Rick Astley is on a roll again.
Rickrolling, you could say.
After retiring for the better part of a decade, the British singer — whose 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” became an Internet meme phenomenon during late ’00s — has returned to active duty and found his absence made fans’ hearts grow fonder. “50,” his first new album since 2005 and first U.S. release since 1993, topped the charts in June 2016. And he started playing the U.S. for the first time since 1989.
He’s got momentum again, and you can count Astley himself as among those most surprised by that.
“I didn’t expect to have a No. 1 album with it, no,” Astley, 52, says by phone from the offices of a London radio network, where he does a regular show. “It was more of a way of marking the moment and saying, ‘That’s the music I made when I was that age’ and just something to feel good about.
“Now it’s gone completely off the scale, and I think it’s going to be a different kind of memory, I think.”
Even if he never came back, Astley would have plenty of memories from nine years he spent in the ’80s MTV-era spotlight.
Raised working class in the British midlands, Astley was a onetime school singer who dropped out at 16 and began working for his father’s gardening business and playing in bands such as Give Way and FBI. He was discovered by the British songwriting-production team of Mike Stock, Matt Aikman and Pete Waterman, who promptly came up with “Never Gonna Give You Up,” a soulful slice of dance-pop that became the year’s biggest-selling single. It topped charts in more than two dozen countries, including the U.S., and won a Brit Award for Best British Single.
And far from being an albatross, Astley said it’s a song he still loves dearly.
“Obviously it’s not totally fresh, but also I don’t feel too jaded because I kind a quit when I was 27 and I didn’t sing all those songs for about 15 years, you know?” he explains. “I think that distance way from that stuff taught me to respect it a bit more, because it actually gave me a fantastic life.
“So when the band plays the intro to that song, I don’t go, ‘Oh my God, here we go again.’ I go, ‘Thank God — here we go again!’”
Astley was hardly a one-hit wonder. He had 13 other Top 30 singles around the world, including U.S. Top 10 hits “Together Forever,” “She Wants To Dance With Me” and “It Would Take a Strong Strong Man.”
A combination of dissatsifaction with the music business and starting a family (his daughter Emilie was born in 1992) led Astley into “a totally private life” between 1993-2001, during which he was seldom recognized and able to go about his business unbothered.
“I used to drop my daughter off at school and no one batted an eyelid,” Astley recalls. “We’d go to the local supermarket or I’d do whatever. People kind of remembered; I have people who do recognize me every now and then and go, ‘Oh, weren’t you the guy who had that No. 1 record? Blah, blah, blah...’
“So there’s all those kind of nice memories of it, but it didn’t hang around my neck, like ‘There’s the guy that sang all those songs!’ My daughter grew up without me being really famous.”
It was Astley’s daughter who helped him come to grips with the Rickrolling phenomenon, in which unsuspecting users — up to and including Shea Stadium in New York — would be surprised with the video of Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
“It was weird because I didn’t really understand it,” Astley says. “A friend who lives in L.A. Rickrolled me a few times. I said, ‘What the hell are you doing, man?’ and he said, ‘Do you not know what this is?’ So he took me through it, and I thought, ‘OK, that just seems a bit nuts,’ y’know?
“It’s been a bit weird, but my daughter said to me, ‘Look, just remember it’s got nothing to do with you,’ and she’s right. It’s a totally different work and it’s just doing its own thing. What I’ve always tried to take from it is it just happened and it could’ve been anybody’s song. They just needed a cheesy video from the ’80s, where some guy’s wearing a raincoat.
“That’s how I looked at it. And it’s been good to me, so ...”
The enduring popularity helped Astley come back to touring successfully in 2001, and he was surprised to be a welcome fixture at large-scale festivals. He also was named Best Act Ever at the 2008 MTV Europe Music Awards.
“If you would have said to me 16 years ago, when I wasn’t doing anything like that, ‘Do you want to go in a field and get in front of 10,000 people and sing your old songs, I would’ve said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ says Astley, who’s also performed the song a few times on stage with Foo Fighters. “But when you do a few you suddenly realize you don’t have to take it too seriously. Just go and enjoy it and relive those moments.”
He did not want to rest strictly on nostalgia, however. He produced and played all the instruments on “50,” which he said was crucial if he was going to return to recording.
“I wanted to do something where I felt it was my record,” he explains. “It’s got limitations, but I wanted to play everything to feel that I got my hands dirty. I feel like this is MY music. This is me and what I’ve done, so it’s a really good feeling.”
In fact, it feels good enough that Astley is talking about doing it again — albeit more likely with other players taking part. But that’s in his plans. At present he’s excited about capitalizing on the success of “50” and keeping things rolling on that shore, too.
“I’m not expecting anything because I don’t think you can,” Astley says. “I just think you’ve got to do it and just see what comes.”
• If You Go: Rick Astley performs Saturday, April 21 (doors open at 7 p.m.) at Saint Andrews Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit. Tickets are $50 in advance, $60 day of show. Call 313-961-6358 or visit saintandrewsdetroit.com.
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