Rick Astley: How we made ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’

“One day I was making the tea for Bananarama. The next I was at No 1.”

Rick Astley, singer

I was the drummer in FBI, a jangly guitar band in Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire. After I started writing a few tunes, I became the singer. Pete Waterman, the producer, saw us at a showcase in a working men’s club in Warrington. He heard my voice and went: “I can make a record with that kid.”

I signed a deal, but within months Stock Aitken Waterman started having No 1s, so I was put on the backburner. Somebody — probably Pete — suggested I come and live in London so I wouldn’t get the hump and they could keep an eye on me. I lived in Pete’s flat. We’d go into the studio every morning and he’d be on his giant 80s mobile phone doing deals. I worked at the studio, making tea and sandwiches, but also watching how SAW made their records.

Usually, Pete would suggest a title and give Matt [Aitken] and Mike [Stock] an example of the sort of song he wanted. Matt normally played guitar and they both played keyboards really well. Pete wasn’t a musician but he was a DJ and knew what worked on the dancefloor. He’d go: “I can’t tell you why, but that bit’s wrong.”

They put out a single by me and Lisa Carter as Rick and Lisa, which didn’t do anything. Then they got a Fairlight synthesiser-sampler delivered. I helped them get it out of the box. I remember Mike inputting the chords to ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. I made the tea while their programmer, Ian Curnow, did the basic track. Mike sang the melody literally into my ear and I went in and sang it. He was a tough producer but he needed to be. I was a kid who’d sung in pubs and clubs.

We shot the video in an old church near London’s Westway. All the clothes in the video are my own. There were no stylists — I shoved some stuff in a bag. I really liked the song. I remember thinking: “I’d dance to that if it came on in a disco in Warrington.” I thought it sounded like a hit and suddenly it was. One day I was making the tea. The next I was at No 1.

Pete Waterman, songwriter, co-producer

I turned up at Monks Social Club in a silver Ferrari. I don’t think anyone in Warrington had seen a Ferrari before, never mind a silver one. I was ill with flu, so I said to the guy on the door: “I’ll do 20 minutes, then I’ve got to get to bed.” But I stopped to watch the gig. I thought Rick’s voice was outstanding. And he moved quirkily, too. He reminded me of Van Morrison.

I said to his manager: “Don’t like the band. Don’t like the song. I’ll sign the singer.” We put Rick on a Youth Opportunities Programme government training scheme. I wanted him to understand the music industry and be a real artist. He made the tea while the likes of Bananarama, Mel and Kim and Dead Or Alive made records, soaking it all up like a sponge. His voice was so strong that finding a song for him that worked was difficult. In some ways, he was actually too good.

I’d been going out with a woman called Gaynor for ages. One morning, I came off the phone after a long call to her and Rick quipped: “You’re never going to give her up.” It stuck in my mind. Shortly afterwards, we were in my Jaguar going to work and Tony Blackburn played a record by [American R&B singer] Sybil. The hi-hat pattern clicked in my head and suddenly I knew exactly what we were going to do. I went into the studio and said: “I’ve got a title and a song idea for Rick.” Matt and Mike did a lot of work on ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. We changed the key so Rick had to sing higher, and it worked. We mixed and mixed and mixed it. Then we promptly forgot all about it.

On Boxing Day that year, I was bored at home so I went into the studio. We pulled out Rick’s track and did a new version but forgot about that as well. Then one day someone played it in a meeting and everyone went: “What is this?” And the rest is history.

It went to No 1 in every country, including America. Because he looked so young, people thought it wasn’t actually him singing — Radio 1 rang him up in a hotel in Scotland and made him sing it in the bathroom.

© Dave SimpsonThe Guardian, 23 March 2020

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