As ascents to international pop stardom go, Rick Astley’s was undeniably meteoric. In 1987, a shy 21-year-old former record label tea boy, he was catapulted to the top of the charts worldwide by ‘80s hit-makers Stock, Aitken and Waterman with ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’.
It’s a pretty-much perfect pop track that’s still a party playlist favourite to this day, below admirably rendered by the cast of Mad Men...
That massive hit was followed, over the next five years, by a string of Top 10 singles – among them ‘Whenever You Need Someone,’ ‘When I Fall In Love,’ ‘Together Forever,’ ‘She Wants To Dance’ and ‘Cry For Help’ – and four studio albums.
Two of those were produced by SAW while another two, the remarkably mature, deftly written LPs, 1991’s Free and 1993’s Body & Soul, sound today as fresh as they did upon release.
As part of the so-called SAW ‘hit factory of the 80s,’ also responsible for the early career of Kylie Minogue, Astley enjoyed the sort of phenomenal success wannabe musicians dream of: he sold more than 40 million records worldwide, cracked the notoriously tough US market with seemingly little effort and won a slew of international music industry awards.
By the time 1993 rolled around, and Body & Soul was released, Astley’s life must have seemed, to an outsider peering in, the stuff from which any aspiring pop-star’s dreams are woven.
By then, he had broken away from the manufactured pop of the late 80s, confidently moving in a direction more closely aligned with his true musical aspirations to explore different genres while writing his own material.
Still, it’s sobering to remember that he was barely 27 years old when, the victim of a run of bad luck that resulted from behind-the-scenes changes at his record label, he did something rather extraordinary: he turned his back on his career and walked away from the mainstream music industry to live what he calls, with a wry chuckle, “a more human, more real existence.”
“I’d had a baby daughter at that point, I was married, and when that happened, really, a lot of light bulbs went off for me. I realised that was what was important: being a real human being, someone who is relied on and is responsible. I had to get my priorities straight and there are lots of people, of course, who have great musical careers as well as a family. They manage to, somehow, hold it all together and make it work,” Astley says.
“I couldn’t keep making the ‘80s songs over and over again.”
“I think that’s brilliant and I applaud them, but I just thought: ‘I want a different life.’ By that point, I’d fallen more than a little bit out of love with the whole business involved with making a record and what you had to do to make it a hit. That whole side of it really turns into something quite far removed from what you thought it was and something very different to what it is when, at the beginning, you’re in the thick of it, topping the charts, you don’t really think about it then.”
Now 46 and due to tour Australia in November and December for the first time since 1989, these days Astley remains sanguine about the nature of the music business.
During our conversation, he is candid, self-deprecating and down to earth, given to interjecting his stories and observations with a dry, winsome laugh.
He is also at pains to ensure that his own experiences “don’t make me sound bitter or miserable because, in all honesty, I’m not at all. I just have the benefit of age and hindsight now, that’s all, and why shouldn’t I be honest about everything?
It was in 1991 that Astley released Free, his third solo album and the first not to be produced by SAW. It was notable not just for that fact, but also for the fact that it revealed an undeniably marked change in musical direction.
The album yielded ‘Cry For Help,’ a plaintive, soulful ballad that went Top 10 in both the UK and the USA, sonically hinting at the heartfelt, gospel-tinged, soul-inflected path down which Astley’s music was headed.
Despite the success of the album’s first single, behind the scenes changes at Astley’s then-label, RCA/BMG, took their toll, both personally and commercially.
“When ‘Cry For Help’ went Top 10 in America, that was very much the Holy Grail for the industry. That should have been the start of bigger things but the slight problem was that, back in the UK, the label sacked the managing director and the new managing director basically got rid of everybody and started again,” he recalls.
“When that happened, they were in the middle of promoting my record. I think they were also in the middle of promoting a Eurythmics record, too, and, basically, we were screwed. I understand I had made a very different record. It was nothing like what people knew me for but I also think the label kind of looked at and it went: ‘Well, we’ll give it a short go.’ And they did, they had a Top 10 single, and then the new faces came in and everything was kind of shelved, it didn’t matter who you were.”