Rick Astley will forever be remembered for Never Gonna Give You Up. Despite its utterly formulaic and unspectacular Stock, Aitken and Waterman production, this otherwise banal throwaway was carried, by his rich baritone voice, to Number 1 in the UK, 30 years ago this week.
SAW have to have been the laziest production team in history. Notoriously, they just used DX7 synth factory presets and Linn 9000 drum patterns stolen from Italian disco records. Pete Waterman did absolutely nothing, while Mike Stock and Matt Aitken would hack together something passable but leave the hard work of completing a track to their “B Team”. In fact, more effort seems to have gone into Morris Minor and the Major’s parody of their process than any of SAW’s actual records. In the case of Never Gonna Give You Up, the lyrics weren’t even complete when S&A left the studio — an uncredited junior team member finished them off. And, with typical Hit Factory insouciance, there was no middle eight. The poor mix engineer was expected to come up with something to create a bit of interest half way through, and pad it out to a reasonable length. The usual solution was to paste in an extra instrumental verse and drop in a line or two from earlier in the song. In this case, Pete Hammond got the short straw and devised the sampled and syncopated “never gonna give, never gonna give” motif. In fact NGGYU runs out of ideas about a minute and a half in. It only has two verses. Evidently there was a third verse but it must have been so trite — even by SAW standards — that it was never used. Shamelessly, Pete Waterman later defended this approach to production by comparing it to the output of Motown in the 1960s. We have to assume that’s Coventry humour.
Rick must have quickly known he would never shake off the NGGYU albatross. He eventually parted with SAW and, for a decade, retired from the music business. But in 2004, free to follow a style of his own choosing, he started quietly touring again. Then something quite odd happened. In May 2007, a jolly prankster deliberately misdirected people who were looking for a trailer of the latest Grand Theft Auto to the NGGYU video. ‘Rickrolling’ was born — and exploded. For a time, every other clickbait link led to Rick. At the phenomenon’s peak, as an April Fool, all YouTube’s front page recommendations were Rickrolls. This all brought Astley back into public view and he “won” MTV Europe’s “Best Act Ever” award, after a surge of Boaty McBoatFace-style voting. Although the video has since had over 400,000,000 views, Rick has allegedly only ever received $12 royalties. Yet he isn’t embittered, regarding it as a somewhat humorous episode in his life. He’s still playing along with the joke to this day; earlier this week he was on stage with Foo Fighters, Rickrolling Smells Like Teen Spirit.
I rather like that he’s outlived the Stock, Aitken and Waterman fad and just goes and does what he likes doing – like drumming and singing Highway To Hell. You wouldn’t get this from any other guy…