Rick Astley: The pop idol returns

He was the biggest singing star of the Eighties, with 19 million album sales and eight consecutive number ones. Then, aged just 27, Rick Astley dramatically left the stage. In his first interview in a decade, he reveals to Ed Caesar why he turned his back on fame
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"I did enjoy it," he says. "But it was very, very weird. You can blab on about seeing the other side of fame, but it doesn't mean shit until it happens to you. It wasn't so much the going on TV, or going to award ceremonies, or having a camera focused on your face. It was being famous in the supermarket, being famous in a restaurant. Fame is not just about being able to get out of a limo in Leicester Square, it's about trying to get into your house when there are eight photographers outside. When you think about being famous, you don't think about all that stuff. You think about the glamour. I wanted to turn the tap off when I'd done my job. But you can't."

Meet Rick Astley. For two years in the late 1980s, Astley was pop gold. His first eight singles were Top 10 hits, and there was one six-month period when Astley was never out of the Top 40.

By 1993, at the age of 27, having sold 19 million records worldwide, Astley retired. In 1996, he gave a brief interview. He has been silent since. Suffice to say, Astley's relationship with the fame game is complex.

We meet, in Hyde Park, by a bright Serpentine. I am worried, among the throngs of tourists, about recognising Astley. I needn't have been. Now almost 40, he still looks boyish. His trademark auburn quiff has been traded in, perhaps prudently, for a shorter, darker do. And his once lissom midriff is now being treated to a little more comfort. But the flat vowels of Newton-le-Willows have not deserted him. He is still the humble Cheshire lad who got very, very big.

"I was the youngest of four," says Astley. "My mum and my dad divorced when I was five, and I was brought up by my dad. Divorce was unusual in those days, but being brought up by your dad was unusual too, even though I saw my mum on weekends.

"It had a big effect on my outlook with absolutely everything in life. It made me an attention-seeker. I was looking for my mum's attention. We had a housekeeper, who didn't turn up in uniform or anything, but that was unusual, too, in this working-class family. She helped out with the kids, but she didn't replace my mum. My [eldest] sister Jane would take on the mother role a lot - or maybe I just projected that on to her."

It was as a 15-year-old at the local school that Astley first had aspirations to be in pop. He had sung in church choirs before, but he suddenly decided that he wanted to be a drummer, and joined a succession of school bands. Eventually, he ended up in an outfit called FBI, who started to make a name for themselves on the local pub circuit.

When FBI's singer left, Astley took over, and, having previously decided to become "a famous drummer", he realised that he might be able to be "a famous singer" instead. Music, it seems, was not the only part of the life plan. "Show me a teenager who doesn't want to be famous," says Astley. "Who doesn't want to be in a band or be a footballer when they're that age? No one grows up wanting to be an accountant."

Astley would not have to wait long for his shot. The producer Pete Waterman turned up at an FBI gig and offered Astley a contract with a production outfit called Stock, Aitken and Waterman. The snag was that this was a "Rick only" offer, meaning he would have to leave the band. Astley was flattered, but initially turned it down.

"A few months later, I met Pete again," recalls Astley, "and I thought: 'Why not? I'll give it a go.' I was 19 when I signed that deal, and 21 when "Never Gonna Give You Up" came out, so there was a fair amount of time in between." He arrived in London just in time to see SAW become the biggest writing/producing team in British pop. But Astley's role would be confined to making the tea and tidying up the tape room. It was not the "streets are paved with gold" story Astley had envisaged.

"Well, SAW were already contracted to make records for people like Bananarama. They were just on the cusp of getting massive. I made tea for Dead or Alive when they recorded SAW's first No 1 record. Part of that scared me a lot. SAW were changing before my eyes.

"As three blokes, of course, they were changing. They made millions and became household names. But as an outfit, they changed too. Because I was often tidying up the studio at odd times, I'd hear them messing about with stuff that was really different to the stuff they put out.

"But as they became more successful, they used to analyse what characteristics a number one record had, and then do it again. It was formulaic songwriting. There's a difference between the artists they worked with: Dead or Alive are different to Mel and Kim, just as there's a difference between Bananarama and my records. But it's not a massive difference. And the more massive hits they had, the more formulaic it became."

In that two-year hiatus, when Astley was receiving his apprenticeship in formulaic pop, he lodged at Pete Waterman's flat. Did he ever think his avuncular landlord and boss had forgotten about him?

"No - although it did drag on for a bit," grins Astley. "I was seeing other people have No 1 hits, and I'd think: 'Come on, boys'." But it wasn't that they had forgotten me, they just had a lot of records to make. I knew, though, that when I got my turn, it would be a big thing, because SAW were becoming this big hit machine."

And so it came to pass. But, after a whirlwind two years, which saw Astley have eight consecutive Top 10 hits and two huge albums, and become a global pop superstar, he decided that he'd had enough of SAW. To be fair, he could afford to. His record sales had made him, and SAW, extraordinarily rich. "I made the decision on my own," explains Astley. "I wanted to do something else and they didn't. I didn't want to do anything radically different - just making a record with instruments and voices rather than synthesizers."

