fans from that time will be pleased to hear that he retains the Tintin quiff.
He arrived in the Stock Aitken Waterman camp as a songwriter but was promoted in the media at the time as the office teaboy made good. Indeed, he did make the tea, but only because he was good-naturedly waiting for his launch, in the queue behind less well-remembered acts as Mel & Kim and Dead or Alive. Then it went “bonkers,” and Astley had fun — but only for a while.
“I became proper famous, so if my mates said ‘Shall we go down the pub and have a pint?’ I’d have gone ‘OK,’ and it would just be bedlam. I got out of the habit of doing it, because we all knew it was pointless. I’d just stand in the corner with them trying to protect me.”
He can pinpoint the exact moment when he knew the treadmill had to stop. “We did this massive TV show in Germany, Wetten Dass,” he says. “We were there in the afternoon doing the camera checks, and that’s when I should have taken note, because I suddenly realised there was a camel in the studio. I was miming to some song, and it went from me to this camel. I just remember thinking ‘What are we actually doing?'” Astley still doesn’t know why the camel was there, but this surreal episode was enough to send him running.
Astley’s years with Stock, Aitken and Waterman were so relentless that there was no time for rivalry with labelmates. “I hardly ever saw them. I’ve met Kylie, I think, four times in my life. I’ve hung out with Jason Donovan, there’s a bond with him because there’s a bond with him, because what we both went through was a bit like getting your first job. The Bananas [Bananarama] I’ve got to know a little bit as well, because of doing gigs with them. But at the time, I didn’t really know any of them, because nobody was ever there [in the office].”
Astley is quick to draw a comparison between the respective impact of his own Svengali Pete Waterman and the industry’s current one, Simon Cowell, and has no issue with the pop legacy of either. If he was starting now, he says, he might well have gone the X Factor route: “I’m not saying I wouldn’t do that. If you put it against what Stock Aitken and Waterman were, it’s never really changed.
“Even if you go back to the Sixties there are similarities, when you look at someone like Brian Epstein. Every now and again, those shows are going to throw someone up who’s good.
Some might say these shows are damaging, chewing up and spitting out a conveyor belt of pop fodder, but Astley is quick to defend them and what they represent in our culture. “There’s nothing wrong with it, there’s no harm in it. I don’t think the people who go in for it get a terrible ride out of it.”
When Astley retired, to spend time with his film producer wife Lene and their daughter Emilie, the door was firmly closed. “It’s become a thing associated with me that I said ‘I’ve had enough, I’m off,’ rather than keep going and trying to have another hit.
“To me that was just common sense. It was like ‘I really don’t like doing this anymore, I don’t like the industry, I don’t like anything about it anymore,’ pretty much. Also because I’d made money, I didn’t have to do it. I’m not super-rich, I’m not Madonna rich or anything close to that, but I’d made enough money to at least have a barrier of comfort.”
In 2006, Astley began to play live again and, before long, the “Rickrolling” phenomenon emerged. Unwitting internet users found themselves “Rickrolled” when they thought they were clicking on something completely unrelated, but instead saw the video for ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ (his 1987 number one single), via a disguised hyperlink.
In July, a different sort of Rickrolling occurred when Ivana Trump, at a convention speech about her husband misquoted the hit, telling the audience that Donald would “never, ever give you up, and, most importantly, will never, ever let you down.”
“She didn’t say it word for word,” says the singer, “so I don’t know whether she just got a bit confused. The whole thing’s bizarre, but I’m OK with it. I find certain things that have been done with it make me giggle, even detaching myself from the fact that I’m the Rick in the Rickrolling,” he smiles wryly at inspiring a new verb.
This weekend, he is part of the 20th anniversary Proms in the Park, the Hyde Park celebration that accompanies the Last Night of the Proms, on a bill varied enough to accommodate James Galway, Tim Minchin, ABC and Frankie Valli. “I knew a lot of the tunes in the classical Proms, because my dad loved brass bands,” he explains.
“In fact, when I did [annual motoring festival] CarFest last week, the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band were on. My dad took all of us to see them when I was a kid, so we asked half a dozen of them to play with us on a cover of ‘Uptown Funk’. We’re going to have a choir in Hyde Park as well, because a lot of my new tunes have got a gospel thing going on.”
Thus Astley’s glorious lap of honour rolls on proving that, with a little humility, pop music doesn’t always have to be a young person’s game. “I’m not fooling myself, you have to have a record people can latch on to.
“But I also think there’s an unquantifiable something, and I think one of my unquantifiables is the fact that I’m 50 and I’ve had another go at it. I think the British public like people having another go.”
© Paul Sexton, Daily Telegraph, 9 September 2016