“If somebody sends me a video link, I just don't look at it,” laughs Rick Astley, with the knowing weariness of a man who’s well used to life as a human meme.
Until 2008, Astley was perhaps best known as the singer of the Eighties cheese-fest Never Gonna Give You Up, and might’ve gone down in history as a bit of a one-hit wonder were it not for the surreal, topsy-turvy humour of the internet, and online pranksters borrowing his song for the bizarre phenomenon of Rick-rolling.
A type of bait and switch, Rick-rolling involves hiding Astley’s music video inside a tempting link â usually something relatively spicy, like a highly anticipated trailer for an upcoming game, or spoilers for a huge, unreleased TV show â and when unsuspecting users click it, they’re instead greeted by a soft-focus Astley prancing around in a trench coat singing his most famous hit.
In 2008, when the meme first began, fans voted en masse to crown Astley Best Act Ever at the MTV Europe Music Awards; arguably the ultimate Rick-Roll. That same year, a survey found that over 18 million Americans had fallen for a Rick-roll. But, while a lot of online in-jokes tend to fizzle out relatively quickly, this has endured. Thanks to a more recent pandemic resurgence among bored students stuck at home on Zoom all day, the music video eventually flew past a billion streams in 2021.
“In the very beginning of it, all those years ago, it was super weird, because YouTube was still in its infancy,” Astley says. “I got Rick-rolled in the very beginning, about 15 years ago, by a friend of mine. I didn't know what Rick-rolling was! I called him and said, ‘What are you doing’ and he explained what it was. Now, I’ve got a little bit more wise to it.”
After initially being fairly wary of the whole thing, Astley has begun embracing his slightly bizarre status more and more in recent years. On several occasions in 2017, Foo Fighters performed an elaborate musical Rick-roll by inviting Astley onstage as their special guest to perform a grunge-ified version of Never Gonna Give You Up; when Dave Grohl played a secret Club NME show at the titchy Hackney venue Moth Club two years later, Astley was his surprise drummer.
“He’s quite a special bloke,” he says, of Grohl. "He was the drummer in Nirvana… let's just even think about that for a second, right? That's one thing. And he's been through some unbelievably tragic, terrible things and yet remains somebody who seems to be unbelievably positive.” When Grohl was in Nirvana, his bandmate Kurt Cobain died in 1994, aged 27; last year, Foo Fighters’ drummer Taylor Hawkins died while on tour with the band, the same year Grohl lost his mother.
“When you're around him, or even just watching him on the telly, for God's sake, there's something going on with him,” Astley says of Grohl's apparent sense of optimism. “It's almost like there's nothing they [Foo Fighters] can't do. It's honestly like they're a gang of pirates, and they've just rolled into town. I'm pretty in awe of the fact that he's one of the people who will just get up and do anything.”
Meanwhile, this summer led to a full-blown Ricknaissance. Shortly after an estimated 60,000 punters dragged their hungover husks out of their tents at Glastonbury to pack out his midday set, his Smiths tribute act up at Woodsies – which sees Astley doing his best Morrissey impression, backed by the Manchester indie band Blossoms – became the unlikely sensation of the entire festival. “I was just on a permanent high,” he says, of the day he became the so-called King of Glastonbury and played to one of the festival's busiest tents. “The Blossoms thing was bonkers… The atmosphere in that tent was just ridiculous.”
The unlikely supergroup first met at One Love Manchester; the benefit concert Ariana Grande staged a year after the Manchester Arena terror attack. From here, they became mates, and further down the line Astley made an offhand comment about putting on a one-off night of Smiths covers.
“I've done loads of gigs where I've sung other people's songs: last year I did a Sinatra thing [for Christmas],” he says. “I've got a three piece midlife crisis rock band with two friends, and we do punk nonsense. I like playing other people's crap! I don’t really care, I’m too old to care.” To his surprise Blossoms came back a week later and seriously offered their services as backing band. “I thought, we'll just find a pub in Stockport!” he laughs. Instead, they ended up playing a pair of gigs before taking over Worthy Farm.
Despite sounding like a fever dream, or the result of a random event generator, their Smiths homage has obvious appeal. Not only is Astley’s booming vocal and affinity for a campily rolled R tailor-made for the endeavour, there’s also the fact that certain The Smiths fans may now prefer to enjoy the music, minus the Morrissey (he’s become a fairly divisive and controversial figure in recent years due to his support of far-right activism). Astley initially tip-toes around the subject: “Love him or loathe the guy – as people seem to do these days – you can’t deny he’s one of the most amazing lyricists ever”. How does he really feel about him?
“I read somewhere, and it’s an old phrase... separate the art from the artist,” he says. “There’s a lot of painters that were complete arseholes, and horrifically horrible people, but they created beautiful works of art that are hanging in galleries all around the world, and people who are good, upstanding, forthright, decent people go and admire that art, and don't think about whether that guy was a misogynist f**king prat, you know what I mean?
"I don't see that there's any difference from a musical artist, to a painter, sculptor, or whatever it is. I just say to myself, what they created was absolutely incredible and beautiful. I've seen a couple of Smith's tribute bands, and I must say Johnny Marr’s pretty amazing when he does it. I’ve not seen Morrissey [live] to be fair.”
Novelty moments aside, though, Astley’s solo material is also being taken more seriously – his recent, Americana-tinged album Are We There Yet? ended up in a tight album chart battle with the Welsh rapper Ren, who eventually triumphed. Astley is gracious in defeat, and admires how Ren has overcome health issues to go from busking on the streets of Brighton all the way to the top of the charts.
“I've got to be very careful when I say this because I don't want to let down the people who have been working on my record in any way when I say this, but we have to have room for new artists,” Astley says. “I know he's not new-new, but he's new to having a number one album."
"Don't get me wrong,” he laughs, “I'll elbow anybody out the way if they’re in my age bracket, but I do feel sometimes that there should almost be two charts. Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, and everybody else, people who are a bit older, and a bit this that and the other and then… what I mean by that, and I'm ranting a bit now, but it just feels a bit weird that you're going up against someone who's got the possibility to have their first number one album.”
Tom Cruise has reportedly lent Astley his stunt team â currently out of work due to the ongoing Hollywood strikes – for his next music video, which will be directed by Simon Pegg. Though it’s true that they’re using a crew who were supposed to be “working on Mission Impossible, or some big Hollywood movie” Astley downplays the story, and says that it was organised by Pegg. “Unless Simon's called him or texted him. I'm sure he [Tom Cruise] doesn't know anything about it,” he laughs.
“It's messed up from all sides,” he says of the wider situation unfolding in the film industry. “It's so messed up, and so intricate and so detailed, because you've got someone who's a lampy, or whatever the term is, and it’s like: you're not gonna work now for months, because of this. We've just mentioned Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Mission Impossible. Obviously, that's a huge monster thing, but it affects everybody. Unless the big ones stick up for the little ones, nothing's going to happen.”
And after decades as a bit of a derided underdog, Astley says he has no regrets about how his music career has panned out, and has no qualms with forever being associated with a single song – even as he continues releasing new albums, and finds himself midway through a two-night residency at the Royal Albert Hall.
“On the one hand, you want people to know about the new stuff you’ve done. Every artist wants people to know they’ve made a record, and there it is, and that’s what’s important, and 'Listen to it, please'. But the truth of it is, the main reason that I get opportunities is because of Never Gonna Gonna Give You.”
“It precedes me. It's part of me, it's part of my DNA.”
Rick Astley's new album Are We There Yet? is out now