Nearly 30 years ago, a gangly 21-year-old Rick Astley, his magnificent pompadour and his lovably geeky dance moves arrived on these shores from his native England armed with such hits as “Together Forever,” “It Would Take a Strong Strong Man” and, of course, the tsunami-strength “Never Gonna Give You Up,” which reached Number One in 25 countries. His hair game is still impressive and remarkably unchanged since the Eighties. “I get it imported from China,” the youthful Astley jokes, tugging on his dark-brown tufts. “My whole family have got pretty strong hair. I’m really lucky in that respect.”
Astley, 50, is sitting in the restaurant at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood the day after a triumphant sold-out show at the Troubadour. The previous night’s smart suit has been replaced with blue shorts, a T-shirt and a jacket. He orders an espresso, announcing that he’s still suffering from jet lag after flying from his home outside of London for an August 10th show in New York and then on to Los Angeles. The two gigs – his first in the U.S. since 1989 – are “to let everyone know I’m alive, really,” Astley jokes.
The first true sign of life occurred in June when 50, a soulful, often revealing, collection of pop songs written, produced and played entirely by Astley, debuted on top of the British albums chart, landing the singer his first Number One album in the U.K. since his 1987 debut, Whenever You Need Somebody. As 50, out in the U.S. on October 7th, and the Troubadour concert make clear, age has given Astley’s still-mighty baritone an added richness and depth that at times recalls a younger, less predatory Tom Jones. “I know I’ve got a biggish voice, but for me, he’s on a different plane,” Astley demurs reverentially. “The physicality in his voice is ridiculous.”
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Astley’s name most recently surfaced stateside in July after Melania Trump seemingly quoted lyrics from “Never Gonna Give You Up” during her RNC speech, resulting in streams of the song increasing by 19 percent, according to Spotify, as memes of Trump and Astley side by side emerged. “It was a bit weird,” Astley says of the similarities, but he remains unconvinced that she intentionally referenced the song: “There’s still a part of me that’s not 100 percent sure that’s what she was doing,” he says.
Astley has stayed at the Sunset Marquis since 1988 and while he’s tucked away out of public view today, celebrity encounters were common during his Eighties heyday. One day Robert Plant approached him by the pool. “I remember thinking, ‘Have I sat on his towel?'” Astley says with a laugh. It turns out the Led Zeppelin singer wanted a photo with Astley for his nephew. Then there was the time Ozzy Osbourne recognized him in the bar and kindly offered recommendations on top touring musicians before Sharon Osbourne bleated, “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing? Do you really think he wants to work with the long-haired guys that you do?” “It was just a bizarre moment,” Astley says with typical British understatement.
Though the August concerts were his first U.S. dates in years – he plans to do more after the album’s release – Astley returned to touring in the rest of the world a decade ago, often accompanied by his wife, Lene Bausager, an Academy Award–nominated producer, who now manages him. Affable and softspoken, Astley amiably and candidly spoke to Rolling Stone about why he walked away from his career the first time, making the new album in his home studio, taking a cue from Adele, and, for the first time, scars left from his childhood.
At 27, you said, “I’m done” and stopped. Why?
I’d been doing the same thing for so many years. Now it doesn’t seem like any amount of years, but then it was a quarter of my life. I was a young guy and I was like, “I don’t want to be doing that every single day of my life. I want to hang out with my friends. I’ve made a lot of money. I want to spend some of it. I want to do the things I want to do.”
By then, it sounds like you were exhausted from endless promotional duties, and you’d developed a pretty strong aversion to flying as well, which certainly didn’t help matters.
The flying thing was a way of me saying “If I don’t fly anymore, I don’t have to do all of this anymore.” I didn’t make the connection when I was young when it happened. I just thought it was a fear of flying, but I think it [was] about control. I was on my way to New York [in 1993]. I was on the motorway on my way to Heathrow and I just said “I can’t do this. I’m not getting on that plane because if I get on it, I don’t think we’re going to make it.” It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m a bit nervous,” it was “We’re not going to get there.”
At the Troubadour, before you launched into “Never Gonna Give You Up,” you noted that you were ‘very proud and happy’ to sing it. How do you look back on those hits now?
I’ve learned to appreciate my old songs. I quit for about 15 years, didn’t sing any of them ever, and I’ve learned to realize how lucky I was to have them. I know that sounds a bit corny. If I see [an artist] and they’re being a bit shitty, I’m kind of like, “Just remember, we were the lucky ones. We may have a bit more about us than someone else, and more drive, definitely, but we were all extremely lucky.”
You wrote, produced and played all the instruments on 50. Did you feel you had something to prove after British production trio Stock Aitken Waterman produced and wrote your Eighties hits?
No, [but] I think there’s a satisfaction in it, definitely. I’m very proud that I played every single thing on it.
There’s an emotional resonance in your voice on the album missing from the earlier hits. What’s different?
Mike Stock used to produce the vocals. He knew exactly every syllable he wanted and the way he wanted it, so, basically, you’d just do take after take after take and he’d be giving you pointers along the way. [Then] he’d chop it all together. … It’s hard to get emotion into that because of the way we recorded it. … Now, I think it’s just being comfortable enough to let the odd thing go go and say, “That’s just expression, that’s just me enjoying myself.” Comparing to the hits I had in the Eighties, there wasn’t a lot of room for that.
The album opener, “Keep Singing,” starts with the line, “When I was a boy, I saw my daddy crying at the steering wheel and, oh, it made me feel so scared.” That’s more than we ever learned about you from your Eighties songs. What made you decide to open up?
