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Rick Astley: How the '80s star rolled back into the spotlight

After two decades away, ’80s pop star Rick Astley is back with a new album—and embracing his status as an internet phenomenon

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Media coverage of Melania Trump’s speech at last July’s Republican convention in Cleveland mostly focused on its similarity to a previous address made by Michelle Obama in 2008. But some eagle-eyed pundits pointed out that Trump seemed to borrow from a rather different text: Rick Astley’s 1987 No. 1 smash “Never Gonna Give You Up.” At one point, Melania proclaimed that her husband, Donald, “will never, ever give up; he will never, ever let you down,” which closely resembles the promise sung by the crooner. “We all heard about it in the U.K.,” says a bemused Astley a few weeks later about the similarity. “ ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ just doesn’t want to go away.”

The song has certainly enjoyed a remarkable second life over the past decade, thanks to that certain meme dubbed Rickrolling, in which people get tricked into watching a clip of Astley performing the track. The prank—a descendant of “duckrolling”—began in 2007, and since then, about 75 million people have unwittingly clicked on the video thinking it would lead to a clip of, say, a cute cat or calamitous sports injury. No one was as surprised by the phenomenon as Astley himself. “A friend Rickrolled me a couple of times,” he recalls. “In the end, I emailed him back, saying, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I didn’t have a clue. Yeah, it was pretty weird!”

Rickrolling doesn’t seem to have hurt Astley’s career. In fact, it’s only helped. After scoring huge hits with “Never Gonna Give You Up” and 1988’s “Together Forever” — and selling more than 40 million records worldwide — the blue-eyed-soul pop star, now 50, completely gave up on music in the early ’90s. Part of his retreat was due to the commercial failure of albums like 1993’s Body & Soul and a shift in taste toward ’90s grunge and hip-hop. But Astley had also developed a chronic fear of flying, which prohibited him from promoting his projects in the States. Now, after 23 years away, he’s returning with a new album, 50. And the world seems happy he’s resurfaced: The collection debuted at No. 1 in the U.K. this summer and will be released in the U.S. on Oct. 7. “I think people of a certain age — my age — who remember me from back in the day, think, ‘Good on you for making a record at 50,’ ” says Astley of the album’s surprising success. “My feeling has been, I can actually look back and say, ‘Well, that’s what I did. I didn’t buy an open-top car and get a second wife. I did that.’ ”

The record is a personal one for Astley. A drummer since childhood, he wrote all the tracks and played every instrument himself. And lyrically, he’s opening up about his private life like never before. On the anthemic “Keep Singing,” Astley reflects on his unhappy upbringing in the English village of Newton-le-Willows. “My parents divorced when I was very young,” he says. “They also had a son who died of meningitis before I was born. So there’s some pretty dark clouds floating around.” Music was an escape for Astley, who sang in the church choir and took parts in school plays. “Anything,” he says, “that got me in a situation where I wasn’t thinking about any of that.”

Those early experiences performing led to getting discovered. In 1985, while singing with his soul band FBI at a showcase,

Astley was talent-spotted by Pete Waterman of the production team Stock Aitken Waterman, whose credits include Bananarama’s “Venus.” The producers put him to work as a “tea boy,” or office assistant, while grooming him for a solo career. “They used to go to the pub every night, and I was allowed to sit with them,” he says. “Like a sponge, I just listened to s— all the time, going, ‘Oh, so that’s how that actually happens!’ ”

Astley’s tea-boy experience helped him cope with the eventual weirdness of his ­success. “I had four or five years that were mental,” he says. “But I’d had a window [into] it.” By the time he released Body & Soul, his fourth album, the hits had dried up — yet his work schedule remained frenetic. In hindsight, he admits his growing fear of flying was a subconscious attempt to escape the music business. “It’s not about getting on the plane,” he says. “I didn’t want to do what was awaiting me when I got off the plane. I did some therapy over it, and [I learned that] it’s a control thing.”

So he removed himself from the pop ­circus and became a stay-at-home father to his then-newborn daughter, Emilie, now

24, whose mother is film producer Lene Bausager. (Astley married Bausager, his current manager, in 2013.) “I wanted to be there when my daughter was around,” he says simply, before joking, “I’m going to start making something up because it doesn’t sound cool enough, really!” But around a decade ago, Astley accepted an offer to play a string of dates in Japan, mostly because his wife and daughter were keen to visit the country. The experience was transformative. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a doddle!’ ” he recalls. He’s since found a renewed passion for performance, mixing his classic hits with surprising covers like AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” “We do covers because I like doing it. It reminds me of being a kid,” says Astley.

These days, Astley has embraced his status as an internet meme. After he Rickrolled a float at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2008, he appeared in a 2015 commercial for Virgin Mobile, where he burst out of a giant birthday cake to sing his signature song. “My wife and I discussed it, and I said, ‘I don’t really want to do that,’ ” he recalls of the advertisement. “Then we saw the script, and I thought, ‘That’s actually quite funny.’… I think [Rickrolling has] been good for me, really. The only reason I’m getting a chance to do this record is because of my old songs and any kind of recognition that gets you through the door. If I was 50 and hadn’t made a record before, I wouldn’t get in any building of any description.” 

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