Apr 10

RICK ASTLEY – “Never Gonna Give You Up”

Popular69 comments • 9,303 views

#597, 29th August 1987, video

It’s rare for a song’s meaning to change so utterly so long after its release – usually it takes an artist’s death to shift the public’s relationship to a record. But Rick Astley is still thankfully alive, and has reacted to his song’s glorious second life with a jovial – if bemused – good humour. Rickrolling – the practise of hiding links to the “Never Gonna Give You Up” video under apparently innocuous clickthroughs – has transformed his most famous song, turned it into an icon of surprise and the only genuine comedy record on this list. But more than that – rickrolling marked pop’s absorption into internet culture. For music, it’s the equivalent of TIME’s 2006 “Person Of The Year: You” award – except behind that shiny mirror is the benevolent face of a young man with a big voice who’s no stranger to lovin’.

Assuming you trusted that “more” link long enough to reach it, let me offer this explanation. The promise of the social Internet is a democratic promise – not only can anyone create content, but anyone can remix, curate or alter content too. The rickrolling phenomenon applied this principle to the fabric of the web itself – suddenly links, the architecture of interne use, became zones of subversion. Suddenly you didn’t have to be able to remix, you could create an experience simply by the sly deployment of Astley.

The use of the song – the terrible suddenness of Rick – made us ask hard questions about trust, content, the complacency of our expectations. If your illegal download of a leaked and stolen new album turns out to be full of Astley, do you really have the right to be outraged? And when the web group anonymous used “Never Gonna Give You Up” to troll Scientology members rickrolling took on a political dimension. It became a distributed version of punk, and more entryist than New Pop could ever dream of being.

I haven’t talked about the original song or its context in this review because they’ve been thoroughly erased. Whatever the merits of Astley’s recording, its resurrection as a popular everysong is what should concern us now. After all, at the birth of rock’n’roll what made “Rock Around The Clock” so important wasn’t the music but the riots – kids ripping up seats and partying in the aisles, using the music the way they wanted to. The reclamation of “Never Gonna Give You Up” is a moment of equal cultural weight. “Never Gonna Give You Up” is the Campbell’s Soup Can of the web 2.0 era, made remarkable through repetition. Hail hail Rick’n’Roll! 10


Obviously, as soon as I realised that this record was next up and that today was April 1st, the above review wrote itself (the clickthrough video will remain as a tribute – you really don’t need to see Rick again.). Do I mean it? Some of it, certainly – maybe not the “Rick Around The Clock” stuff but rickrolling has transformed the song; internet pranks and lulz culture are interesting; I did enjoy writing the phrase “the terrible suddenness of Rick”.

As Tracer says in the comments (#30), there’s a problematic side to Rickrolling when done lazily, a boring and normative fear of naffness. But set against this is the song’s marvellous elasticity as a tool for pranking: the shrieks of entitled horror from Animal Collective fans when a leak of that band’s album turned out to be 11 Rickrolls, the smugness of a presenter on Christ TV announcing they’d rumbled an attempted roll and people shouldn’t bother sending any more in, minutes before reading out a viewer’s prayer about how God would never run around and desert you. The original gotcha! purpose of the Rickroll is long exhausted but there’s occasional life in it yet.

Also I needed to write something about rickrolls to get out from under them and hear the song again. Is it a ten? No, sorry, and I can’t in all honesty give it more than Mel and Kim either. But it’s a good, doughty piece of pop. Astley’s rich, mannered singing doesn’t quite fit with the pumping background, which gives it a slight incongruity to start with and lets his voice stand out even more. Also, for all his natural talent there’s a galumphing earnestness about his delivery which keeps it likeable – you never for a second think he’s spinning his girl a line; this is one of the nice guys. As a record, it’s had immortality thrust upon it, but for all their bone-deep cynicism, the perpetrators of its second fame couldn’t have picked a warmer song.



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  1. 31
    TomLane on 1 Apr 2010 #

    Yes, yes a perfect 10, but for me it is on the merits of the song. A U.S. #1 as well. Here in the States its as ubiquitous as any monster hit of the 80’s-and that was before the whole Rickroll. Yet, the Rickroll made us all give it a second listen. Some snickered. You either loved or hated Astley in his heyday. We all remember Nick Lowe’s lyric about “ghastly Astley.” For the rest of us who hid the song on our Ipods or Mix CD-R’s and Cassette tapes it was sweet redemption. But this song! It’s picture perfect pop.

