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.