Astley, though, had not had the happiest of times as the first teaboy of pop. The tabloid press, especially, was not a friend to him. Stories were dredged from the singer's past. Friends and family were involved. But none can have hurt as much as the splash informing the public that Astley had "sold out" his former FBI bandmates.

"Well I did [sell them out]," he says. "But it hurt, that stuff in the tabloids. I wouldn't say I lost sleep over it, but it's not nice. Even though I knew 70 per cent of the people reading it know it's rubbish and will probably turn over the page and read about the football or whatever, it still hurts. If you're in the playground, and some kid starts calling you names, it hurts."

What turned much of the sensation-seeking media against Astley was that the sensibly suited boy was never much of a story. He was never photographed falling out of a nightclub, and he didn't succumb to the temptations of a willing groupie. In fact, for his entire time with SAW, Astley was still seeing his childhood sweetheart, Jake - a girl he met at a cricket club disco.

"I wasn't tempted by all those girls," says Astley. "Most girls who throw themselves at people they don't know are..." Are what? "I don't know. It just makes you cynical. I had my 15 minutes of being the new boy of pop, like lots of people before and after me. Overnight, everyone starts treating you differently, and perceives you differently."

Such adult wisdom from a 21-year-old is admirable, if hard to swallow. Wasn't he ever tempted to cash in on his new-found fame? "Listen, it doesn't matter if you're famous or not, there are guys who like sleeping around with girls, and there are guys who don't. I admire the female form in all its glory, but if you're with someone you're with someone and that's it. If I'd been single at the time, then it all might have been very different, but I wasn't."

Jake and Rick separated amicably at the same time that the singer was parting ways with SAW. But Astley was not single for long. He met his match in Leena, a Danish promoter for his new record label, RCA, in 1988, and they have been together ever since. They had a daughter together in 1992, in between two albums, the moderately successful Free (1991), and the undeniable turkey that was Body and Soul (1993).

"My heart wasn't in Body and Soul," says Astley. "And it was a disaster. I was so bummed out by it all that I thought I didn't want to do it anymore. I used to go into RCA and I wouldn't know anyone and nobody would know me. I was a fish out of water.

"I remember the feeling vividly. I started to feel real pressure. When you want to keep having Top 5s - that's a certain type of pressure. But when it's all coming apart at the seams, that's a different type of pressure. I thought I'd rather be at home with my kid."

And that is exactly what Astley did. He went home, and stayed at home. He had offers of "shitloads of money" to do tours of his old material, but he always turned them down. "I always thought it might be too big a risk," says Astley. "My family weren't the reason I packed it all in. My days were numbered and my chances of pulling my career around were slim.

"But there have been times when I thought - would me and Leena still be together if I'd had a few more No 1s? Would my daughter be living with her dad or mum, like I did? I don't say that to put pressure on my family, but it's been a factor in staying away."

So now Astley lives in comfortable suburban seclusion in Kingston, drives his daughter to school, and... does what exactly? "God knows. I'm not a normal dad. I'm not going to try to fool you and say I'm a normal dad. I made a lot of money in the Eighties and I don't have to go to work. That's not normal. But I don't really know where the time's gone. I did a bit of film music for a gospel film called Oh Happy Day, which my partner co-produced. And, generally I just indulge a few hobbies - I've got a motorboat on the Solent - and go on a lot of holidays. I see friends a lot."

Why Astley would want to puncture this moneyed bliss by releasing another album and thrusting himself, albeit less prominently, into the spotlight again, is hard to fathom. The truth, he says, is he is enjoying music again, and he felt he was old enough to laugh at his former life as a pop star. But he still talks about the "fear factor" in being back in the public eye. What is so hypnotic and repellent about fame for him?

"I haven't quite worked it out. And I don't mind admitting I've had a bit of therapy to try to resolve some of these issues. Fame's such a weird thing, but why would you not do something because you might get famous?" It's the kind of convoluted hypothetical that has taxed Astley in his years in exile.

What Astley's fame problem boils down to - he concludes - is the effect it has on personality. "No one can be 100 per cent themselves in front of a live TV camera. You switch into gear. You're professional. That's weird."

Astley was more musically interesting, and more interested in music, than anyone at SAW would allow him to be. Still, SAW gave him what he wanted - attention and a substantial sum of money. It was, and still is, a devil's handshake for him. "There is a part of me that is utterly seduced by it," says Astley, raising his head, as if the answer lay among the Serpentine's swans. "It gives you a status that no one else can have. You're either famous or you're not. I find it intriguing, bizarre... But in all that time [I was famous], I never really shared any of it. I was on my own."

Astley, always wise beyond his years, got out on his own terms, and found someone to share things with. Now he is amiable, cautious and devoted to his family. But the cautionary note still serves - this is what happens when you make a drummer a superstar.

Patience is released on Monday on SonyBMG

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