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.”
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.