Never gonna give him up
RICK ASTLEY, Stock, Aitken & Waterman's only talented act. Oh keep your hair on, Big Fun were amazing, but you know what I mean. Rick Astley stood out back in 1987 and not just because of the height of his quiff. He stood out because he could sing. And that, in the era of Milli Vanilli and Jason Donovan, was a rarity.
And, of course, the other thing about Rick Astley that set him apart is that, despite his debut single being No 1 in 16 countries, clocking up record sales of 19 million and amassing a horde of squealing fans that Bros could only dream about, at the height of his powers, aged only 26, he left it all behind.
And now he's back.
Headlining the feverishly anticipated nostaligia-fest that is the Here & Now tour, which rolls into Glasgow this coming weekend, Rick Astley's back on centre stage. But, lest he get ideas above his station, he's going to be joined by 1980s stalwarts, including Bananarama, Paul Young, Cutting Crew and Curiosity Killed the Cat. Hand me my luminous socks and ra-ra skirt, this is going to be awesome.
But, hang on, didn't Rick quit because he realised that being a popstar was an emotionally empty, creatively barren pursuit? Well yes he did, actually.
"I know it's boring when popstars moan about how hard they have it," he says cheerily. "It's not hard in that you get lots of money if you're successful and the fame can be great too, but for me it just wasn't what I thought it would be."
This might be perceived as bitterness, but the way Rick Astley tells it, it couldn't sound further from that. It sounds like a perfectly reasonable response to what is, in many ways, a perfectly ludicrous profession. "It's hard to enjoy the music side of things when all people really want you to do is go on after the juggler but before the camel who can spit," he says. "And I'm saying that because I've been that person."
It was, according to Astley, a case of all show and no substance. "I hadn't done any living," he says. "I'd been to Japan, I'd been to America, I'd been all over the place but I hadn't really grown up. "I'm not moaning – and I did make loads of money – but I used to look at my friends and wonder who had got the better deal. It just wasn't what I wanted to do."
Astley has acquired something of a reputation for being a little tetchy with journalists. Too many 'what if' questions, perhaps? But if he's been difficult in the past, he's on his best behaviour with me today. Full of chat and story after story, he is, I can honestly say, the most well– adjusted popstar I've ever interviewed.
The youngest of four, Astley grew up in Newton-Le-Willows. At school, he appeared in every school play they'd give him a part in, and he sang in the church choir. As his musical interests developed he graduated from being a drummer to lead singer and then it was only a matter of time and serendipity before pop guru Pete Waterman saw him and took him to London to make his fortune.
It sounds like a dream come true, and Astley was certainly perfectly formed to be the next baby-faced poster boy of the Hit Man's chart-topping record machine. For the singer himself, the adoration promised by pop success met a deep-rooted need, as he now recognised. "Most of the people who want to get into pop music and performance have usually got something else going on," he suggests.
"Yes, they're into music and they like it – and some might never discover what else is driving them to seek the attention and the love – but certainly for me I had an unusual upbringing and that definitely played a part. I was brought up by my dad. My mum left when I was four. I used to see her quite a lot but I wasn't brought up by her. There's a definite connection there as to why I wanted attention."
See what I mean? Astley is open, honest and self-aware. He's had plenty of time to think about why he was drawn to pop music (and partly it is simply because he likes to sing) and why he walked away. He's so together I can't help but wonder if pop stardom isn't wasted on the young.
"By the end I'd had enough of it. I developed a fear of flying, I wasn't enjoying it, I didn't like who I was anymore. It was time to stop. I never got into drugs because I had good people around me. I was never in a scene where that was available. But people do turn to that because there's something missing.
"When you find out that singing in front of 10,000 people isn't enough to fill that particular hole you've got, then you're knackered because that's when you turn to something else."
At 42, Astley's spent the past decade and a half living the quiet life with his wife (Oscar-winning film producer Lene Bausager) and daughter Emilie, who's now 16, in Richmond. He takes a walk in the park every day and he hardly ever gets recognised, though he doesn't mind when he does. He's just finished working on a film script for a musical for which he's also written all of the songs. And of course, there's Here & Now.
