Headed back to town for the first time in nearly twenty years, I spoke with British singer songwriter, and 80s pop star, Rick Astley about embracing rickrolling, cultivating a friendship on stage with the Foo Fighters, his latest studio album 50 and much more...
Just last week, the creators and cast of HBO's hit series Westworld took full advantage of the show's fervent online following.
They promised fans a potential season two spoiler video if a Reddit post received 1,000 upvotes. It seemed too good to be true and, of course, the post quickly hit that mark.
True to their word, a twenty-five minute season two primer video was uploaded. The video, however, quickly moved from stars Jeffrey Wright and Evan Rachel Wood to the familiar sound of one of 1987's biggest pop hits: Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up."
A week before that, Inside Edition told the story of a California man who took a chance on purchasing a homemade VHS tape at a thrift store sporting a bizarrely handwritten label reading only "A SURPRISE." What could the creepy cassette possibly contain? Why the familiar video to one of 1987's biggest pop hits of course: Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up."
Suffice it to say more than a decade after its first reported occurrence, the art of the rickroll continues unabated.
HarperCollins, in the Collins English Dictionary, defines rickrolling as "the playfully pointless practice of performing or playing the song ‘Never Gonna Give You Up,’ by the British singer Rick Astley, to a person or group of people either at a public event or online by means of a disguised hyperlink."
That they were forced to define it at all is evidence of the fact that rickrolling stands as one of the stranger internet phenomena of the last twenty years.
As a result of more than a decade of it, the official "Never Gonna Give You Up" video is closing in on a half billion views on YouTube while the song has been streamed over 135 million times on Spotify.
Recorded on New Year's Day 1987, "Never Gonna Give You Up" went on to reach the top of the chart in twenty five countries. But, only six years later, at the age of just 27, Astley retired in 1993.
Alternative music was crossing over to the main stream and the angst fueled sound of grunge bands, like Nirvana, swept aside Astley's generation of polished 80s pop stars virtually overnight.
Ultimately, though it was difficult to embrace initially, rickrolling has provided Rick Astley with an unlikely second act.
"Our daughter was about 15 at the time and she said to me, 'Just remember it’s got nothing to do with you. This could’ve been anybody... Don’t take it to heart. Don’t get upset,'" Astley explained. "And I thought, 'My god, this is a 15 year old talking.' But she’s more of the internet generation than I am, that’s for sure."
With his 50th birthday looming on the horizon, Astley started writing songs again and began performing live. And in June of 2016 he released his eighth studio album 50. A playful nod in the direction of Adele's age titled albums, 50 saw Astley writing the songs, playing every instrument and producing each song for the first time. It's an album he completed on his own, in his home studio, and shopped to labels as a finished product free of manipulation or expectation.
"I just wanted to mark being 50 and say, 'Well… That’s what I’m capable of,'" Astley said. 50 reached unthinkable success in his U.K. home, becoming his first #1 album since the 1987 debut and going platinum in the process.
Performing at festivals throughout Europe has given him the opportunity to share the stage with some unlikely contemporary acts - perhaps none more surprising than the Foo Fighters, who've now made it a regular "giggle," as Astley put it, of inviting him to the stage to handle vocals on a "Never Gonna Give You Up" / "Smells Like Teen Spirit" mashup.
The irony of performing that song together with a member of Nirvana (Foo Fighters frontman, Dave Grohl) fifteen years after his retirement isn't lost on him. "Listen, believe me… The word 'ironic' doesn’t really sum it up I don’t think," Astley said.
I spoke with Rick Astley about his first performance in Chicago since 1989, his unofficial status as "the 7th Foo Fighter," rickrolling, surviving the music industry, work on another new album and much more. A lightly edited transcript of that phone conversation follows below...
Q. As best I could tell via a very unscientific search of the internet - so please feel free to let me know if this is wrong - your last stop in the Chicagoland area was at the now defunct Poplar Creek Music Theatre on September 14, 1989. With Martika. Does that sound like it could be correct? How does it feel to be headed back to Chicago?
Rick Astley: (Laughing) That’s probably, right. Yeah.
You know what? It’s kind of bizarre, really. Because I think if you would’ve asked me if I would’ve been doing gigs in the States in my 50s – if you had asked me that back in the day - I’m not too sure I would’ve thought that I would’ve been.
It’s really kind of weird. I retired for fifteen years. I hadn’t been singing those songs. I don’t sing them in the shower, contrary to many people’s thoughts and beliefs. So, to be honest, it’s a bit of a ride for me. I never thought I’d be doing it. It’s pretty cool.
I'm just looking forward to coming to Chicago and hanging out there. I think we’ve got a day off there, thank heavens. So we’ll get to have a decent dinner and some down time, maybe go and see a local band. I’m looking forward to it.