  2. 32
    Erithian on 1 Apr 2010 #

    In the States you probably didn’t get to hear the Wonder Stuff’s “Astley in a Noose” either…

  3. 33
    MikeMCSG on 1 Apr 2010 #

    # 25 Thanks glueboy. Did you know she appeared (briefly, as a street punk) in Prisoner Cell Block H too ? There’s a bit of trivia for you !

  4. 34
    Tom on 1 Apr 2010 #

    Well, it was fun while it lasted. POST UPDATED.

  5. 35
    Steve Mannion on 1 Apr 2010 #

    I never got the “roll” aspect – as in ‘eye-roll’ I guess?

    Really don’t mind this song now (5 and a half! It’ll always seem a bit too naff) but not sure how much that has to do with the web meme causing it to be thought about more (it could just as easily have increased hatred for it). SAW clearly had genuine knowledge of and admiration for both classic Soul and cutting-edge club music (NGGYU being a sweet Philly homage thru a House filter) but their approach to commercialising both seemed increasingly problematic.

    I’ve always been surprised at how almost naive Waterman comes across at times (A: too optimistic about the Popstars/Pop Idol format wrt getting more control than the TV producers…as revealed in a video interview with Paul Morley on the Guardian website, worth a view: B; has ideas about Soul that can seem quite narrow and has never seemed anywhere near as interested in Jazz/Jazz-Funk, apart from the three singles SAW released under their own name! Was it on Soul Britannia where he compared Omar to an older singer, with Omar reacting with dismay and even anger at a comparison he felt was totally offbase…can’t remember who it was with sadly!) where I would expect him to be more cynical, and I’m not sure whether the “we can make anyone a star, even the teaboy…especially with a voice that unexpectedly strong” approach leans more towards the former or latter. Or was it more of an optimistic “even the teaboy can be a star…’slong as they can sing good” ? PW carrying this philosophy into Pop Idol.

    Both Astley and SAW make the record work at a basic level but there’s no real spark to this and so the talk centred mostly around Astley’s whiteness (like many the first time I had a ‘oh he doesn’t look how I expected!’ reaction, esp. with the likes of Alexander O’Neal enjoying their peak popularity at the time – ‘Criticise’ was a favourite and who wouldn’t take that over this??) and dubious ‘yuppie sailor’ garb.

    Despite the monstrous success of this, and Mel n’ Kim aside, SAW seemed to move away from directly co-opting the US House sound after this, perhaps sensing that a wave of British bedroom producers were going to handle it better (and occasionally even as profitably) than they did. The better subsequent productions had a stronger European/Italo-disco feel but it didn’t seem to make any odds as far as the charts were concerned.

  6. 36
    tonya on 1 Apr 2010 #

    My memory is that this record was a pop culture signifier long before rickrolling, and often used as an example for whatever point one was making. For example, it’s cited in a Nick Lowe song All Men Are Liars, and in this excerpt from the Timelords Manual:
    “Stock, Aitken and Waterman, however, are kings of writing chorus
    lyrics that go straight to the emotional heart of the 7″ single buying
    girls in this country. Their most successful records will kick into
    the chorus with a line which encapsulates the entire emotional meaning
    of the song. This will obviously be used as the title. As soon as
    Rick Astley hit the first line of the chorus on his debut single it
    was all over – the Number One position was guaranteed.”

  7. 37
    Tom on 1 Apr 2010 #

    Well, The Manual was written with Rick still a star and this song fresh in the mind. I do think NGGYU never really went away in the UK but I’d guess in the US where rickrolling began it had the right combination of forgotten-but-obvious.

    I think Swanstep at #28 is dead on for why the song ‘worked’ by the way.

  8. 38
    rosie on 1 Apr 2010 #

    And I, I’m afraid, can’t see it ranking higher either as song per se or as signifier of its time than House of the Rising Sun. Maybe it’s a generation thing. Had the latter got the 10 I firmly believe it deserved then I probably wouldn’t begrudge the score.

  9. 39
    Venga on 1 Apr 2010 #

    @Erithian Lucky old “the States”, then.

  10. 40
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 1 Apr 2010 #

    Mannion@35: “Rolling” is slang for Mugging Lite, I think: hence “rolling a drunk” would mean toppling him over and removing his wallet and/or his trousers — the implication is that it’s a harmless prank given the target, who sorta kinda deserves it. (Or will anyway wake in the morning and be more ruefully amused than angry or hurt…)

  11. 41
    Alan on 1 Apr 2010 #

    the received derivation of ‘rickroll’ is the usual internet meme story. originally there was a crazy image of a duck on wheels that ppl would link to as an in joke – this was called the ‘duckroll’. (why a duck on wheels? cos the image tickled a bunch of people. could have been a massively obese cat – if that hadn’t been out of vogue at the time.) then someone ‘shopped Rick Astley’s head on to the duck – probably there were loads of variations, but the survival of puts-you-in-fits was that the one with RA’s head which persisted and dubbed a rickroll. then eventually just linking to NGGYU on youtube instead of the image took on the same tag.