I just went in my [home studio] and I didn’t have an A&R man, I didn’t have a record label, I didn’t have any of that. I hadn’t actually said, “I’m making the record, everybody” – as if everybody would listen [laughs]. I was just doing what I was doing. I don’t know if cathartic is the right word, but it was just a bit like … [exhales]. That was one I finished early on and it was like putting my flag in the ground and saying, “OK, I’m actually going to say some things on some of these songs. I’m going to be 50 next year. I want to mark that for myself.”
You go even farther with “Angels on My Side” with the line, “My heart is close to breaking/It reminds me of my youth.” To what are you referring?
My youth was not exactly the happiest time in my life, that’s for sure. My mum and dad got divorced when I was probably four or five. They’d had a son who had died before I was born. There’s my sister, two brothers and myself, and he would have been [in the middle]. I haven’t spoken in interviews about this a lot – at all, really – but growing up, there was definitely an element of “There’s something very wrong in this family.” I can’t even say I’ve got these exact memories of it, I just know it was a bit odd. And then the fact that we were raised by my dad, but in the same very small town where my mom lived because she went to live with my gran. I saw my mum every day, sometimes twice a day. My dad was really, really pissed off a lot of the time. He was great as well, he was really loving, but there was just times when he’d completely lose it and, as a small child, you’ve got no reference to deal with any of that.
With titles like “Angels on My Side” and “Pray With Me” on 50, fans might wonder if you’ve found religion since they last heard from you. Have you?
I haven’t, no, but I do have more faith in human beings as I’m getting older. I don’t have faith in our leaders, but I have a faith in people, whether it’s my immediate friends and family or [when] you hear that people go out of their way. I genuinely have felt [faith] at gigs. It’s a bit like a congregation and I might be on the stage and I know that they’ve come to see me, [but] I do generally feel that it’s a 50-50 two-way street. No, it’s not, it’s probably a 70-30 two-way street [laughs]. I’ve felt waves of emotion. I think a lot of it is to do with age as well.
Is the album title a nod to Adele’s method of naming albums after her age?
I quite like that and I thought it would be quite funny. Truth to be told, I was not expecting [to have] the Number One album in the U.K., so I thought, “It’s not like anyone’s even going to necessarily notice it.” … To me it was also the fact that the year building up to being 50 – I think for men, possibly more than women – is a bit of a thing. It’s like if you’re not a man by then, you get in trouble. It does feel like one chapter starts, one finishes.
You know your time here on earth is likely more than halfway done.
Absolutely. Also our daughter’s 24. She might not have kids, but some of my friends are granddads and I’m thinking, “That’s where we’re headed.” My wife and I [have] a fun dream: We want to have a little restaurant in Italy on the beach and I’m going to croon at night and drink really good red wine and she’s going to be the maitre d’. I want to get [my memories] in order now and the only way you get them is by doing them, so that’s kind of what I viewed the record as. It’s sort of a birthday present, but also a milestone.
Rickrolling, the practice of surprising someone with the “Never Gonna Give You Up” video clip, started around 2007. How do you feel about it?
I have no problem with it. It’s done me a lot of good, probably. The thing is it’s not personal to me, even though I know it is me and it’s my name in the title of Rickrolling. It’s that video that I’m in, it’s that song that’s mine, but it could have been anybody.
It helped introduce you to a new generation.
Totally! And reminded another generation [about me]. So I don’t see it as negative. If someone had messed around with it and cut it all up and made me look stupid – I mean I look pretty stupid anyway in that video – if it was nasty, then I’d be probably a bit pissed off, but it’s not. It’s like, “We’re choosing that video because it’s a full-on Eighties, cheesy video.” There’s no getting away from it now and I’ve got to own it because if I don’t, it’s like being petty.
What do you remember about making the video for “Never Gonna Give You Up?”
We made it the week we went to Number One in the U.K. No one sat me down and said, “We’re thinking of you wearing this.” I literally just turned up with my clothes. I hadn’t even made any money. It wasn’t like I was [shopping] in the coolest shops in London. … Me doing whatever I was doing in the “Never Gonna Give You Up” video and “Together Forever” was just pure fear.
Do you still have the long white raincoat from the “Never Gonna Give You Up” video?
No. Somebody stole it off me in Northern Ireland. We [played] a radio broadcast outside and it got swamped. There were a couple of policemen, but it all went just a bit mad. Everyone was grabbing hold of me and before I knew it, it just went off of me.
What would the 50-year-old you tell the 21-year-old you?
“I’m going to manage you. I’ll look after you.” Not saying I wasn’t looked after well because I really was. I wasn’t ripped off; I did really well financially. … My main thing about looking back [on] that period was it didn’t actually make me happy. I think there was definitely from my childhood a part of me that was [still] unhappy. … I did enjoy myself for a lot of it, but at some point you’re looking in the mirror and going, “Is this it, then?” And I think, clichéd as this sounds, [success is] never going to mend a broken home. You just have to worked that out for yourself. I’m not even saying consciously that I said, “I’ll do music and I’ll get thousands of people telling me how great I am and that will make me feel better.” I just think something was a bit broken in me and I think it is with almost everybody who gets on the stage.
Now you seem so relaxed, happy and confident on stage. You ended the Los Angeles concert singing and drumming on AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” How fun is it for you to confound people’s expectations they may have from 30 years ago?
I do like doing that. Age has made me think I have to stop giving a shit what anybody else thinks and do exactly what I want to do, so one day I’m going to do a gig in Manchester where I’m going to sing [all] Smiths songs because I absolutely love the Smiths. I’ll probably get lynched for it, but I just want to do it. Why not?