And, on the subject of Martika, by the way, I actually met her again about two years ago. Because I did a couple of gigs down in Chile. I’ve been to Chile a few times and she was actually on the lineup one night! And that was just amazing. Because I hadn’t seen her in all those years. So it was really nice. It was great. And that was the first gig she’d done in a very, very long time. It was really nice. It was bizarre.
I’ve been really lucky, I think, in terms of sort of my early records and career, if you want to call it that, that I’ve actually been surrounded by some good people... I came out of it with some money for god’s sake. Not everyone can say that. And that’s because I had some decent human beings around me.
Q. I've heard you say that even as your success continued to swell at home in the U.K., it was always very important to you to break in America. Was there a moment where it hit you that was starting to happen?
RA: I think it’s really difficult.
Because, if you look at the history of the U.K. and the U.S.A., and how it sort of feeds each other a little bit – obviously, we’ve had so many great records and artists sort of come and conquer the U.K. from America and what have you. Though obviously we’ve thrown you a few over the years and decades. I think us in the U.K., we kind of love when a British act does well in the States. Because we know how difficult it is and how big it is.
I think when you go there a couple times, as I did early on, you suddenly realize why it’s so hard; it’s enormous! It’s huge. To actually get on the radio properly… it’s just nuts. Whereas, here in the U.K., you can drive from one end of the country to the other in a day. So you can go and be on most TV shows in a week. And do all the radio. It’s just a different animal, the States. But I think that’s also why we love it - because it’s so diverse.
If you look at country music, for instance… We love country music in [England]. And certain country artists do well here. But not in the way that you have it [in America]. It’s just a world unto itself.
So I think most people from here, we loving coming to America. I certainly do. I think it’s just one of those places you want to be in your life and play. It’s where a lot of my favorite artists came from, you know?
Q. You had that massive success here. Then there was the vitriolic response to that, in America in particular, as something like grunge music made your generation of pop stars targets of derision almost overnight in the early to mid 90s. But then the tide turned again in the last ten years. Did you ever expect to see that day when those songs would be embraced again in America?
RA: It’s really difficult isn’t it? Because people just get so sick of something.
And I can understand that. I can even relate to it to be honest. Believe me, back in the day, I heard, and sang, and what have you, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” “Together Forever,” and a few of the others… I heard them a lot! You know what I mean? And I think sometimes you need a break from it. And I can totally relate to the audience, or just the listening public, they get sick of a certain artist or a certain song because they just get it rammed down their throat. I think to come full circle and have people sort of, sometimes even from a nostalgia point of view, say, “No, we’re ready to hear those songs again!” [is great].
I think it’s also got a lot to do with the fact that people don’t age in the way that they used to. People used to get to a certain age in life and say, “Well, I’m done. I don’t go to gigs anymore. I don’t do this anymore. I don’t go partying anymore.” Well, the gloves are off big time. People are going into certain decades now and carrying on, behaving just like they were still in their 20s almost.
And you see that at festivals. You see a massive age group – a total, wide age group – at certain festivals. Some of them are young obviously. But certain ones are just right down the middle and they’ve got everyone going.
I think it’s hard to kind of look at your own songs as well and try and work out if there’s anything left in them and if anybody’s interested anymore.
Q. You've joined the Foo Fighters now a couple of times to perform "Never Gonna Give You Up." Dave Grohl has even referred to you as the "7th Foo Fighter." But did it ever seem ironic to be on stage playing that song with a member of Nirvana?
RA: Listen, believe me… The word “ironic” doesn’t really sum it up I don’t think.
I like the Foo Fighters a lot. I’m a bit of a closet rock fan. I play drums in a little rock band with some friends. It’s a mid-life crisis but it’s ok, we don’t do anyone any harm. It’s all good.
But I think if you listen to their last album – and some of the other ones – their threads of love of music is quite wide I think. Obviously, you can hear a bit of Beatles coming in at times and what have you. They’ve gone on record, many times, as saying they’re massive Queen fans and lots of different artists. I just think some of the projects they’ve done over the years as well, you can see that it’s like a genuine fascination of all kinds.
And, if you look at the different individual members, they kind of all have their own bands and they go off and make a record. Christopher [Shiflett] goes off and sort of does these kind of like Morrissey country songs – not country, but in the vibe and all of that. They just love music. So, I think, for them, it was just a bit of a giggle.
And talk about being nice guys and being gracious about it and everything. My god. For me, it was just an absolute ball. It was absolutely amazing. And I was scared shitless if I’m honest as well. But it was also absolutely amazing.
