Hits and memories

Rick Astley performs in Canberra this month. He tells James Joyce why he's never gonna give up on his '80s hits despite 'the cheese factor'

There's no point trying to play it cool when you're talking to Rick Astley. The chart-topping '80s pop idol has been known to refer to himself in interviews as Captain Cheese. Clearly, the bloke can do ironic.

This year marks 25 years since Astley's first solo single, the wholesome bubblegum dance track Never Gonna Give You Up, became a worldwide hit. And it's been five years since that same song unexpectedly propelled him back into the pop culture spotlight via the internet meme known as Rickrolling.

Yes, Rick Astley, has been to ironic and back again.

So, best forget trying to feign cool. Better to just come straight out and admit it: Rick, mate, I need to declare up front that you were one of my mix tape heroes of the '80s.

Nothing told a girl how you felt about her in the summer of '88 quite like a burst of Astley's She Wants to Dance with Me, followed by some grinding Simply Irresistible by Robert Palmer, a bit of Got My Mind Set on You by George Harrison and Cheap Trick's cover of Don't Be Cruel.

Generous laughter warms the telephone line from Astley's home in south London.


''Hey, that mix sounds good,'' the singer says.

But don't try explaining to the teens and twentysomethings of today that their parents - that is, the teens of the pre-Kardashian era - compiled their favourite songs onto blank cassettes by physically recording them from vinyl albums or singles or even directly from the radio.

''Yes, when you try to explain mix tapes and cassettes to a different generation it seems prehistoric, though to be fair they are a bit prehistoric compared to what we've got today,'' Astley says.

But while the technology of the '80s seems ancient, the 46-year-old says he's never gonna give up on the music of that much-maligned decade.

''Time heals all,'' he says with a laugh. ''Once you get more than a decade away from any decade it becomes OK again. The '70s were not cool at a certain point but obviously they became cool again. I think that's happened with the '80s - now that we're far enough away from it.

''There was some really crap music made in the '80s but also some fantastic music. Of course that's true for most decades. We all remember the '60s for the Beatles but there was some awful music in the '60s as well.

''That's the good thing about the new technology. With iPods and iTunes and the rest of it, the really super-positive thing is that a lot of the younger generation who would perhaps never have considered listening to anything from the '80s, never mind the '70s, '60s or even '50s stuff like Frank Sinatra, they can have it all on shuffle and just see what plays next.''

A mention of my then-teenaged daughters, after years of exposure to their parents' '80s music, loading Never Gonna Give You Up onto their iPods elicits a chuckle.

''I can relate to that, totally,'' he says. ''I'm 46 now and my daughter, who's 20, likes to play my Motown records every Christmas. She will always pull out the Temptations or what have you. And she absolutely loves it. And I love that we can share that.

''It's a weird thing when you listen to someone else's music as a kid and find that the music has become part of you. It's like wallpaper, the background to your life. And that's what music does in an amazing way - it pinpoints memories that can't be unlocked by anything else.''

Except, of course, that while we gave our daughters Rick Astley and Motown, what do they give us? Gangnam Style?

Astley laughs. ''Yeah, I'm not sure that's a fair trade.''

Rick Astley's not your typical pop star - and not just because he's been married to the same woman for more than 20 years.

Plucked from a club band by Pete Waterman of the identikit hit factory Stock Aitken & Waterman (which also produced Kylie Minogue, Mel & Kim and Bananarama), Astley was 21 when he burst onto the global pop scene in 1987 with Never Gonna Give You Up.

Hitting the charts just as Margaret Thatcher won her third term, the relentlessly upbeat dance number oozed peaches-and-cream niceness with a catchy backbeat and earworm lyrics (Never gonna give you up/Never gonna let you down/Never gonna run around and desert you/Never gonna make you cry/Never gonna say goodbye/Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.)

The song rocketed to No.1 in 25 countries and was the first of Astley's eight consecutive top-10 singles in Britain - a feat still unmatched by any male solo artist.

In Australia Never Gonna Give You Up entered the ARIA charts on October 12, 1987, stayed at No.1 for weeks and ended up the eighth-highest-selling single of 1988. The album, Whenever You Need Somebody, also reached No.1, and the hit singles continued, including the title track and a cover of Nat King Cole's When I Fall in Love. Only three LPs sold more copies in Australia that year: INXS's Kick, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack and Jimmy Barnes's Freight Train Heart.

Throughout the next six years the baby-faced Lancashire boy with the concrete ginger quiff and deep, soulful voice sold more than 40 million records.

And then he quit. Astley was 27 when he retired in 1993. Success with Stock, Aitken & Waterman made him a millionaire by 22 but the slog of flogging the two, less successful, albums he produced after parting ways with the so-called pop puppeteers in 1990 had taken its toll.

''I'd had enough,'' he says. ''I didn't have the attitude for it, or even the same love for it as when I started. I kind of fell out of love with it - not so much the music but the business. The repetitive and competitive nature of it all just got to me. It became ridiculous and I didn't really like what was going on around me and, to be honest, I didn't really like me any more. It had become crazy. I'd become a dad by that point and that gave me new priorities.''

