Rick Astley: The Jimmy Tarbuck Syndrome

Is ‘When I Fall In Love’ the vinyl voice of God? Or does it herald the golden age of the bathtub crooner? The apple of SAW’s eye, RICK ASTLEY, shares a sarnie and knoworrimean or two with NAT KING QUANTICK.

IN THE nice hotel, Rick Astley and me are getting well into the ham sandwiches and the orange juice. As we chomp, Rick’s manager, an affable uncle-like fellow called Tony, sits happily in the corner, ready to pounce lest I ask Rick about nervous breakdowns or sex. From time to time, Tony interrupts to praise Rick or producers Stock, Aitken And Waterman in a voice uncannily like that of Harry Corbett. This gives me the feeling that I am in fact interviewing Sooty.

It seems logical then that I should ask Rick, latest voice of the Stock Aitken And Waterman masterplan, if he feels like a puppet. Removing a fragment of cress from his stocky, genial features, Rick replies in the authentic accent of Newton-le-Willows.

“Nobody has actually called me a puppet in the press yet,” he says in a manner most unlike Barry White. “One of the reasons is I’m a bloke instead of a woman, which is a sexist thing, and one of the other reasons is me voice — other people tell me, anyway — rather than me being a good-looking git. The thing is, people don’t know much about me. Like, they’re doing an interview and they go, who’s he working with? Stock Aitken And Waterman, right... How old is he, 21? Oh, this is gonna be marvellous, innit?

“I’m not saying I’m very deep and very muso, ‘cos I’m not, but I don’t think I’m quite as puppetty as they think I’m gonna be. I just leave it up to them in the end. I’m biding me time… eventually I’ll have more say in the writing, perhaps write a few singles.”

Tony nods happily. What more could the manager of top C’n’W band Poacher possibly want? After all, it was Tony who discovered Rick, when Rick was 18 and singing in a Northern club group called FBI and the obvious talent in the band. So when Pete Waterman saw Rick shortly after — the most successful producer in Europe seeing your client and liking him! — Tony must have been jolly happy. Rick isn’t too displeased either.

“It was really good being in a band in some ways. We were doing exactly what we wanted, bugger anyone else… but it suddenly becomes apparent to you that you can either be someone like The Jesus And Mary Chain and say, I don’t really care — if we’re successful, brilliant, if we’re not, we’re not really interested — or you can say, what can I actually do?

“I enjoyed the band, but it’s easy to say that in the nice hotel with me fresh cut sandwich and that… It’s character building, there’s no substitute for playing the club circuit. I know it’s an old saying but at the end of the day, if you’re no good they’ll boo you off. And if you’ve played Widnes whatever club, doing the Roxy don’t frighten you, know what I mean? We’ve bin told to turn it down, ‘Geddoff! Don’t you know any real music’, stuff like that. We’ve played in front of five people, three of them were bar staff… The old rock’n’roll story…”

Rick pauses, the years unfolding behind him. He observes his fresh cut sandwiches and says, “I don’t wanna be in a band again; I wanna be surrounded by musos and do live shows, but… there’s too much heartache in being in band.”

A sandwich or two later, he adds, “I’m not saying I’ve sold out, but, you know, I’ve had an offer, and I’ve gone, bloody hell, it’s the people who had a hit wi’ that… I was 18 when I met ’em. North of England, didn’t know anything about the business. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

LET’S GET Faustian. To some it might seem that Rick Astley has made a dodgy deal. Fame, money and Smash Hits — it is written that a man may sell his soul for the world and yet gain nothing, but for a cover of ‘When I Fall In Love’… Rick is not daft.

