Roll with it: 35 years later, Rick Astley explains why he was never 'one of the cool kids' and why he never gave up
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been a beloved holiday tradition for nearly a century, but surely the most awesome meta-moment in its history happened back in 2008, when the parade got “Rickrolled” by none other than Rick Astley himself. The once-reclusive British pop star, who’d for the most part retired at age 27 after suffering a quarter-life crisis of sorts, was experiencing an unexpected resurgence thanks to “Rickrolling” — a bait-and-switch meme that internet pranksters employed to dupe people into clicking on hyperlinks to Astley’s music video for “Never Gonna Give You Up.” But Astley was having the last laugh.
As Astley bumrushed the Cartoon Network’s float, interrupting the puppet cast of Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends with the screech of a turntable needle and then crooning his massive signature song, he orchestrated the ultimate Rickroll, seized control of his narrative, and created his own entirely self-aware viral moment. And his career has gone from strength to strength ever since.
The singer, who's celebrating the 35th anniversary of "Never Gonna Give You Up" this week, tells Yahoo Entertainment he was unfamiliar with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, so when he got the call from the Cartoon Network, he rang up some of his American friends to ask if he should accept the offer. “Every single one of them screamed down the phone to me,” he recalls. “They said, ‘You have to do this!’ So, I went out and Rickrolled the Macy's Parade. It was a bit bizarre, to be honest, in lots of ways. I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ But listen, don't get me wrong: I got paid a bunch of money to do it. I'm honest enough to admit that. I've tried really hard not to embrace the Rickrolling thing, but, to be crude about it, there have been times when people have just offered me so much money. And maybe I had a leaky roof that week or whatever, so I've just gone, ‘Oh, f*** it.’”
Astley explains that he's tried not to capitalize on his unexpected internet fame too much “because, let’s face it, the person that started the whole Rickroll thing didn't choose my video necessarily because they loved the song, but because it worked as an annoying thing to trick people with.” And yet, he freely admits, “I was never one of the cool kids. I've never been cool. I wasn't even cool when I was having a No. 1 record back in the day, in 1987.”
However, many fans would beg to differ — and there’s plenty of recent evidence of Astley’s coolness. For instance, six years ago, a YouTube video of him playing the drums while singing AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” at Los Angeles’s Troubadour club made him a viral sensation all over again. “I learned to play drums to the Highway to Hell album, and it's never far from my consciousness, wanting to be a drummer; when I get on a drum kit, I just transform into somebody else,” Astley explains.
And then Astley was embraced by world-famous drummer Dave Grohl, performing a genius “Never Gonna Give You Up”/“Smells Like Teen Spirit” mashup with the Foo Fighters (“one of my favorite bands, full stop”) at several rock festivals. Astley says the first time he made a surprise onstage appearance with the Foos, he thought, "Oh my God, when my friends see this, my phone is going to melt.” And then he went viral yet again in 2020, with his soulful pandemic-era cover of the Foos' "Everlong."
But most notably, it was around the time of his first Foo Fighters collab that Astley’s seventh studio album, 50, which was recorded independently in his garage, became his first U.K. No. 1 album since his 1987 debut. “I played every single note. I wrote it all. I produced it. I made it in my garage, and I think that is pretty frickin’ weird, but I also think that translated into the music somehow,” he says. “I do think there was a bit of empathy for me. I think the public liked the little story and the message that I had done this for myself, not for anybody else. I didn't even have a record deal at the time. I just started making some music, because I thought rather than buy a convertible car, this would be my 50th-birthday midlife-crisis moment. I was going to make a record instead.”
If people know anything about the now 56-year-old Astley’s early history — that is, before he signed with the unstoppable powerhouse production team Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW) at age 19 and started recording slick pop-soul bangers — then they’d understand why he was so comfortable being a garage-rocker. He was actually performing with his soul band FBI, driving around to pubs and clubs in his van and playing both originals and cover tunes, when SAW discovered him. At first he resisted the producers’ offers, since they only wanted him as a solo act, but eventually curiosity got the better of him and he headed down to London from Lancashire. “I genuinely thought, ‘I'll get to make a single, I'll get to see my name on a single cover, on a vinyl disc, and that’ll be great.’ Not in my wildest dreams did I believe, at that point, they were going to become one of the biggest pop producers in Europe — if not the world,” says Astley.
