Music

Rick Astley: 'Too much power in the hands of very rich individuals doesn't feel right'

Rick Astley was 2023’s comeback kid, with ecstatically received festival shows and a hit new album, with an arena tour on the way

Rick Astley

Rick Astley. Image: Austin Hargrave

Rick Astley’s hair almost seems to be growing before my very eyes. With each passing moment, it becomes ever more luxuriant and full of body. It was always a fantastic barnet, ever since, as a fresh-faced wunderkind, he first appeared on Top Of The Pops in 1987 performing Never Gonna Give You Up. That song was his first number one hit and has become a bona fide pop phenomenon, its popularity spanning decades and generations, sustaining his fame and powering the Rickroll prank – one of the biggest internet memes of all time.  

Now, in his fifties and riding a wave of renewed professional respect and creative energy, he looks as if he has barely aged since those heady days of the mid-’80s. As we chat over the highlights of 2023 on a Zoom call, I find myself hypnotised by the majesty of his auburn mane. Yes, I am 10 years his junior and completely bald, so my preoccupation with his hair is fuelled by envy and bitterness. But it’s tempting to think that Astley’s knockout year, in which he stormed Glastonbury not once but twice on the same day, surpassed the one billion views mark on YouTube and announcing his 2024 arena tour, has somehow reinvigorated his entire being.  

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Either way, he is full of beans as he reflects on the past 12 months, both in his own life and the wider world, fusing the sage reflections of an elder statesman with the down to earth wonderment of the pop starlet that still seems to live inside of him. Rick Astley, what a guy: a beacon of hope for middle aged men everywhere and quite possibly a new national treasure. Here’s how 2023 looked to him.

What are your memories of your big day at Glastonbury? 

I did my set on the Pyramid Stage and it went better than I could have imagined. I come off stage with all of this adrenaline rushing through me and backstage there’s Paul McCartney and Dave Grohl having a chat which, suddenly, I find myself involved in. It was so surreal. 

Do you remember what you talked about? 

I do actually but I can’t tell you [laughs]. It was incredible to be chatting to these two icons who are very down to earth and normal but at the same time you watch them perform and realise they are also complete geniuses. But you can easily just find yourself chatting about something mundane like kitchen utensils with them. 

You seemed to really love being up there on the Pyramid Stage… did it feel like a natural place to be? 

Well I’d watched my friend Sharleen [Spiteri] earlier in the day with her band Texas. And she was just incredible, the way she walked out right to the front of the runway of the stage and owned it right from the very first moment. I thought to myself, ‘That’s the only way to approach this.’ So I tried to take that same attitude out with me and it worked. You can’t be a wallflower out there. 

Rick Astley at Glastonbury 2023
Rick Astley performs on the Pyramid Stage Glastonbury Festival, 24 June 2023. Image: Dave Hogan/Hogan Media/Shutterstock

And then you went straight across to the big tent and performed a set of Smiths covers with Blossoms.

Yes, that started out as a jokey chat with them a while back in which I said in another life I’d just want to be singing Smiths covers in a pub in Manchester. And they said why don’t we do it together? So we did it in a pub in Stockport in the end, it went great, and so we did the set again at Glastonbury. I was still buzzing from the Pyramid Stage when I went on with them just a couple of hours later. It was incredible. I have always loved The Smiths. The whole day went better than I could have hoped. And it had a ripple effect on everything else that was going on in my career. Putting tickets on sale for 2024, putting out a new record, it all benefited from Glastonbury because the coverage it gets on the BBC goes global. If you perform well there, everyone knows about it. 

Let’s talk about some stuff that went on in the wider world this year. Back in March, Gary Lineker was suspended from Match Of The Day for his political tweets. What did you make of that? 

I love Match of the Day, I’ve always watched it right back since the Jimmy Hill days. I’m a Man United fan but my grandad supported Liverpool and we used to watch it together. I remember watching the episode that went out without Lineker and being a bit confused. I often avoid the news, so I wasn’t fully aware of what had happened. I still don’t know what he actually tweeted, but I did think it was a bit strange for him to be denied the right to have his own opinions on his own personal accounts. That said, I am bothered by the fact that the richest man in the world owns one of the world’s biggest social media platforms. Just as it’s concerning that someone like Murdoch owns so much of the world’s media. Too much power and influence in the hands of very rich individuals doesn’t feel right. There has to be some sort of regulation. 

Part of your revival among younger audiences has been thanks to TikTok. But in March the app was banned within Parliament because it was suspected of being a tool of Chinese espionage. Do you think that could be true? 

Nothing would surprise me about anything with technology, if I’m honest. But it almost sounds so preposterous. Not that the Chinese might be using it as a spying tool. More just the fact that parliament are so frightened of a social media app that they banned it. I mean, when you say TikTok, you think about guys and girls dancing? Or doing something daft. Was that the real reason they banned it? Because they were worried members of staff would be too busy watching stuff to get any work done? 

Did you enjoy watching the coronation of our new king? 

Well, I didn’t put the day aside especially. I mean, I think the Queen’s death probably affected me a bit more. I’m not particularly a royalist, but I’m certainly not anti-royal. I think they have helped the country in certain ways. I think for our grandparents’ generation they helped give hope and a bit of relief during the second world war. Somebody from the royal family saying, ‘We’re in it with you. Let’s all have a cup of tea, and we’ll get through this.’ Yeah, probably meant a lot in those days.  

In the autumn. Suella Braverman said that living in tents on the street was a lifestyle choice. Should she have been sacked straight away? 

I think very often, politicians are so removed from the lives of normal people. I mean, so am I to be fair. I’ve got no frickin’ clue what people are going through because I’m an 80s pop star with a very, very comfortable life. I’ve got no clue. And I see people in the street, and I see people, you know, struggling. I go past a food bank, and I’m sort of like ‘Christ, is that where we are today?’ I mean, we’re a very highly sophisticated Western country and yet we’ve got food banks. As a kid you would have related that sort of thing to a country in some sort of extreme crisis or a war. And I don’t think politicians recognise what so many ordinary people are going through. There seems to be no connection between their lives and those of the people they represent. We need to find a way of building more of a connection.  

Still, why did [Braverman] say those things? She must have had advisors around her telling her how it would come across. She must have realised people would be angry. But I think that lots of politicians just like to be a mouthpiece, they want attention and they want to be on telly having controversial opinions about everything.  

What did you think of The Beatles releasing Now And Then? 

I liked it. I’m a huge Beatles fan. Growing up in my house there was a huge amount of their music played. I fell in love with them, then Marvin Gaye, then a lot of prog rock and eventually The Smiths. That was my musical education. But everything comes back to The Beatles. And that song was a very romantic notion. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that if John were still alive, he might have invited the other three over to New York to finish that track together. My wife and I managed to see McCartney in Texas last year. We laughed and we cried. Not just because the music was so great, but because hearing those Beatles songs is like watching your life back. 

Rick Astley’s new album Are We There Yet? is out now on BMG. He will tour the UK and Ireland in February and March 2024 

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