For the past 20 years he has remained largely out of the spotlight, content to play family man with his Danish wife, film producer Lene Bausager, whom he met in 1988 when she was working as a promoter with record company RCA, and daughter Emilie, who was born in 1992.

He remembers the day he decided to pull the plug on pop stardom. He'd returned from a promotional tour of the US to be greeted at the airport by Lene and Emilie. His daughter was walking. He had missed her first steps.

''I'd missed everything, chasing fame that didn't matter anyway,'' he says. ''I got on the phone on the way home and told my manager, 'I'm never doing this again'. I quit that day and I've never really been back. Some things are more important than fame or money. My mum and dad got divorced when I was five. The most important thing for me is family.''

For someone who has deliberately shied away from the limelight, Astley is surprisingly relaxed, candid and self-deprecating about his return to performing in recent years.

His first ''toe back in the water'' was a series of '80s concerts in Japan.

''To be honest, I only went because they paid me loads of money and because my family wanted to go to Japan. I wasn't looking to restart my career.''

That led to a few gigs singing standards in small venues across Britain.

''It was almost reliving a bit of my childhood listening to my dad singing Sinatra around the house,'' he says with a laugh. ''I absolutely loved it. I ended up making a covers record, which was a bit of a mess to be honest.''

Then came Rickrolling, the internet bait-and-switch prank that began in 2007. If you've ever been tricked into clicking on a link, only to mysteriously land on the YouTube video clip of Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up, then you have been Rickrolled.

''I've been really lucky with that song and that whole Rickrolling thing,'' Astley says. ''It's not something I can give myself any credit for. It's kind of got nothing to do with me. It could have been Dave-rolling if it had been a different song. But, forgive the pun, I've just rolled with it.''

He's under no illusion why the catchy song and his dance moves in swaying beige trenchcoat became a harmless web punchline 20 years later, helping him beat U2 and Britney Spears to MTV Europe's fan-voted Best Act Ever award in 2008.

''It's a weird one, the cheese factor,'' Astley says of the song that has spawned YouTube parodies featuring US President Barack Obama and, more recently, the cast of Mad Men.

''When I look at certain things I've done, I'm sort of over getting embarrassed by them now. When I look at that kid in that video it's almost as if I don't know who he is. It's the same for anybody who looks at an old photo or an old wedding video or home movie.

''I look at the kid I was at 21 and obviously it is me and I totally own that but it's not me any more. It's like the clothes we were wearing in the '80s - would we put those on again? Not in a million years. Of course I say that and a lot of today's fashions seem straight out the '80s! It's all come around again.

''Sure, there was probably a time in my life, in my early 30s, when I did kind of cringe and think, 'Oh my god'. Even now, if I'm on a TV show and they put one of those videos on, it can produce a bead of sweat on my forehead.

''But the people who want to come and see me sing the old songs, I don't think they see it as totally cheesy. I'm quite happy for it to be understood that, yes, there is a bit of cheese involved. I can accept that.

''But even when I'm singing those songs, I sometimes feel like stopping the band and saying, 'Hang on, what are we doing here?' It is a weird trip down memory lane for me too, you know. I have only been doing it again for five or six years. I haven't been doing the same thing for all of those 25 years. So it catches me off-guard occasionally.''

Astley's series of Australian shows, including Canberra on Wednesday November 21, will feature the '80s hits, some of Astley's Motown favourites, some standards and tracks from a new album due out early next year.

''People definitely think of me as someone whose songs are all, 'Put your handbags on the floor girls, let's go','' he says. ''I've got a few of those, for sure. Sometimes I wish I had one or two more up-tempo songs. But don't worry, I'll have people up dancing even if I can't dance any more myself.''

So, there will be none of that trademark Astley glide and wriggle?

''You lose your licence,'' he says with a laugh. ''Once you're over 45 it's official, you're not allowed to dance.''

So, that's the age at which a bloke becomes a grandpa dancer?

''Kind of, yeah. I mean, I've still got the moves, baby, but I just don't unleash them during a show.''

One slow song he's fallen back in love with is When I Fall in Love. The cover of the Nat King Cole classic, perfectly suited to Astley's deep, creamy vocals, was rushed out as a Christmas single in 1987.

''I really enjoy singing When I Fall in Love now,'' he says. ''When I was 21 and I first recorded that song I was like, 'Why are we doing this? But if Pete Waterman wants me to do it, I do it'.

''To be honest, the Nat King Cole version is miles better. I'm not doing myself down. It just is. That's my only regret about it, really. If I knew back then what I know now I might have said, 'No Pete, we're not doing that one.' ''

He scoffs at the suggestion that, had he focused on such crooner classics post-Stock Aitken and Waterman, he might have saved the world from Michael Buble.

''He's pretty good, Michael Buble. I think I've got the right to say who's good and who's not - I sing a bit myself - and Michael Buble is a very good singer. He's got a built-in auto-tune. I know he's not everyone's cup of tea but I've met him a few times and he's very talented.

''But, hey, listen, I'm only 46! I could still get myself a swing band and start crooning. There's time left yet, you know!''

Rick Astley performs at the Canberra Theatre Centre on November 21. For more information see canberratheatrecentre.com.au.