Rick Astley In The Firing Line: “I didn’t do any shitty touring ’round in a van”

Ahead of his first Australian tour in over two decades DAVID SWAN puts ‘80s pop icon RICK ASTLEY In The Firing Line to find out if he’s ever given someone up, let them down, run them ‘round or deserted them.

It’s not often you get the chance to talk to a living legend. And what a surprise to find they’re as gracious, candid and self-effacing as Rick Astley, officially the “Best Act Ever” (according to MTV).

In the late-’80s, Astley was catapulted to worldwide fame becoming the only male solo artist to have his first eight singles reach the Top 10 in the UK. His classic hit ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ was a number one hit single in 25 countries and was the eighth highest selling song of 1988 in Australia, just ahead of John Farnham’s ‘Age Of Reason’. However, Astley struggled to come to terms with the subsequent fame and after less than a decade ruling the charts, retired in 1993 to become a full-time dad at the tender age of 27.

Fast forward to 2007 and an unlikely career resurgence came in the form of internet meme “Rickrolling”, which culminated in him winning the publicly voted “Best Act Ever” at the 2008 MTV Awards. Astley has since returned to the recording studio, while playing shows with his new band The Luddites who cover songs by the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Green Day.

What exact bit did you sing in Elton John’s Can You Feel the Love Tonight?

My god, that’s a weird one! [Laughs] Elton’s musical director, a guy called Davey Johnstone, is a family friend. His wife and my wife are best friends, and we’ve all been friends for years and years and years. And whenever they’re in London I usually go and hang out with Davey, and whenever they’re recording I’ll pop in. It just so happened that he had Elton in [that day] and they said they were doing a song for a movie and asked me to sing some of the background. I just did what I was told [laughs].

It’s funny because that’s the only gold record we’ve ever had in the house. Because, without me sounding like an arsehole, we’ve had a few records over the years: a few gold ones and platinum ones. But we’ve never put any of them up anywhere. But the gold one, for Can You Feel the Love Tonight, which ended up going multi-platinum, that’s the only one we’ve put up because my daughter wanted it in her bedroom. I showed it to her and she said, “I want that one, where will it fit?”, so it went up in her bedroom which I thought it was kind of funny, really.

You were named the “Best Act Ever” by MTV, do you feel you were a worthy recipient?

Of course. I mean, come on! U2 were in that category. Foo Fighters were in there, but obviously I’m much better live than they are. Take your pick. What it was, it was all down to the “Rickrolling” thing and those sort of things that had been on the net, but I actually think MTV thought they were being really funny and ironic putting me in that category, “Best Performer Ever”. And I think the great European public thought it would be funny and ironic to vote for me, so they did. And I think there were also a few other people doing a few sneaky votes, a few extra votes … I think I got more than 90 million votes, and I’m not sure there’s that many people in Europe [there’s 740-million people in Europe – ed]. So I think someone was pulling a few strings.

“Without me sounding like an arsehole, we’ve had a few gold records over the years.”

I think it bit them on the arse to be honest, they didn’t know what to do then and there was no way I was going to go and accept that award – it was ridiculous. Bono was there giving Paul McCartney an award, and I knew that they were going to do that, and I just thought there’s no way I’m walking into that room accepting that, whether it’s ironic or whatever, I’m just not doing it. So in the end they got Perez Hilton to come and accept it.

Were you pressured to come?

Yeah, totally. We got loads of phone calls trying to get me to come, and suggesting different things we could do – what if I did this or what if I did that. My daughter was obviously a lot older then – she was a teenager -she pushed me as well, she said, “Just don’t do it, it’s just uncool.” And I said, “You’re absolutely right, I’m not doing it.” It was kind of them being wise-arses, putting me in there. I don’t really mind, I mean who gives a toss, but you’ve made your own bed, you go lie in it.

Funnily enough I’ve only got two other awards in the house, one of them because I’m really proud of it, it’s a BRIT award. It meant something to me, and it’s a nice statue. They were quite nice in those days, they’re bloody awful colours now. And the other one is the MTV one because it’s so ridiculous. It’s like the world, with a stupidly big “MTV” on it. My daughter thought it was quite funny so I’ve got that in the living room behind some books or something.

What did you get up to during the ‘90s?

To be honest I was a professional dad, really. My mum and dad split up when I was very young. I was brought up by my dad and my mum lived in the same town so I used to see her quite a bit but that dwindled as I got older. I don’t know, just something inside of me wanted to be there as much as possible for my daughter, and it’s a lot more common these days than when I was a kid. Something inside of me said it’s really important, if you can, to be there. And I had that opportunity, so I was quite happy to just chill out, and I’d do the school runs and all that. We had a no carers rule because we could afford it and everything. And my wife [producer Lene Bausager] works in film so she’s away quite a lot. I still got up to things in the ‘90s – bits and bobs and what have you – but nothing that was going to interfere with my normal life really. I had no interest in doing anything professional with music whatsoever.

