Rick Astley tells a glorious story about what it was like to be Rick Astley at one of those crazy rock ‘n’ roll parties in LA in the late Eighties.
The venue was the infamous Sunset Marquis hotel, beloved by hardcore rocker types, and he — Mr Clean Cut pop star from Newton-le-Willows — ventured into the bar for a nightcap.
He won’t name the American band whose after-show party he joined, nor does he detail the level of debauchery, but he certainly recalls slipping out again in the early hours, mind already blown after witnessing a punch-up.
‘I thought “time for bed” but as I was walking past the pool area, there was Kylie Minogue stepping out of the swimming pool, fully clothed. I don’t know if she’d been thrown in there or had just been swimming in her clothes.
‘I don’t even know if she’d remember this now, but I do. She said: “Hi Rick. How are you?” And I thought: “What the . . .? This is just too weird.”‘
It wasn’t just that he wanted to be a hands-on father; Rick Astley wanted to give his daughter a childhood that was the polar opposite to the one he had. The singer is pictured with his daughter Emilie Bausager (Credit: Michael Clement/The Sunday Times Magazine/News Licensing)
‘Mine was a really dysfunctional childhood and I craved the opposite of it,’ the singer said. Rick Astley is pictured as a little boy
Today, having pulled off the comeback-of-all-comebacks — culminating in a Glastonbury performance in June where he played to crowds of 80,000, despite only having been at the festival once before to drop off his daughter — Rick said he’s been reading Bono’s autobiography, fascinated by how the U2 frontman juggled parenthood and rock stardom. Frankly, he doesn’t know how he did it. Pictured: Rick Astley performs on the Pyramid stage Glastonbury Festival in June this year
Why would anyone want to turn their back on that sort of existence? But Rick Astley did.
In 1994, after a string of hits, the man famous for singing Never Gonna Give You Up did the unthinkable and gave it up. Or, as he puts it today, he ‘slipped out the back door when no one was looking and no one cared’.
For what? Well, family. He busied himself raising a daughter who went on to become an award-winning garden designer rather than a nepo baby hurtling in and out of rehab.
Emilie, who is now 31, didn’t use his surname, but her mum Lene’s. When she did once tell a boyfriend her father’s name was Rick Astley, he said, ‘Oh, like that guy?’, forcing her to point out her dad was that guy.
Today, having pulled off the comeback-of-all-comebacks — culminating in a Glastonbury performance in June where he played to crowds of 80,000, despite only having been at the festival once before to drop off his daughter — Rick tells me that he’s been reading Bono’s autobiography, fascinated by how the U2 frontman juggled parenthood and rock stardom. Frankly, he doesn’t know how he did it.
‘I’m not saying I was SuperDad. We still had au pairs, but I was able to be there to raise her. I don’t know how you do that with a career in the music business, because it takes everything you have to sustain it.’
It emerges today, however, that there was a very specific set of circumstances which led to Rick sacrificing his singing career (although he quibbles with the word ‘sacrifice’, saying: ‘I’d never want my daughter to think of it like that’).
It wasn’t just that he wanted to be a hands-on father; he wanted to give his daughter a childhood that was the polar opposite to the one he had.
‘I’m not saying I was SuperDad. We still had au pairs, but I was able to be there to raise her. I don’t know how you do that with a career in the music business, because it takes everything you have to sustain it,’ Rick said of raising Emilie. He is pictured during a concert at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in 2017
What everyone can agree on is that if you are asked to perform on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury — as Rick was this summer — then you have reached an off-the-scale level of cool/uncool. Pictured: Fans cheer and watch as Rick Astley plays the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury this year
Rick’s father Horace passed away a few years ago and his mum Cynthia died last year, both in their 80s. Rick Astley is pictured with his wife Lene Bausager in April 2008
Rick’s father Horace passed away a few years ago and his mum Cynthia died last year, both in their 80s, ending a chapter which, he tells me today, has taken ‘many years of therapy’ to understand.
He hasn’t talked at length about his painful family history, but can now, he says, ‘because they are both gone’. He tells me that around the time he cut himself out of the showbiz world, he was also cutting all ties with his own father.
