Rick Astley interview: 'We were making pop songs – if you read the NME, you’d have thought we were criminals'

Rick Astley, photographed at home in Kingston-on-Thames
Rick Astley, photographed at home in Kingston-on-Thames Credit: RII SCHROER

Rick Astley celebrated his comeback with a mop and bucket. It was July 17 2016 and Astley’s album, 50, had improbably reached number one, the 1980s pop star’s first chart topper in 29 years.  

“It was pouring rain,” recalls Astley, who had been out doing promotional appearances with wife and manager, Lena Bausager. “We’re getting texts telling us we’ve done it, we’ve beaten the competition. It was unbelievable, just the idea that my name would be up there again ahead of big contemporary stars like Adele and Coldplay. And then we got home and the kitchen’s under four inches of water.”

Their roof had sprung a leak. So the Astleys “opened a really nice bottle of Italian red and mopped up,” he laughs. “It was like the universe going ‘don’t get too big for your boots.’”

Astley has enjoyed one of the unlikeliest revivals in pop history and he knows it. “I never felt l could own being a pop star and I still don’t, to be honest,” says the 52-year-old in his bluff, Lancashire accent. “Going back to the days of Smash Hits, pop stars did it with a lot of bravado, like 'f--- you, we’re Duran Duran, and we’re on the front of a yacht with models.’ And there’s me, this little Northern guy in a trench coat singing Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Discovered performing with a covers band at a cricket club disco by writing and production team Stock, Aitken & Waterman, Astley was 21 when his debut single topped charts all over the world. He went on to score a further 13 international hits, and sold over 40 million albums. Then he walked away from it all, in 1993, aged just 27.

Rick Astley in 1998 Credit: redferns

“I’d had enough. It was all business and no music. And I had a lot of inferiority complexes, which wasn’t helped by hanging out in trendy places where the waiters are better looking than the artists. You’d go to LA to do a TV show and get picked up by a driver who looked like a swimwear model. I don’t think I was chosen for my chin, to be fair. I was chosen because someone heard me sing in a club up North and thought we can make a record out of that.”

But another two decades on, Astley returned with an album he wrote, played and produced all by himself and saw it go to platinum in the UK. “I get emotional talking about it,” he admits, slapping his cheeks to stem welling tears. “Because it’s music, and it makes so many connections to things in my life.” 

Astley sits surrounded by instruments in his comfortably appointed, light-filled recording studio, converted from a garage at his home in Kingston-on-Thames. A striking open-plan kitchen adjoins, where his Scandinavian wife sits tapping at a laptop. In the sun-drenched garden, their 25-year-old daughter, Emilie (who has an MA), takes a dip in an open air swimming pool.

This is where Astley has written and recorded his follow up album, Beautiful Life (out Friday). “I can get really miserable and down about anything,” confesses Astley. “I’m a northerner, at the end of the day. I have to remind myself on quite a regular basis how lucky I’ve been. It is a beautiful life.”

Rick Astley at Kylie Minogue's 50th birthday party Credit: instagram

In May, he was at Kylie Minogue’s 50th birthday party, serenading her with Never Gonna Give You Up. Astley, Minogue and fellow guest Jason Donovan all recorded for Stock Aitken & Waterman (some of whom were also present) making brash, bright hits much reviled by critics in the 1980s and 1990s.

“We were having a cackle about the old days. Certain members of the press used to behave like we were doing the whole music scene an injustice. We were making pop songs, for f---’s sake. If you read the NME, you’d have thought we were criminals.”

The closing track of Astley’s new album, The Good Old Days, commemorates a childhood spent listening to his siblings’ records, obsessing over artists as diverse as prog rock star Rick Wakeman and indie icons The Smiths: “I grew up on some pretty weird music.” 

Astley was the youngest of four in a family badly shaken by divorce. “Home was a bit s---. My mum and dad’s relationship was awful. It’s just no way for people to be brought up.” As a child, Astley sang in a choir and played drums in bands. “Anything to get out of the house. I hate to be such a cliché but music was literally my escape.”

Yet eventually the fame his thick, soulful voice brought became so oppressive he felt impelled to quit. Was he set up for life, I wonder? “It depends what kind of life you want. If you want to drive a new Ferrari ever year, maybe not. But I made quite a bit of money in the 1980s and managed to keep a hold of a lot of it.”

It helped that Astley was involved in songwriting, composing album tracks and his own 1991 US number one ballad Cry For Help. “The music business is littered with people who were screwed over, who had it all and have got nothing now. Some managers are like vampires. I was lucky that I had people around who cared about me.” His relationship with his wife and daughter was crucial. “They’ve got much lighter hearts than I’ve got. They bring out the best in me.”

Astley returned to performing, sporadically, from the mid-2000s, often on Eighties nostalgia tours. “I didn’t see it as a comeback but I was enjoying singing again.”

But the internet phenomenon of rickrolling unexpectedly put him back in the mainstream in 2007. It was a nerdy viral prank that involved creating links to something tempting (trailers for new video games such as Grand Theft Auto or spoilers for popular TV series) that led, instead, to the cheesy 1987 video for Never Gonna Give You Up.

Dave Grohl and Rick Astley on stage in California Credit: Jeff Kravitz

Within a year, it was estimated that 18 million Americans had been rickrolled and government departments, sports teams and even the White House created versions of the prank. “It’s not like I could send a letter to the internet and say ‘please stop’,” notes Astley. Yet as rickrolling clocked up hundreds of millions of views it rekindled the interest of old fans and brought in new ones. 

Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters even rickrolled an audience at Tokyo’s Summer Sonic Festival last year, after spotting Astley watching from the side of the stage. “He walks over in the middle of a song, gives me a big hug and says, ‘I’m Dave’. I said, ‘I’m Rick’. He said, ‘I know!’ Half an hour later, a tech guy hands me a microphone and says ‘Dave wants you to come out and sing.’” 

Astley found himself performing a grunge version of Never Gonna Give You Up in front of 50,000 fans. Since then, he has sung with Foo Fighters four times, and includes one of their songs in his own set. Astley is a bit of a secret rocker at heart, playing drums in “mid-life crisis band” The Luddites. “I love being out front singing but I could have been very happy as a drummer.”

Fans might not concur. When The Luddites played a charity show at The Rose Theatre in Kingston, the venue received a letter of complaint. It read: “I came with the anticipation of seeing that nice Rick Astley and all I got was a rock band who swore at us and played nasty punk songs.”

Part of Astley’s motivation for writing and playing everything on his recent albums was to demonstrate that he is not just a nostalgic frontman for other people’s songs. But flush with renewed success, he is in no hurry to stop singing his biggest hit.

“When I was younger, Never Gonna Give You Up was just a pop song to me. Maybe I’m getting old and sentimental but when people come up and say ‘that was our wedding song’ it floors me now.” Tears well up again. “I’ve had a great life because of it. And I know what it means to have a special song that touches memories and rekindles emotions. It’s a privilege to sing it.”

Rick Astley’s Beautiful Life is out now