Rick Astley on playing Hampton Court Palace, chart-topping hits and never giving up
- Credit: TBC
Eighties pop singer Rick Astley provided the soundtrack for a generation, but then decided to pack it all in. As he prepares to perform on his home turf at Hampton Court, here he explains why he won’t be giving up again any time soon
In the 1980s, Rick Astley was one of the UK’s most successful pop stars. Thanks to a soulful baritone voice and boy-next-door modesty, he sold more than 40 million records and had eight consecutive top ten singles, including the million-selling Never Gonna Give You Up. But give it up is precisely what he did.
He was on his way to Heathrow, heading for New York, when he decided he’d had enough. “When my daughter Emilie was born, a light went on,” he says. “I looked at my packed itinerary and realised I just didn’t have the fight to do everything my record label wanted.
“All I was doing was promoting records. I was travelling the world, but I never got to see the countries I visited. I also developed a fear of flying, which is a killer for a globe-trotting pop star. The day I quit, I just sat in the car, crying, because I knew it was the end.”
For more than a decade, Rick, 48, disappeared from view and focused on bringing up his daughter. “I basically had time to do whatever I wanted,” he says. “So I built a music studio and learned the nuts and bolts of making records. I also worked on music for my wife’s films [he is married to Lene Bausager, a Danish film producer]. And I was there for my daughter.”
But now he’s back in the spotlight, doing what he does best, and on Friday June 20 he’ll be performing on the same bill as Jason Donovan at Hampton Court Palace Festival. “I haven’t performed there before, but it’s a fantastic venue,” says Rick. “I don’t think Jason and I will be performing together – it depends on how many drinks we have!
“I had coffee with him a few months back and he’s a really decent bloke. He’s been through tough times, but he put his head down and got on with it, and you have to respect him for that.”
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Back in the limelight
Rick will be performing many of his old favourites, from Never Gonna Give You Up and Together Forever to Whenever You Need Somebody and She Wants to Dance with Me. “I’m okay with that,” he says. “That’s what the audience has come for, after all. And I didn’t sing these songs for 15 years so I’m quite comfy doing them now. It’s a trip down memory lane.”
His fans aren’t always the seasoned diehards you might expect. “I see people in the audience and assume they’ve got their mum tickets, but sometimes I ask them and they say, ‘Oh no, we wanted to come.’ That’s one of the beautiful things about the internet. Nothing is buried anymore. Within half an hour, you’re looking at early Police stuff. Or Foo Fighters. Or Diana Ross. One thing leads to another.”
But although Rick is in big demand, he maintains he is no longer famous. “To some degree I am – when I do that gig at Hampton Court, there will be thousands singing along to Never Gonna Give You Up – but the next morning I could go for a coffee across the road and no one would bat an eyelid. But, to me, that’s perfect. If I could have achieved that when I was famous, I might have carried on a bit longer.”
When Rick turned his back on the music business, he retreated to his home in Surrey, where he has lived for the past 20 years. “Initially, we moved to Richmond because we got our daughter into a school we really liked there. Back then, it was a leafy suburban town, but then it got a bit busy, so we moved to Kingston and lived there for a decade. When our daughter was accepted by the Royal College of Art in Copenhagen, we opted for another change. So now we live near Hampton Court.
“It’s a lovely area. Richmond Park is one of my favourite spots – I walk and bike there regularly. There are also some terrific restaurants locally, and I sing and play drums in a rock band called The Luddites – so-called because we perform back to basics rock. We’ve played at the Rose Theatre in Kingston a few times and East Molesey Cricket Club.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Rick still feels the need to perform because he started singing in his church choir at Newton-le-Willows in Lancashire when he was just ten. He was the lead vocalist in a soul band when he was spotted by record producer Pete Waterman. But Waterman’s subsequent claim that Rick had been nothing but the studio teaboy when he discovered him was a little white lie designed to stir up publicity, says Rick fondly.
“Pete said it on the spur of the moment, though there was some truth in it,” he smiles. “I signed a deal with him and shortly afterwards Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW) became the biggest producers in Europe, so I was put on the backburner. Recognising this, Pete invited me to hang out at the studio to learn the ropes. So I did end up making tea for a lot of people, but I’d already been discovered!”
Rick went on to become the Hit Factory’s biggest star and his first solo offering, Never Gonna Give You Up, spent five weeks at No 1 in 1987, before storming the charts in no fewer than 24 countries. “The amount of hits they had was bonkers, though Pete was always a bit Woolworths about it. He never did anything cool, but I don’t think he wanted to. That’s not what they were about. They were hit-makers and their distinctive sound transcended the artist. They were trying to emulate the whole Motown thing.”
Rick’s image back then seems charmingly naive compared with the slick standards of contemporary artists. I ask whether he had a stylist and he laughs. “Are you serious? The week Never Gonna Give You Up went to No 1, I was promoting the record in Scotland and got a call informing me that I would be appearing on Top of the Pops that Thursday. My management company had no idea what I was going to wear, so I had to dash around Glasgow trying to find something – and that was it. Later, when we filmed the pop video, the director just said, ‘There’s the camera... shuffle about a bit.’”
Fame hit him like an express train and he made his first million in seven months. “I guess it affects people in different ways. Some people trash their hotel rooms. I was the kind of guy who’d trash the room, but quickly put it back together again. I didn’t have any blow-outs in the conventional sense, but the pressure slowly built up. I’m pretty sure my fear of flying developed because I didn’t want to do what I had to do when I got off the plane.”
Move to soul
He also became the victim of his own success and the media branded him a puppet of SAW, even though he wrote five tracks on his first album. So, in 1990, Rick decided to part company with the record producers, and moved towards his passion, soul.
At that point, he also ditched his boy-next-door image and grew his hair long, though he maintains the latter was just laziness. “I made two albums, one of which barely saw the light of day,” he says with disarming candour. “But the first did okay and we had a song called Cry for Help, which was a top ten hit around the world.” Then came that lightbulb moment on the way to the airport and he retired aged just 26. “I was very lucky. I’d had lots of hits, so it made it very easy to walk away.”
He only set foot on stage again when he was offered a huge sum to sing in Japan. “I’d had loads of invitations to perform my old stuff and had always said no. But when I came off stage that first night, I thought, ‘Why the hell haven’t I done this before?’ I’m a show-off, I have an ego and I like singing. I feel it’s something I do well and it seemed crazy not to do it. I do more gigs now than when I was famous. But I’ve been lucky. Because I haven’t spent the past 25 years doing this, I’ve still got some fuel in the tank.”
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: Sonny’s Kitchen just over the border in Barnes. The food is great and there’s a terrific atmosphere. I’ve had business meetings, family dinners, big get-togethers – everything in there.
Shops: I love the antique shops on Bridge Road in East Molesey. I drop in all the time when I go for a morning’s walk, even though I’ve often been the day before. I don’t know what I expect to have changed! I’m collecting portrait paintings at the moment. I have one of the Queen and another of Winston Churchill.
View: The winding River Thames from the Ornamental Gardens in Richmond. It’s one of those quintessential English views.
Place to visit: Again, the River Thames. I’ve owned several boats on the Thames and my favourite stretch is the approach to Hampton Court Bridge.
Place to relax: My garden. It’s the largest we’ve had and it looks good in all seasons. Mind you, I’m not a keen gardener because Dad ran a garden centre and I helped as a kid. If I never have to repot a plant again, it will be too soon.