  12. 42
    Steve Mannion on 1 Apr 2010 #

    oh those twee 4chan fuckers

  13. 43
    thefatgit on 1 Apr 2010 #

    It seems to me Waterman undermined Rick’s career before it got off the ground. If the “teaboy” comment was meant to underline how good production and songwriting can make anyone* a star, then there would be intense sneering from the Italia-Conti/Sylvia Young faction of pre-programmed and primed (not-quite-ready-yet) popstars. That’s not necessarily the case with Rick, but that’s how Pete Waterman was selling it. Yes, Rick had the voice, and how the Mick Hucknalls of this world would have crawled over broken glass for one like it. But to Rick’s peers, it seems like the fast-track to stardom…dues remain unpaid.

    In that light, it’s hard to take him seriously as an artist in his own right. And, I suspect others sensed his lack of durability also. One other consideration is the SAW roster seemed to represent this everyboy/everygirl image that feeds into the collective consciousness of the existence of the “fame machine”**. There are exceptions of course, eg. a certain girl trio and some soapy antipodeans.

    *”anyone” with a decent voice of course. but the seeds of an idea are being sewn in the mind of a pop svengali in the making (step forward Mr Cowell).
    **and Boy! Look at the size of that machine today!

  14. 44
    Steve Mannion on 1 Apr 2010 #

    I don’t know about this idea that Astley’s voice is better than Hucknall’s! In other news the Extended Cutback mix of ‘Money’s Too Tight To Mention’ came on my iPod the other day and I listened to the entire thing so there…

  15. 45
    thefatgit on 1 Apr 2010 #

    Sorry Steve, to these ears, Hucknall grates every time! But more on that when the time comes…

  16. 46
    inakamono on 1 Apr 2010 #

    @ 24

    I clicked on the link, it was the first I found in the thread — I was SOOO disappointed not to be rickrolled……

  17. 47
    anto on 1 Apr 2010 #

    Oddly enough I don’t associate Never gonna… with S/A/W or Rickrolling but with something more personal. Quite simply it was the first contempary pop record that I remember my Mum expressing a real liking for. My Mum was raised on Doris Day then The Beatles and came of age listening to Carole Kings Tapestry. She considered eighties pop to be generally worthless but she made an exception for Rick who is let’s face it the sort of singer Mums were certain to like.
    She’s come back to pop now and thinks Lady Gaga is fab.

  18. 48

    Bah my mum liked Meat Loaf! And Moggy’s mum likes Slayer!!

  19. 49
    swanstep on 1 Apr 2010 #

    Yikes, that ‘classic tracks’ article linked in #24 above (thanks Raw Patrick), really does make SAW (out of their own mouths) seem like the devil incarnate. They describe in detail all of the reverse engineering of timbres and beats in other people’s records, explain how they have no real writing process, don’t bother with middle eights on any level (always just leaving some B-team engineer to apply some effects to either a chorus or verse pattern), always use the same vocal mike regardless. And so on.

    It really has to be read to be believed. One starts to hate oneself to the extent that any of their records ever appealed – and Venus and NGGYU certainly got me.

  20. 50
    George Tait on 2 Apr 2010 #

    I’m not much into football but I’ve been told that this record is the ultimate half-time record. Is this true? Can someone explain to me what makes a good half-time record?

    I liked this but it was nowhere near as good as ‘Take Me To Your Heart’. It wasn’t even as good as Mandy Smith’s(stop laughing) ‘I Just Can’t Wait’.