By the time Astley was 21, he was a superstar, after the SAW-produced “Never Gonna Give You Up” topped the charts in 17 countries; it was actually the No. 1 U.K. single and No. 4 U.S. single for the entire year of 1987. “I genuinely just went from being in a band with my friends to signing a deal where the first song that we put out properly became the biggest record in Britain,” Astley marvels. “It was just crazy, just nuts. I think got swept along with all of it, but it was pretty amazing. It's quite a nice feeling having a No. 1 record everywhere, you know.”
Most detractors at the time assumed that Astley was a SAW puppet, not realizing that he wrote or co-wrote four of the tracks on his 1987 debut album, Whenever You Need Somebody. “I don't blame them for not realizing that; if I was looking in from the outside, that's exactly what I would think as well,” says Astley. “And I don't have a problem with any of that. If I thought I could have beaten ‘Never Gonna Give You Up,’ I perhaps would have been jumping up and down saying, ‘Listen to my stuff!’ But that's a pretty special song, do you know what I mean?”
Still, after his first album, Astley had enough cachet with producers Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Pete Waterman, as one of their earlier signings, to have the freedom to submit his own material. “I just kept writing and kept trying and kept doing my demos at their studios at night or on the weekends — even though I'd had hits by then,” he says. “And I was one of the lucky ones, in terms of I'd spent a lot of time in their studios before I had my hit, so I got to do a lot of demos and got to feel around what they did a little bit. I'm not saying I could ever emulate it, because they were really good at what they did, but I got a bit more into the mindset of what Pete Waterman wanted. So, I wrote a song called ‘She Wants to Dance With Me,’ and I put it on Pete’s desk, on a cassette. He played it, and then he walked through the building going, ‘Rick's just written his first single!’ And that's how I got a single. And I got two on the next album. … Pete has said to me over the years, ‘I always believed you'd be able to write songs one day, but you were a kid at the time, and you needed help.’”
Astley continued to rack up hit after hit, but eventually the fame and fast lifestyle took its toll. “I was about 27 when I actually stopped. I just said, ‘I'm done. I don't want to do this anymore. I have no interest,’” he recalls. “I was in a car with my manager, going to the airport, and I had a bit of tear in my eye. I had developed a fear of flying, and I just felt this was the time the plane wasn't going to make it. And I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I think for a lot of artists that have been in situations like that, they've got somebody around them, a manager or a road manager, who's giving them a few drinks, or a couple of tablets, and saying, ‘You'll be all right, we'll get you there.’ But my manager was not like that. He looked at me and said, ‘OK then, let’s just not do it anymore. Let's just go home.’ So, we went home instead.”
Astley continues: “I knew that if you call your record company and say, ‘I don't want to do this anymore,’ chances are they're not going to say, ‘Well, come back next year.’ They might do that if you're Peter Gabriel, but not if you're a pop singer.” And yet, he “never, ever regretted, not once” his decision to take so many years off. “I thought if I was going to ever have hits again, I'd have to do everything all over again, work my ass off again. But I just didn’t have it in me anymore, so I thought it was best to leave it where it was and say, ‘Well, I had a nice little go at it for a while,’ and that's it.”
Now that he’s having another go at it, though, Astley chuckles at the irony that his nerdy, boyish, ginger image — which so shockingly clashed with his resonant R&B vocals and thus earned him so much ridicule in the ‘80s and ‘90s — works in his favor all these decades later. “I'm kind of grateful that I looked 12 years old then, because I don't look quite [my age] these days!” he quips. And though he has clearly accomplished enough in his career by now to be considered “cool,” that’s still no concern of his.
“I'm past caring. I was past caring in my twenties,” Astley — who released the Weeknd-esque disco banger "Unwanted" last year, recently formed a Smiths cover band with buzzy U.K. indie group Blossoms, and was part of this year's nostalgic Mixtape Tour with New Kids on the Block, En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa — says with a shrug.
“Yes, I'd like to be a drummer in a cool rock ‘n’ roll band, of course, but I'm not. And sure, it's nice if anybody thinks, ‘He's actually a real artist, he's a musician.’ But I can appreciate where I am in life and not be bothered about the ‘cool’ thing. I feel pretty lucky to have stumbled into my situation, even though people have said all manner of things about me that weren't particularly nice. I don't really give a shit after all these years, because my life has been really easy because I sang that one song.”
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