“I still got up to things in the ‘90s, bits and bobs and what have you.”

I built a little studio – a really nice studio actually, in London – and I used to have my friends come round and I’d do demos for them, help them out and let them use the studio on weekends. And I loved that, because in its own bizarre way, in a very unbelievably posh way, it was what a lot of very posh people do in their late teens and 20s, working on demos and trying to get stuff together. It just so happened that when I was 19 I got my first record deal. So that was a bit weird and I didn’t do any of that, I didn’t do any of the shitty touring ‘round in a van. I’m sort of glad I didn’t, but also you miss a bit of something as well. I have to drive everywhere now. I don’t really fly if I can avoid it, I mean I’ve got to fly to Australia obviously, but once I’m there I’m going to drive everywhere. I like doing it for one – I’m a bit of a control freak, I guess – but I like the fact that I’m the one driving because I can pull over whenever I feel like it. I’m making up for things I didn’t do when I was younger.

Do you look back on your career and think it was a missed opportunity at all, retiring so young?

At the time it was definitely the right decision. I’ve never regretted it. I was going a bit mad to be honest. I don’t mean professionally mad, like some people get – I never got into drugs or anything like that, or drinking – but I was definitely getting affected by things, there’s no doubt about it. I developed a fear of flying, for a very long time – I’m talking a lot of years – I wouldn’t go anywhere near a plane. It’s a significant deal to go to New York and do shows there and it was looking OK in America, it was looking quite good. And I was on the way to the airport and I’d had a few dodgy flights recently, and I just realised something wasn’t right. It’s not just the flying, the flying is a symptom I think, I just wasn’t happy anymore. I didn’t really like what I was doing, and if I’m honest I didn’t really like me anymore. I’d look at myself in the mirror and just think, “Who are you? I don’t even know who you are anymore.”

I think a lot of people, especially in a band situation, they’ll have people that will say, “Oh come on mate, it’s alright, have a couple more beers”, and that will get you through the next stage. But I wasn’t really into alcohol and I didn’t have any bandmates who were going to push me. So I said enough’s enough, and I got out of it. And I’m glad I did.

“I didn’t really like what I was doing, and if I’m honest I didn’t really like me anymore.”

You’re going through a bit of career resurgence now, has the Rickrolling phenomenon motivated you?

I genuinely don’t think it has. I’m sure it’s helped in terms of awareness, and I don’t know whether that’s always positive awareness, but you know how the old saying goes, “Any publicity is good publicity” [Laughs]. Especially in this day and age where everything’s moving so unbelievably fast, with the internet and all the rest of it, someone says something in an interview and literally the day after, or even that evening, it’s all over everything. So therefore Rickrolling, it’s just a little nagging thing where people go, “Yeah, I kind of know that guy.” And I’m sure somewhere that changes some kind of perspective in terms of promoters and agents and whatever, but to be honest I started doing gigs before that anyway. I kind of liked it, and also my daughter was getting to an age where she was living her own life, to a great degree, she was a teenager and doing her own thing.

And I just needed a really long break from it all. I didn’t particularly miss the “being a popstar” thing. I really missed playing live and getting in front of an audience and all that. And I missed being in the studio a bit, I think, with a real sense of, “Yeah we’re making a record”, which was a really great, privileged place to be … I never liked being a popstar anyway. I just wasn’t very good at it. I never went on TV and thought, “I am it! look at me, I’m great!” I used to walk up there and think, “Oh shit, I shouldn’t really be here.” I used to smile and everything, but some people are great at it, some are born to be stars, but I never felt like I was.

Do you wish you’d peaked a bit later then, that your career had been a bit more low key?

Yeah, I mean I played in a few bands when I was a kid. I started off as a drummer, and I still play a bit of drums now in a band, it’s a midlife crisis sort of band, we have a bit of fun with it. But yeah, there’s definitely something in me that thinks sometimes maybe if I’d stayed in one of the bands we would’ve made it and maybe things would have been different. But you know what? I don’t really take that on board very often. I’ve got an amazing daughter, a beautiful wife, I’ve got an amazing life and I very often say that on stage. It might sound corny to some people but I don’t give a crap. They gave me that life, and yeah I had to work for it, and be in the right place and all the rest of it, but I say that live very often. I thank everybody for buying my mum’s house and buying my house and all the rest of it, and I think maybe having a break from it has made me appreciate it more, and put some perspective into it.

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