  21. 51
    Spectre5299 on 2 Apr 2010 #

    I would just like to start this post off by extending a friendly hello to all the Popular regulars. I have been a regular reader of Popular since ’81, but I have chose to remain a lurker until now. I love the intelligent and thoughtful pop music critiques that are offered on Popular, and look forward to contributing to many posts from here on out. I am still a year and a half away from my stork-delivery to the pop chart canon. I am from the States mind you, so I do enjoy hearing many of the songs featured that made no dent on the U.S. charts whatsoever. I credit Popular with introducing me to the sheer genius of such songs as “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Uptown Top Ranking”. I guess ol’ Rick is as good a place to start as any. I have always been quite fond of the song (though I love most of the SAW production team’s work) even before the rick-roll phenomena took off. I offer no insight onto why this particular song was chosen for the meme, but merely why this song evokes a positive reaction in me. I love the immediateness of it. It announces itself straight from the beginning and never really lets up. I find Astley’s soulful bellow a nice accompaniment to that trademark SAW sound. By the time the female backing singers come in, I feel completely overwhelmed (in a good way) by the whole thing, and this earworm has firmly settled into my conscience. Rick Astley also scored with “Together Forever” a US #1 but not bunny-bait, as it stalled out at #2 in the UK Singles chart. I find Together another fine dance song. Not as good (or iconic) as this particular song, but a good song none the same. I don’t see it as any personal pop milestone for me however, and more pop triumphs are on the horizon. So this one gets an 8.

  22. 52
    Izzy on 2 Apr 2010 #

    Hi Spectre, lovely to have you on board.

    You touch on Rick’s subsequent success. I looked him up and was surprised to find so much of it. I remember ‘Cry For Help’ being pushed as a cathartic return from aeons in the desert – this about four years after his début hit! At the time this seemed like amusing, but admirable, stickability from a born one-hit-wonder. At twenty years’ remove, however, it looks more like a culmination to The Astley Years.

  23. 53
    Izzy on 2 Apr 2010 #

    Is Rick rich?

  24. 54
    Conrad on 2 Apr 2010 #

    #49, listening to records produced by SAW kind of gives the game away – and thanks for the explanation at #28

    #51, how wonderful to be discovering records like “Hit Me…” and “Uptown Top Ranking”, I’m jealous!

  25. 55
    H. on 2 Apr 2010 #

    @53: According to WIkipedia he’s sold 40 million records worldwide, so I imagine the answer is “Yes”.

  26. 56
    Billy Smart on 2 Apr 2010 #

    TOTPWatch: Rick Astley performed ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ on four occasions. The Christmas show we’ll come to in the fullness of time;

    13 August 1987. Also in the studio that week were; Def Leppard, Wet Wet Wet and Psuedo Echo. Simon Bates & Peter Powell were the hosts.

    27 August 1987. Also in the studio that week were; Then Jericho, Wet Wet Wet, Black and T’Pau. Gary Davies was the host.

    17 September 1987. Also in the studio that week were; Def Leppard, House Master Boyz & The Rude Boy Of House, Cliff Richard, The Communards and Karel Fialka. Mike Smith and Gary Davies were the hosts.

  27. 57
    Jimmy the Swede on 2 Apr 2010 #

    This snippet from last year’s Wimbledon coverage is pretty disturbing really:

    LONDON — Tennis star Andy Roddick admitted he had warmed up for his first outing at Wimbledon with a hangover and on Thursday he was left red-faced again when his wife revealed his dubious taste in music.

    While the American’s supposed night of drinking was nothing more than a night out in London to see the film “The Hangover,” he could not escape the embarrassment of being exposed as a fan of British 1980s pop star Rick Astley.

    Roddick had written on his Twitter feed that he was going to ban his swimsuit model wife, Brooklyn, from bringing her iPod into the kitchen.

    “Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, I feel like it’s a 24-hour loop of the Disney Channel,” he wrote.

    She retaliated by saying: “One of his favorites is Rick Astley (enough said). He knows a few ‘N Sync dances, and he LOVES Kelly Clarkson. I promise he is far worse.”

    Quizzed on his taste in music, Roddick told reporters: “What do you want me to say? I said I wasn’t proud, but I’m not going to lie to anybody. I busted my wife on some of her … music. She brought up Rick Astley. I can’t deny it. It’s in my iPod. I bet it’s in your iPod, too, so shut up.”

    Not in the Swede’s fucking ipod, Tinker Bell!!

  28. 58
    Erithian on 2 Apr 2010 #

    Thinking back 19 Popular-years to Tom’s approval of “Sugar Sugar” for cramming in so many hooks, you also have to acknowledge that this record is a superb exercise in marketing a sound and a song to its target audience. The idea of front-loading the chorus melody during the introduction to establish an earworm, we’ve discussed before and will revisit sundry times in the future; but it’s the lyric that forms part of a continuum running from 50s teen idols through Donny Osmond to Justin Bieber (do I get the prize for being the first to mention him on Popular?!)

    A good-looking bloke with a smooth crooner’s voice singing to you about giving you a full commitment, never gonna desert you etc – it’s as smooth and teen-friendly as you could wish. And I seem to remember a barely-spoken feeling that in a decade where promiscuous sex had been shown to be deadly, a song as chaste as this was a guarenteed winner with parents as well.