So how did that come about? "I did a Here & Now in Japan a couple of years ago and it was really good," he says. "I was ready to hate it – well, hate is too strong – but I didn't think I'd like it, but I thought it's on the other side of the world, if I don't like it it's no harm done, it's only three gigs. But actually I enjoyed it."
But it must feel different surely? Performing for thousands of screaming fans again, and singing those same old songs? "It's nostalgia, that's what it is," he says. "It's a wave, the 90s will be back soon. But I think you need almost two decades distance for anything to become cool again.
"The same's true for me. I've got so much distance from a song like Never Gonna Give You Up that for me to sing it again is absolutely fine."
And what's it like seeing all of the old gang again? "We all did a photoshoot the other day and, to be honest, I'm 42 and some of them are older and although some of them do a lot more than I do, we're not really in that space anymore – of being pop stars.
"We could probably go en masse into Sainsbury's and do our shopping and no-one would bat an eyelid. Even when I was 21, I was one of those people who thought wouldn't it be great if you could go on stage and sing and then just come off stage and forget all about it. And that's exactly what I can do now. I'll do a gig in front of thousands of people and then the next day I can go to the supermarket and no-one looks twice. It's weird but it's also fantastic. It's the best of both worlds."
So the music's fun again, he likes singing for stadiums packed with fans who all know the words and he's obviously dealt with baggage created after walking away from fame when at the tender age of 26. Is there nothing that troubles Rick Astley?
"My wife's a film producer and she's just worked on Flashbacks of a Fool with Daniel Craig. We had all the family down for the premier and my brother Mike came along. We're not identical, but we do look alike and as we walked up the red carpet and people were looking at us I suddenly realised that he could've done half of the promotional work that I used to have to do.
"I used to go all over the place but often all they wanted me to do was mime. He could've done that and no-one would've known. Record companies should sign twins, it's as simple as that."
• Here & Now is at the SECC, Glasgow, 7:30pm, 10 May, tickets 34.50. Tel: 0870 040 4000
Three wise men & the stars
THE trio collectively known as Stock Aitken Waterman, who made a star out of Rick Astley, are the most successful songwriting and producing team of all time, having racked up more than 100 top-40 hits in the UK between the late 1980s and mid 1990s. Their sound originated in the HiNrG popular in mid-Eighties gay clubs and evolved into mainstream "bubblegum" pop: here are some more of their most successful signings:
DEAD OR ALIVE
You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) by Dead or Alive was the first UK No1 hit for the Stock Aitken Waterman production trio. First released in November 1984, it reached No1 in March 1985, and peaked at No11 in the US charts in September 1985.
SAW's success with Dead or Alive attracted the attention of female pop group Bananarama, who wanted to record a cover version of Shocking Blue's Venus. The upbeat result became a worldwide chart hit and went to No1 in the US. The group then made SAW their main producers and collaborated with them on some of their biggest hits, including Love in the First Degree, I Can't Help It, and I Heard a Rumour.
One of SAW's most successful artists – and probably the most famous today – was Kylie Minogue. The Neighbours actress's first 13 singles got into the top ten in the UK, with her debut single I Should Be So Lucky spending five weeks at No1. Her album Kylie was the top-selling album of 1988 and fifth highest-selling album of the 1980s.
Kylie's love interest on and off screen was fellow Neighbours actor Jason Donovan. While the heart-throb hasn't sustained the same level of success as Kylie, SAW wrote and produced his 1989 album Ten Good Reasons, which was the highest-selling album of that year.
In the space of six years Sinitta churned out 14 top-50 hits, including Toy Boy, Right Back Where We Started From and Cross My Broken Heart. This was thanks mainly to SAW, who claimed that Sinitta possessed the "sexiest voice we ever produced".
Sonia's musical career began in 1989, when she was signed after cornering Pete Waterman outside a recording studio in Liverpool and asking him to listen to her sing. Waterman, who did a regular weekly radio broadcast, had her sing live on his show. She went on to have several hits in the UK, including the No1 single You'll Never Stop Me From Loving You.