by Neil O’Brien, Bob D & Alun Waterhouse
In 1987, the world was greeted by a new vocal talent. Shocked by the powerful, mature soulful voice of a 21 year old, the UK obliged by sending his debut single “Never Gonna Give You Up” to the top of the charts within 2 weeks of its release. The artist was, of course, Rick Astley. The rest of the world soon followed suit with “Never Gonna Give You Up” reaching Number 1 in 16 other countries including most of Europe, Japan, United States and Australia. The following 2 years saw Rick continue to dominate the charts around the globe. In the UK, Rick was in the Top 40 every week for the first 6 months of his career.
Rick Astley was born on February 6, 1966 in the North of England and was brought up in a small coal-mining town called Newton-Le-Willows. He was the youngest of 4 children and followed in his mother’s footsteps with his fondness of music. Rick sang in a local church choir but his love for the drums inevitably found him in local bands by his early teenage years. On leaving a band named “Give Way” he joined “FBI”, and it was here that recognition of Rick’s talents began take an upward curve.
Besides Rick, a few of his school friends completed the five members of FBI. They began gigging in pubs and became noted for being one of the only bands in the area to be writing and performing their own material. Realising they had a good thing going, FBI sought management. Under the guidance of Dave Warwick and Tony Graham, they continued with their pub gigs but in addition, managed to land slots in clubs doing covers of songs that were around at the time. FBI expanded their fan base and developed into a well-known band locally.
When FBI’s lead singer left the band, Rick volunteered to take over the role. It coincided well with Dave and Tony’s invitation to record producer Pete Waterman to come and see FBI’s act. Waterman had liked what he’d heard but the offer was exclusively for Rick and not the band. Rick was very much a band member. Dedicated to FBI, he showed his loyalty by refusing the offer.
One year on, it was apparent to everyone, including FBI, that Rick’s talents were shining through the band. Realising that they were holding him back and feeling guilty that Rick had missed out on the opportunity of a life-time, Rick had Dave & Tony contact Pete Waterman and Rick was soon destined for London, home to PWL Studios.
PWL studios were the base of operations to hit-making producers Stock, Aitken & Waterman. Here Rick received a ground-floor apprenticeship in the record industry. Rick’s main role was that of Tape-Op but his genuine interest in the studio meant that Rick got involved whenever he could and learnt to record and produce music from some of the World’s best. Now familiarized with the task at hand, Rick’s debut single “Never Gonna Give You Up” was recorded on new years day 1987, although its release was held back to August, when the market was felt to be just right for it.
Upon its release “Never Gonna Give You Up” shot to Number 1 and remained there for 5 weeks. It was Britain’s largest selling single of that year. “Whenever You Need Somebody” was the follow up single and this hit Number 1 in 7 countries. Including 4 Astley-penned songs, the album “Whenever You Need Somebody” entered the UK album charts at Number 1 and sold over 15.2 million copies worldwide, making him the top selling British act of the year. At the 1988 BPI Awards (the UK’s Grammy equivalent), Rick scooped Best Single Award for “Never Gonna Give You Up”. He performed the song in front of an estimated television audience of 100 million viewers!
Christmas 1987 was marked with a double AA single release. It featured a cover of Nat King Cole’s “When I Fall In Love”, and in the New Year it was flipped to “My Arms Keep Missing You”. “Together Forever” completed the released tracks from the album, peaking at number 2. It was a similar success story in the USA, as Rick became one of the few British artists to crack their market. Rick’s American success was reinforced with a second Number 1 single, “Together Forever”. “It Would Take a Strong Strong Man” became another Top 10 single and the album also reached a position within the Top 10 selling close to 2 million copies. It earned him a 1988 Grammy nomination as Best New Artist.
A fire in the PWL studios, destroying the majority of Rick’s new material unfortunately delayed the release of his 2nd album. It finally surfaced in January 1989 and titled “Hold Me In Your Arms” it contained Rick’s first self-penned single “She Wants To Dance With Me” which he also co-produced. Reaching another Top 10 position, it was followed later in the year by “Take Me To Your Heart” and another song written by Rick, “Hold Me In Your Arms”. In December, Rick set off on a World tour. The UK, US, Canada, Australia and Japan were amongst the 15 countries visited and contained over 70 shows. Both concerts held at Wembley Arena were sell-outs.
On completion of the tour, Rick was proud of what he had accomplished with Stock, Aitken & Waterman but had visions of his career going in a different direction. Being interested in all aspects of the industry, Rick wanted to explore more avenues as a musician. In addition, the press were beginning to hassle Rick and he wanted to prove that there was more to him than being merely a singer. He signed directly to RCA/BMG Worldwide, which allowed a greater degree of artistic control. Now under the management of Tops Henderson, his former road manager, Rick began co-writing material with the likes of Level 42′s Mark King and Climie Fisher’s Rob Fisher. Rick co-produced an album, aptly named “Free” which was released in 1991. Musical contributions came from Art of Noise’s Ann Dudley, who scored string arrangements and gospel star Andrae Crouch who arranged the choir featured in Cry For Help, Rick’s next single. Elton John also featured on the album, playing the piano on 2 Rick-written songs. Rick silenced his critics with “Cry For Help” becoming yet another Top 10 record that placed him in the Guinness Book of Records becoming the first male solo artist to have his first 8 singles reach the Top 10 in the UK, an achievement which has still to be beaten. The album “Free” was another success, again sitting inside the Top 10. The singles “Move Right Out” and “Never Knew Love” were also released.
In 1993, Rick returned to the scene with the album “Body & Soul”. Rick scribed all of the tracks on this album himself, co-writing with artists such as Rob Fisher and Lisa Stansfield. There were two singles taken from “Body & Soul”, “The Ones You Love” and “Hopelessly”. At the same time Rick’s family was also flourishing with the birth of his daughter. Not wanting to compromise his family life, the album didn’t get the promotion it could have had. Despite this, the singles still charted but Rick felt it was time to ‘hang up his boots’ and retire from the business as a performer.
