How Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” Went from 80s Pop Smash to Bastion of Internet Culture: A Short Documentary

It was an iso­lat­ing exis­tence, being a Rick Ast­ley fan at the turn of the mil­len­ni­um. I was in high school at the time, and it was on a week­end-morn­ing cable-TV binge that I hap­pened first to hear his music — albeit just a few sec­onds of it — on a com­mer­cial for one of those order-by-phone nos­tal­gia com­pi­la­tions. Intrigued by the con­trast of the unabashed nine­teen-eight­ies pro­duc­tion, equal­ly ener­getic and syn­thet­ic, against Ast­ley’s pow­er­ful, unusu­al­ly tex­tured voice, I went straight to Audio­Galaxy for the MP3. Even before I’d heard its whole three and a half min­utes, I was hooked. The song of which I speak is, of course, “Togeth­er For­ev­er.” 

You’ve got to remem­ber that, two decades ago, Ast­ley’s debut sin­gle “Nev­er Gonna Give You Up” had­n’t yet racked up a bil­lion views on Youtube. Nor could you even find it on Youtube; nor, come to that, could you find any­thing on Youtube, since it did­n’t exist. It was then quite easy to be unaware of the song, and indeed of Ast­ley him­self, giv­en that he’d burnt out and retired from the music busi­ness in the mid-nine­teen-nineties. If you’d heard of him, you might well have writ­ten him off as an eight­ies flash-in-the-pan. (Yet to be res­ur­rect­ed by the retro gods, the aes­thet­ics of that decade were still at their nadir of fash­ion­abil­i­ty.) But in its day, “Nev­er Gonna Give You Up” was a pop phe­nom­e­non of rare dis­tinc­tion.

The short Vice doc­u­men­tary above recounts how Ast­ley became an overnight sen­sa­tion, bring­ing in the singer him­self as well as his orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion team: Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Pete Water­man, the trio who cre­at­ed the sound of British eight­ies pop. It was while play­ing with a band in his small north­ern home­town that Ast­ley caught Stock Aitken Water­man’s ear, and soon there­after he found him­self work­ing as a “tea boy” in their Lon­don stu­dio. At that time he lived at Water­man’s home, and after over­hear­ing the lat­ter scream­ing at his girl­friend through his giant eight­ies phone, he made a fate­ful remark: “You’re nev­er gonna give her up, are you?”

From there, “Nev­er Gonna Give You Up” seems prac­ti­cal­ly to have writ­ten itself, though its pro­duc­ers admit to hav­ing ill sensed its poten­tial dur­ing record­ing. Shelved for a time, the song was final­ly includ­ed on a mag­a­zine mix tape, at which point it went the eight­ies equiv­a­lent of viral: air­play on the inde­pen­dent Cap­i­tal Lon­don soon crossed over to a vari­ety of main­stream radio for­mats. “They had­n’t got a clue that he was a white guy,” says Water­man, nor, as Ast­ley him­self adds, that he “looked about eleven years old.” All was soon revealed by the music video — then still a nov­el form — hasti­ly and some­what ama­teur­ish­ly pro­duced in the wake of the sin­gle’s chart-top­ping suc­cess.

These not-unap­peal­ing incon­gruities inspired one of my fel­low Mil­len­ni­als, a young enlist­ed man named Sean Cot­ter, to relaunch Ast­ley’s hit into the zeit­geist in 2007. “I imme­di­ate­ly knew I want­ed to make this thing into a meme,” he says, and so he invent­ed “rick­rolling,” the prank of send­ing an unre­lat­ed-look­ing link that actu­al­ly leads to the “Nev­er Gonna Give You Up” video. Despite orig­i­nat­ing in a spir­it of mock­ery, it enabled the come­back Ast­ley had been ten­ta­tive­ly attempt­ing in the pre­ced­ing years. Today, at a dis­tance from the eight­ies and the two-thou­sands alike, we can final­ly hear “Nev­er Gonna Give You Up” for what it is: an inspired work of pop songcraft that reflects the dis­tinc­tive appeal of both its era and its per­former — or as Ast­ley puts it, “a bloody hit, man.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Youtube’s Algo­rithm Turned an Obscure 1980s Japan­ese Song Into an Enor­mous­ly Pop­u­lar Hit: Dis­cov­er Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plas­tic Love”

The Ulti­mate 80s Med­ley: A Nos­tal­gia-Induc­ing Per­for­mance of A‑Ha, Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode, Peter Gabriel, Van Halen & More

Is the Viral “Red Dress” Music Video a Soci­o­log­i­cal Exper­i­ment? Per­for­mance Art? Or Some­thing Else?

Rick Ast­ley Sings an Unex­pect­ed­ly Enchant­i­ng Cov­er of the Foo Fight­ers’ “Ever­long”

Stu­dent Rick­rolls Teacher By Sneak­ing Rick Ast­ley Lyrics into Quan­tum Physics Paper

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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