597. ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, by Rick Astley

Who knew? Before the memes, the jokes and the Rickrolling, this was actually a popular hit record.

Never Gonna Give You Up, by Rick Astley (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 23rd August – 27th September 1987

It’s hard to hear ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ now and not to roll (pardon the pun) your eyes. There’s a reason why this was chosen as the butt of a million jokes: it’s a bit naff. It’s got that bog-standard SAW Eurodisco production, and it’s sung by a pasty, ginger chap with a quiff. But is it better than it seems at first glance?

The answer, I’ve decided after several listens and some serious thought, is both yes and no. Yes, because SAW knew their way around a pop song, and the bassline in particular is quite fun. Yes, because Rick Astley is a very good singer. His voice is meaty and soulful. He’s a crooner, in the best sense of the word. But there’s also a ‘No’: I don’t think these two components come together very well.

Were it sung by Sinitta, say, it would be a competent pop tune. Were Astley given a more adult, blue-eyed soul number, he’d do excellently with it. As it is, the tune and the voice jar – especially in the choppy Never gonna give never gonna give… middle eight – and create something that just sounds a bit odd. Add in the cheap and cheerful video, in which Astley does some very awkward dad dancing (the video being the main reason this one has taken on such a unexpected afterlife) and you’ve got yourself a pretty strange chart-topping record.

But what do I know? Maybe what I find jarring is what others found interesting and unique? It’s not conveyer-belt pop… Well, it is, but with a very distinctive voice on top. It clearly appealed to a lot of people, as it made #1 around the world (including the US, and very few SAW songs made it over there) and was the best-selling single of 1987 in the UK. Perhaps it’s just not my cup of tea…

Sitting down to listen to it now, properly, for the first time ever, I’m noticing how it might be the least sexy love song ever. It’s a song all about how dependable he is: A full commitment’s what I’m thinking of, You wouldn’t get that from any other guy… It’s not about passion, swelling hearts or panting breaths; it’s about reliability. I just read a quote in which someone describes Astley proposing his love like he’s selling a second-hand car. Which made me chuckle. In tone, and also in his pale, honest, everyman style, it’s as if one of the big, semi-operatic voices of the ‘50s – a David Whitfield or a Ronnie Hilton – has staged an unexpected comeback thirty years on.

This was Rick Astley’s debut single, though he was somewhere in the crowd on Ferry Aid (he had famously been the ‘tea boy’ for Stock Aitken and Waterman in their recording studio). It would be the first of eight Top 10s between 1987 and the early nineties. In 1993 he retired from music to focus on his family, but returned to recording in the 2000s. Then came the memes and the Rickrolling (the video currently has 1.3 billion views on YouTube!), which he eventually embraced, and fair play to him. He remains very active, and is still capable of selling out arenas around the world. It seems his fans were… wait for it… never gonna give him up. Thank you, and goodnight.

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15 thoughts on “597. ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, by Rick Astley

  1. Do I like it? Not really but I don’t hate it and I can actually listen to it and be ok…I bet that surprised you! It does amuse me because of what it has become. At the time it was just another pop new wave sounding song.

  2. Folks might joke about it, but I can totally see why “Never Gonna Give You Up” became such a big hit. While the production sounds very ’80s, it’s a bloody catchy tune you only need to hear once and it’s never gonna let you go, never gonna leave your ears, never gonna go away and desert you! 🙂

  3. There’s something sort-of appealing about Rick Astley I could never quite put my finger on. The song itself is harmless, even likeable enough while being a bit ordinary (or even more than a bit – when it comes to Stock-Aitken-Waterman productions it has nothing like the impact of ‘You Spin me Round’, does it), and a couple of follow-ups still sold by the shedload while hardly departing from the formula. (OK, one was a double A-side that shared honours with a Nat King Cole cover). But I think he was rather like any one of the Osmonds – he came across as the lad next door you couldn’t find it in your heart to dislike, in a cut-throat business he still managed to make a comeback many aeons later, and everyone felt he deserved it because he was a thoroughly decent guy. So much so that you might even end up warming to this record for not necessarily the right reasons – if that makes sense.

  4. Its s great pop record that has become a pop culture phenomenon. When it came out the main tag that everyone had a jaw dropping moment with was – how could a little cute white boy be singing like an older pro male soul singer. The lyrics and image were clearly aimed at younger teen girls, but the sound was more Alexander O’Neal than, say, Bros. The novelty wore off with soundalike follow ups but he introduced Nat King Cole to a new audience, so bonus points from me. What he really needed was a credible songwriter to channel the voice into more adult material, but one never turned up until Rick Rolling brought him back. Rick mark 2 is much better than Rick mark 1. Bar this record. Itll go on into afterlife in all the tv and movies its featured in….

    • It certainly has lived on… And I’m glad that he’s managed to relaunch his career on his own terms, as well as managing this song’s unexpected afterlife with good grace. Seems like a decent guy!

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