“I think it would be quite easy to fall into a teenybop trap… Which I am in, anyway, but I don’t wanna call it a trap, ‘cos that’s where I wanna be, but it would have been all too easy to put ten ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’s on the LP… Well, there’s a few, but it’s not just ‘get up and dance girls’, y’know? But you can’t be 21 and sing pop songs and not appeal to teenyboppers, it’s unavoidable. I think ‘teenybop’ is a bit unfair, ‘cos the ones I’ve met, girls anyway, I’m not trying to credit them with intellectual deepness, but I don’t think they’re as teenybop as people make out. They say things like, er… what is it? Here we go… well, somebody says, the second single sounds too much like the first one, and a lot of people don’t give them credit for knowing that…”

Bright though these people sound, they possibly have not raised the issue of (it’s back again) Rick’s position in the House of SAW. For instance, did you know that Rick’s second single not only sounds like the first one, but it started life as an unsuccessful 45 for O’Chi Brown, and SAW merely recycled it for a few more bob?

Rick knows. Rick doesn’t care.

“It’s like a Motown thing,” he explains ambitiously. “They’re building a Motown. Fair enough, me second single wasn’t gonna be a flop, but it’s a good song. They say, if the song fits, do it…”

Rick has been made an offer he can’t refuse, and isn’t too worried about being perceived as an interchangeable head on Stock Aitken And Waterman’s pop body. Tony and Rick keep telling me how much faith Pete Waterman has in Rick, and how Rick is the big one for SAW.

“Pete believes in me ability to sing, and he wants to impress that on people rather than me as a good-looking lad who can sing and dance a bit, know what I mean?”

This is given as justification for the release of ‘When I Fall In Love’, a record that recalls the greatest work of Mike Yarwood rather than that of Nat King Cole. The thing that vexes me most about ‘When I Fall In Love’ is not so much that it’s a naff version of one of my favourite songs, but that it takes most performers 30 years to go from knocking out the chart hits to doing the cabaret routine. Rick Astley took six months. Luckily, he finds the business amusing.

“When Pete Waterman said I should do ‘When I Fall In Love’, I thought he was joking… Then I was dead pleased, I thought yeeeessss. Don’t take me wrong, I don’t want to be taken as deep or something, but it was so different to what I was doing before… I think it’s Pete Waterman at his best. He’s so extrovert and everything that it doesn’t surprise me. His initial idea was doing it with a piano, which is totally unStock, Aitken And Watermanlike.”

Nevertheless, it fits in with certain viewpoints. Like this one: Stock Aitken And Waterman are like the early ’60s managers, Larry Parnes et al, who gathered about them a stable of people, some talented, some not, gave them a bunch of similar songs, and churned out singles that could have been done by any of the acts (O’Chi Brown and Rick are one example; note also that Mel & Kim’s ‘Showing Out’ was first offered to Bananarama). Tony gets a tiny bit vexed.

“I think that comparison is a bit of a slur on Pete Waterman,” he chortles, “I was around in those days, and it was… a bit naff. Even talent didn’t come into it then, it was just, ‘Oh, you’re a good-looking lad, get up there and sing’.”

Rick is equally adamant. “I can see what you’re getting at, the Jimmy Tarbuck syndrome, but no, definitely not. I don’t even know how long me ambition to be in the public eye will last. I can see five more years, yeah, but I can see myself getting pissed off with it then… One thing I wanna do is live shows with a band, but that could take ages to set up. It wouldn’t be to sell the album, it’d be to confirm the fact that, yes folks, I can sing a bit, I can do this and I’m perhaps hoping to stay around a bit and this is a taste of what you’re gonna get on the second album. And if I do that, it’ll establish me as someone who’ll stay round as more than a one-album wonder…”

I seriously hope so. I like Rick Astley, I think he can sing, I reckon he’s a nice bloke and not totally daft, and I don’t think he’s got a long-term future as a Stock Aitken and Waterman act. Plus he’s a Smiths fan — “Everything about ’em is staggering” — and is droll enough to credit one of his LP songs to his Smash Hits alter ego, Dick Spatsley. If he promises to stop making duff Christmas singles, I will support him in his ultimate ambitions.

“For me,” muses Rick, “an ideal world would be to go and make the stuff, do a few videos, and no interviews. No disrespect to you, but I hate those interviews that go, what f—in’ underwear do you wear? I can do without that.”

It’s like David Cassidy is nearly twice Rick Astley’s age and he’s still a prat. Know what I mean?

© David QuantickNew Musical Express, 19 December 1987

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