‘When he died, I hadn’t spoken to him for 25 years, more. He was such a complicated person and, when my daughter was born, I decided I didn’t want that complication in her life. Yes, he could come and stay and be great. Or 50 per cent of the time he’d be great, but then he’d be the darkest person in the world. I’m sure people who have complicated relationships with a parent will understand.’
There are no regrets, now that his father is gone? ‘The only regret is that I didn’t have a dad who wasn’t like that.’
And you wanted to be a very different sort of dad? ‘Oh, of course, but I don’t think he wanted to be that sort of father either. He was just broken.’
It seems a brutal thing to do, to cut a parent out of your life, and it’s particularly shocking to hear nice uncomplicated Rick Astley, famous for jaunty upbeat numbers, talk in this way.
Yet there was nothing ordinary about his Lancashire upbringing. His parents had divorced when he was six, and when they died, he reveals ‘they hadn’t spoken a word to each other for 50 years’.
‘It was a very odd scenario. I only saw them in the same building once, at my sister’s wedding, and even then my dad just came to the church, gave her away, and went home again. He didn’t come to the reception. There was a level of vitriol there, right up till the end.’
Poignantly, he believes his family fell apart before he was born, their world rocked when an older brother died, aged three. ‘His name was David,’ he says. ‘He died from meningitis and they never recovered. They went on to have two more children — me included — but they were going through the motions. I think they did their best, but it just destroyed them.’
Rick hasn’t talked at length about his painful family history, but can now, he says, ‘because they are both gone’. Pictured: Rick Astley is pictured in concert in Miami, Florida in 2017
‘When he died, I hadn’t spoken to him for 25 years, more. He was such a complicated person and, when my daughter was born, I decided I didn’t want that complication in her life,’ Rick said of his father. Rick Astley is pictured during the Charity Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London in 1987
He is aware of just one photograph of David. ‘Nobody would ever speak of him, but I saw this photo in an album once and asked about it and it caused . . .’ His voice trails off. ‘Well, I never mentioned it again.’
Divorce was rare in those days; it was rarer still for the father to keep the marital home and the children.
‘He had the money. He’d had a small gardening business, so he ended up with this four-bedroom house. Mum went to live at her mother’s. I don’t think she was mentally capable at the time. She was emotionally burned out.’
There was a housekeeper who came daily (‘which makes us sound very posh, but we really weren’t’) so there was a female influence, but you get the sense that the young Rick was affected for life.
‘Oh, I’ve done quite a few years of therapy — and not because I was a pop star in the 80s,’ he smiles. He then makes an extraordinary connection between his childhood and his career choice.
‘I think if you do end up on a stage, it’s not just because you love singing or acting. There is something within you that wants to fix something. There is something about that applause, that desire for approval, that makes you think it will be enough to fill that huge black hole. It never is enough, but I think it’s a common thing in the performing world.’
What was the black hole, for him?
‘I don’t think it was one particular thing, but being at home wasn’t a whole lot of fun. My dad was a sad, angry, old-fashioned guy who was struggling. All I wanted was to get to the school choir, the church choir, into a play, just so I didn’t have to go home.’
There was an air of walking on eggshells at home. Violence?
Rick mixed with legendary rockers, though, although tentatively at first. He remembers meeting Ozzy Osbourne early in his career, expecting Ozzy (surely the anti-Rick Astley) to bite his head off, or at least sneer at his uncoolness. Pictured: Rick Astley performs at a Pride concert in Madrid, Spain in July 2015
‘He only hit me twice. Once when I deserved it. The second time, I didn’t, and when he did it, I left home.’ He was 17.
Pop swept in, in the form of the hit-makers Stock Aitken and Waterman (who also had Kylie in their stable). Still in his teens, Rick ended up living in Pete Waterman’s flat and working as the office tea boy before that astonishing baritone voice was harnessed and directed into a string of hits.
Yes, some called them ‘cheesy’ (he doesn’t shy from using the word himself) but they bought him a house. And his mother a house.
His image fitted the music, somehow. ‘I looked 12,’ he laughs. He recalls a PR person for his American record label once told him she loved him jetting in because she could place him on any TV show.
‘I thought, “What a lovely thing to say” but what she was actually saying was they could get me on any breakfast show without worrying that I would turn up drunk.’