In 1998, Rick considered a return to the limelight – possibly re-uniting himself with Pete Waterman but this was not to be. During 2000, Rick had spent a lot of time in his home recording studio which resulted in a collection of demo songs that he had written (and co-written) with Chris Braide, Andrew Frampton, Bob Dipero and Angela Lupino. Upon hearing these demos, Polydor offered Rick a record deal but he didn’t feel that the time was right to release material in the UK. So instead the deal was exclusive to mainland Europe.
His first single for Polydor, released in 2001 was the up-tempo dance track titled “Sleeping”. Remixes of the track came from Todd Terry and German mixers Tiefschwarz (Jet Black). These tracks were well received in Europe and proved to his devoted fans that Rick still had what it takes. By the end of the year an album named “Keep It Turned On” had been released containing a mixture of dance tunes and ballads.
Polydor wanted Rick to go on and release the title track to the “Keep it turned on” album, but by this time another project had taken Rick’s fancy… Before this project was to get the green light, BMG in the UK decided to release a compilation CD of Rick’s Greatest Hits. Similar packages had sold well in the US and Asia, but there was an air of uncertainty as to how the UK public would receive this collection after so many years out of the limelight…
The BBC were the first to embrace the collection, awarding it “Radio 2′s Gold Album of the Week” which guaranteed that tracks would be played several times a day, throughout the week. Even though there were no appearances from Rick to promote the CD, it entered the UK album charts at an astonishing #16, and 6 months later the British Phonographic Industry had certified the album as “Gold”, for selling in excess of 100,000 copies.
After the release of his Greatest Hits package, Rick collaborated with his 5-string banjo playing friend, “Max” – aka Holger Hubertus Hoetzel and this produced two tracks which appeared on Max’s 2003 album “Blue Lounge”. “This River” is a classic Rick Astley ballad with a country feel, whereas “Prince of Peace” is an up-tempo rock track with powerful lyrics.
2004 was to be a special year for British Rick fans when a surprise 8 date tour was announced for September. It would be the first stage appearance for Rick in 14 years! The tour kicked off in Dublin and included most of Britain’s major cities before finishing at The Criterion Theatre in London. It even included a concert at the world-famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, a venue most musicians are honoured to play in. Each performance comprised of ‘classic’ songs from past decades including Sinatra, Bacharach and The Carpenters as well as a few from Mr Astley’s musical resume. The sell out tour was hailed a success attracting an audience of all generations with some attendees travelling from as far a-field as mainland Europe and Mexico!
2005 saw Rick extend his tour with 7 more dates performing with the same band and set. SonyBMG were so impressed with how Rick performed the standards like they were tailor made for his voice that they offered him a record deal, but the decision on what sort of material Rick should produce proved difficult. Happy with how his tour had been going, Rick was reluctant to sign the deal, but eventually SonyBMG convinced him that they would support an album with similar material.
SonyBMG’s long term plans for Rick were for him to record something more fitting for the dance floor, but to compromise, Rick recorded his Portrait album, containing some Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Elvis covers but with a faster tempo. It turned out to be an album that neither Rick or SonyBMG were particularly happy with. By October, Portrait got a release, but Rick was already looking forward to his next project, so he only made a few TV appearances to promote it.
During November he was invited onto the ITV show “The Best Pop Songs Ever” to perform “Never Gonna Give You Up” and later, he sung “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve at Norwich Cathedral, which was viewed by a Worldwide audience.
Rick spent 2006 penning songs for a new album, and by the end of the year he went to a studio in the United States to begin the recording. However, before the album was complete, Rick’s attention got diverted to an undisclosed project in Los Angeles and he decided that it was this new project that he wanted to pursue. The relationship with SonyBMG has now come to an end and Rick has been working on this project ever since.
In August 2007 he made a Radio appearance to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of “Never Gonna Give You Up” and revealed the project was a musical. In October 2007, Rick signed up to the extremely successful 80s Tour called “The Here & Now Tour”. He has been given top billing and will be performing the songs that made him famous.
2008 turned out to be his most active for a long time and started on Easter Monday, March 24th when he appeared on Radio BBC 2 on a show called ‘The Producers’. The focus of the show was on Rick’s producers in the 80′s, Stock, Aitken & Waterman and Rick gave some insight and perspective to his time there. In April he made a rare public appearance with his wife Lene for the premiere of her latest film ‘Flashbacks of a Fool’.
April also saw the interenet phenomenon ‘Rick-rolling’ come to mainstream news. The internet meme involved enticing someone into clicking a link to something but instead they put through to Rick’s video of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. The prank became something of a craze in the year preceding making ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ one of the most viewed videos on YouTube making Rick one of the world’s best known pop stars as a result. The story hit TV and paper news all around the world. On April 10th, The Anonymous (protestors against Scientology) performed a Rick-roll in Liverpool Street Station, London. The station was filled with commuters witnessing the Anonymous sing ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’.
The ‘Here & Now’ Tour kicked off in Nottingham on May 10th 2008. It was a very emotional evening as it was the first time in nearly 20 years that Rick had appeared on stage singing his 80′s hits. He was given a hero’s welcome, something that was echoed in Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton, London, Birmingham and Newcastle. Rick had a great time doing the shows and agreed to a few more in the summer.
The summer ‘Here & Now’ dates took Rick to Shrewsbury on 16th July, Blickling Hall in Norfolk on 19th and Powderham Castle in Exeter on 28th.
“Rick walked away right at the height. People look at other artists like Simply Red and say they were big, but he out-sold them two to one.” – Pete Waterman.