  29. 59
    swanstep on 2 Apr 2010 #

    @58, erithian. I hadn’t thought about NGGYU as having a kind of counter-programming, chaste appeal for the times, but maybe you are right. As it happens, a very vivid memory for me from this exact time is of the incredibly over the top, terrifying, AIDS-related PSAs that ran on Aussie tv and also screened out before movies, e.g. this. These ads were very controversial (were widely thought to be counter-productive), so they only lasted a couple of months IIRC, but they definitely had an impact (even as people laughed about them) and captured part of the temper of the times (at least if you were in a major, hedonistic metro-area like Sydney).

  30. 60
    Jimmy the Swede on 2 Apr 2010 #

    I take Erithian’s point about the good intentions this otherwise risible train-wreck of a record engenders. Rick is sho’ nuff a sweet looking boy and perhaps could take his pick of the nubies. Commitment from this lad would have impressed girlie and parents of girlie alike. Perhaps Waterman should stayed in the real world and gifted this thing to The Proclaimers instead.

  31. 61
    Billy Smart on 3 Apr 2010 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: Some of Rick Astley’s UK TV appearances;

    THE BRITISH RECORD INDUSTRY AWARDS: with The Who, The Bee Gees, T’Pau, Terence Trent D’Arby, Bananarama, Rick Astley, Chris Rea (1988)

    THE LAST RESORT WITH JONATHAN ROSS: with Steve Nieve & The Playboys, Rowland Rivron, Tama Janowitz, Jon Cryer, Rick Astley (1988)

    LIVE FROM THE PALLADIUM: with Dionne Warwick, Ronnie Corbett, Rick Astley, Erasure, Dave Lee (1988)

    THE O ZONE: with Capella, Wet Wet Wet, Rick Astley (1993)

    THE ROYAL VARIETY PERFORMANCE: with Ronnie Corbett, Russ Abbot, Bruce Forsyth, A-Ha, Rick Astley, Bananarama, Jean Boht, Gilly Coman, Nick Conway, Hilary Crowson (1988)

    THE SMASH HITS POLL WINNERS PARTY: with Phillip Schofield, Yazz, Wet Wet Wet, Climie Fisher, Salt ‘n’ Pepa, Rick Astley, Jane Wiedlin, Brother Beyond, Bananarama, Bros (1988)

    WOGAN: with Rick Astley, Michael Crawford, Jonathan King, Claire Moore, Tony Rust, Jacqueline Stephenton, Diane Walker (1987)

    WOGAN: with Rick Astley, Victor Spinetti, Sheila Steafel (1989)

    WOGAN: with Simon & Lucy Weston, Rick Astley, John Bird, Alfred Molina (1991)

  32. 62
    MikeMCSG on 5 Apr 2010 #

    #61 Billy, was that BRITS appearance the one where he won an award towards the end of the programme and was making his way to the stage when some BPI exec ran on to take his trophy and introduce The Who leaving poor Rick stranded ?

  33. 63
    wichitalineman on 9 Apr 2010 #

    Erithian at 58, I take your point but this had been going on for a while, most obviously with Jermaine Stewart’s We Don’t Have To… (Take Our Clothes Off To Have A Good Time), a no.2 from 1986 when people were SO SCARED of sex that they had to amend the title to something stumpy and silly.

    I always thought Rick was a bit of a Plain Jane, a teddy bear at best, which bears your sex-free family favourite theory out.

    Together Forever was the ring-a-ding smash for me, but possibly just because this got so over-exposed. The fact that everyone thought Rick had such a Barry White-like voice at the time (me included) is just weird – the illusion didn’t extend beyond this single, he just sounded like ‘Ruddy Big Pig’ Astley from the sequel onwards.

  34. 64
    Brooksie on 17 Apr 2010 #

    Always thought this was one of SAW’s best. The fact that it lifted from ‘Trapped’ helped, but for me it’s the strings that sell it. Liked it then and like it now. I don’t mind being Rickrolled at all.

  35. 65
    swanstep on 3 Oct 2012 #

    Mad Men “doing” this song.

  36. 66
    punctum on 9 Jan 2015 #

    TPL on the album. No rolls included.

  37. 67
    hectorthebat on 10 Feb 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 29

  38. 68
    Sinead O'Quinn on 9 Apr 2021 #

    A nice record (6/10) but should never have kept the Pet Shops and Dusty from no.1.

  39. 69
    Gareth Parker on 10 May 2021 #

    A great single from Rick in my view. I would go 8/10 here.

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