Did he want to be edgier, cooler? ‘Of course. Didn’t everyone? I mean I’d look in the mirror and realise I wasn’t Michael Hutchence. Michael was a panther rock-god.’
Mercifully, he was sensible enough never to try the panther rock-god thing himself. Today, aged 57, he’s still clean-shaven (‘I’m not a beardy type’), and has skin that suggests clean-living.
‘I never did dabble with the drugs,’ he says. ‘I did have those days of getting hammered and waking up somewhere, but it wasn’t to a legendary rock level, nowhere close.’
He mixed with legendary rockers, though, although tentatively at first. He remembers meeting Ozzy Osbourne early in his career, expecting Ozzy (surely the anti-Rick Astley) to bite his head off, or at least sneer at his uncoolness.
The opposite happened. Ozzy asked him about his music, and offered to put him in touch with some of his guitarists.
‘I mean, Sharon was there and said to Ozzy: “Shut up. He doesn’t want your tattooed monsters,” but the point is Ozzy did not look down. It was me who had the chip on my shoulder. I’ve found since that people at the top are secure enough not to worry about hanging out with the “right” people. They don’t care who is cool or uncool.
Rick’s comeback was not an overnight thing. It started with a retro concert in Japan in 2006, which he only agreed to because his family wanted to visit Japan.. Pictured: Rick Astley performs in France in 1987
But it was ‘Rickrolling’, which also started around 2006, that introduced him, and his music, to a new generation. Pictured: Rick Astley performs at the Brit Awards in London in 1988
‘I’m not sure what cool is any more. Young people have gone anti-cool, if anything. In our day nerds were just nerds. I was probably a nerd. Now it’s cool to be a nerd.’
What everyone can agree on is that if you are asked to perform on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury — as Rick was this summer — then you have reached an off-the-scale level of cool/uncool.
His comeback was not an overnight thing. It started with a retro concert in Japan in 2006, which he only agreed to because his family wanted to visit Japan.
‘They told me: “It’ll be fine, just do it.”‘ It would be years before he went back into the recording studio, prodded on by Lene, who is now his manager ‘and who believed in me more than I believed in myself. Everything is down to her’.
But it was ‘Rickrolling’, which also started around 2006, that introduced him, and his music, to a new generation. You’ve probably been Rickrolled. The phenomenon involves clicking on an enticing online link — only to find yourself directed to a video of Rick singing Never Gonna Give You Up. That video has had over a billion views on You Tube.
‘It’s weird because everyone from a ten-year-old kid to your oldest grandparent can sing it. This was nothing to do with me, though.’
An odd scenario, to have your song hijacked. Some more precious souls might be peeved.
‘I get why some people would be horrified, going “But it’s my art!”‘ he says. ‘But I’m the opposite. Maybe because I was away for those years, it always feels like a comfy pair of slippers, or a suit of armour.’
This was especially true when he pitched up at Glastonbury.
‘It was daunting because we were first on, at midday, and even by 11.30am there weren’t many there and I thought: “This is going to be truly embarrassing.”‘
It wasn’t. It was a triumph. Suddenly, he was on stage with 80,000 people singing Never Gonna Give You Up back at him. He went on to cement his legend status by joining indie band Blossoms for a set of Smiths covers. ‘Mad,’ he grins.
The people clapping loudest? His wife and daughter, of course. He has been with Lene for nearly three decades, although they only married in 2016. It means his daughter has only known a stable family life. You don’t get a gold disc for that one, but this is a man who knows exactly what he has achieved.
Rick Astley performs at the Prince’s Trust charity concert in 1988
Rick Astley is pictured with his wife in April 2008
‘Mine was a really dysfunctional childhood and I craved the opposite of it. I do find it interesting that my siblings and I have all been married or with their partners 30 years now.
‘I also think that, as much as I craved certain things — a career in the music industry, fame, success — I also desperately wanted a level of normality, to live in a nice suburban house with two cars in the driveway. I wanted to be normal because my upbringing was not normal.’
The irony, he smiles, is that he now has both those things.
‘I can go and play Glastonbury, but then I can come home and sit in the garden with a cup of tea and think: “That shed needs looking at. I’ll have a go at that next.”‘
Rick’s new album Are We There Yet? is out on BMG on October 6 and he tours the UK in spring 2024.