Because I’d never met them! It’s not like we’d had a few drinks in the bar on the first night of the festival and then what have you. No. I just did my set, went and had a half hour’s sleep – because we were still really jet lagged because we had been in Japan – and then I’m on the side of the stage watching one of my favorite bands and just getting off on it with my band and my friends and what have you. The next minute, I’m on stage and Dave’s whispering in my ear, “We’re doing ‘Never Gonna You Up,’ your tune. But we’re doing it like, ‘Teen Spirit.’” And I’m like, “Ok then… Let’s go!”
But hats off to them for doing it, you know what I mean? It’s like, they don’t need to do that! And they don’t need to be that all encompassing I don’t think.
But I just think they love music and they love playing. So it’s cool.
Q. "Pray With Me," off your new album 50, is a song about faith. And I've heard you say that while you're not an overly religious person, you have faith in people. You work in an industry that tends to put people through the ringer. How important is just that general idea of faith to you and do you feel like you were ever in danger of losing yours?
RA: Yeah. But I do have faith in people to be honest.
I’ve been really lucky, I think, in terms of sort of my early records and career, if you want to call it that, that I’ve actually been surrounded by some good people. I came out of it sane. I came out of it drug free. I came out of it with some money for god’s sake. Not everyone can say that. And that’s because I had some decent human beings around me.
And I think since gigging again – starting again maybe ten years ago – I think I’ve sort of reached a point where when I sing certain songs, I can appreciate what music means to people. Because of the memories that it has for me. And I can see the memories in their faces.
You start a song like, “Never Gonna Give You Up” or “Together Forever,” or one of the big early ones, and those people remember what it’s like to be 15 again. Or 21 again. Or whatever it was. The songs sort of create a camaraderie, or some kind of connection within music, that you can’t really repeat or kind of… I don’t know, really. You get it with movies sometimes but it’s just not the same connectivity I don’t think. Music just takes you back instantly.
It’s not a religious experience being on stage – I don’t mean it like that. But there’s a real connection I think with an audience. And that’s great. It just reminds you that we are all human and we all need to kind of embrace something together sometimes. And music’s a good way of doing that.
It just reminds you that we are all human and we all need to kind of embrace something together sometimes. And music’s a good way of doing that.
Q. With 50, you finished that album and presented it to labels - as opposed to presenting the idea for it first and risking the possibility of a label trying to manipulate both process and product, right? You wrote, played and produced every note. What was it like to handle an album in that way? I'm assuming that was a first for you...
RA: It was. And, to be honest, I wasn’t doing it with the idea of releasing it with a proper record label either. I did it to mark my 50th birthday thinking I might release it in a very small way just for a few fans here and there.
I just wanted to mark being 50 and say, “Well… That’s what I’m capable of.” So it grew from just writing some songs, to demoing them, to kind of finishing them. And, I guess, at that point, I sort of thought, “I’m just going to do it myself and say, ‘This is what I’m capable of. This is what I have to offer.” And that felt really good.
And I actually just made another new record. I don’t know exactly when that’ll come out but hopefully some time this year. I just really enjoy doing it. I think next time – if there is a next time – I probably will do it with other people I think. Because it’s quite a solitary thing just to do it on your own sometimes. Sometimes, it’s nice to have someone to bounce things off.
But I think technology has changed everything in terms of recordings. You can actually go and do things that you couldn’t do years ago. I’m not someone who stands up in a band and just starts playing any song you’ve ever heard. But in a very small, dark room in the back of my house, I can make a record. And that’s what I’m doing.
Q. Your ability to handle "rickrolling" in such a positive manner really fascinates me. Was it ever difficult to embrace that?
RA: I think that’s the thing: I probably was quite reserved about it.
Our daughter was about 15 at the time and she said to me, “Just remember it’s got nothing to do with you. This could’ve been anybody. Somebody just chose a video. It just happened to be you. Don’t take it to heart. Don’t get upset.” And I thought, “My god, this is a 15 year old talking.” But she’s more of the internet generation than I am, that’s for sure.
I never really tried to use it. I’ve done one or two things with it that probably benefited me and what have you. But, generally speaking, I just let it do what it does.
You can’t fight it, that’s the other thing – you can’t try and stop it. So why not just let it do it’s thing?
And I think there’s been an element of people kind of letting me off the hook a little bit because I haven’t sort of jumped on the bandwagon and released an album called, “Roll With It.” You know what I mean?
I just let it do it’s thing and just say, “Well, I’ll take the benefits if there are any. And if there aren’t? That’s cool.”
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Wednesday's Rick Astley show below)
Wednesday, April 25, 2018
House of Blues
Doors open at 6:30PM
Show starts at 8PM
17 and older
Click HERE to purchase tickets