Rick Astley on his latest unlikely sell-out venture — covering the Smiths with Blossoms
Who could have guessed that the 1980s pop sensation would be covering the songs of the Smiths — and selling out venues? The singer is just as astonished as Sarfraz Manzoor
Rick Astley and Morrissey are not obvious musical bedfellows. One is among the most revered artists in British music history and the other is — well, Rick Astley.
News that Astley was teaming up with the Stockport band Blossoms for two concerts to play songs from the Smiths was a gift to social media. The ripostes came flying: from “Heaven knows I’m miserable now” to “Please, please, please let me get what I want”. “This is both funny and horrible and at the same time,” the Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr tweeted. Of course tickets for this week’s shows sold out in minutes.
The Smiths’ influence on Astley may not have been immediately apparent in the summer of 1987. In that moment Astley had done it. At 21 he was the biggest name in pop. Never Gonna Give You Up spent five weeks at No 1; he had eight consecutive Top Ten singles and his debut album sold 15 million copies.
Yet Astley, now 55 and remarkably unchanged from his heyday, tells me he has been a fan since he was a teenager dreaming of a music career in Newton- le-Willows, a half-hour drive from Manchester. “The Smiths were a band I idolised as a kid. When a band comes from down the road and they’re having success around the world it made me think it was possible,” he says over a pint in the pub he co-owns in Exmouth Market in London.
Flashback to 1987 and unlike the Smiths, who had released Strangeways, Here We Come the same year, what Astley lacked was credibility. He was not cool. “Is Rick merely a driplet of festering pus oozing from a seeping SAW [Stock Aitken Waterman] inflicted on the slashed side of the crucified pop Christ by the very devil himself?” the NME asked.
“I definitely would have much preferred to have been cool. Anyone who says they wouldn’t is either lying or I’m really happy for them. I would have loved to have been credible, but you have to make your bed and lie in it,” Astley says. That bed started to become less comfortable and Astley began to suspect that pop stardom was not for him. “I didn’t really feel like me a lot of the time,” he says. “I felt like a travelling salesman who could have been selling anything and, if I’m flat out honest, it was pretty boring. It just wasn’t fun.”
He remembers driving past the Colosseum in Rome and begging his driver to let him out to see it. “I had been to Rome three or four times and I had seen nothing. I was going to places but not experiencing them.” Astley quit music in 1993, aged 27, to spend time with his film producer wife, Lene, and raise their daughter, Emilie. When people came up to him and said, “Hey, you’re Rick Astley,” he’d reply, “I used to be.”
Fast forward to 2006 and Astley was asked to perform in Japan. Urged on by his family, who fancied a free trip, he agreed. And loved it. “I was on stage singing the same songs after 15 years and it was fun and since then I have never really stopped.” He returned to live performances, released a new album, 50, that sold 400,000 copies, and has continued to record and tour. “Am I enjoying this stage of my career more than the first time? A hundred per cent,” he says “Last time it was based around being famous and endless interviews, but now I can get in front of thousands of people and then I’ll walk off stage and drive home and stop for a coffee in a petrol station and there isn’t a hope in hell of someone recognising me.”
These days Astley seems far more comfortable in his skin. He laughs along with the Rickrolling internet phenomenon even when he is the Rick being rolled. If you have joined Foo Fighters on stage for a heavy rock version of Never Gonna Give You Up, the idea of an entire show singing songs from the Smiths starts to make sense.
Morrissey has yet to comment directly, but his website carried an article saying: “Maybe Rick Astley will perform well in the upcoming shows . . . but make no mistake, no other artist can bring to the table what Morrissey can.” The irony is that what Morrissey “brings to the table” these days — support for far-right politicians amid accusations of Islamophobia and racism — is exactly what makes him such a problematic hero now. He might have been guilty of wearing a dodgy trench coat in the 1980s but, unlike Morrissey, Astley has never suggested that “everyone ultimately prefers their own race”, claimed “the Chinese people are a subspecies”, or argued that the world “would be a more interesting place” had Prince Charles been shot.
“I find the things he said kind of more shocking because of what I thought he would have been [like]. There are certain artists that you’re not surprised if they have those views. I think that’s why it’s quite upsetting because you wouldn’t have thought it of him — you wouldn’t have thought it of that music. I find it really weird and a bit off — it doesn’t sit right at all,” Astley says. Morrissey may be a diminished figure, but the music his band produced remains undimmed. “The beauty of those songs is breathtaking at times, obviously it is a bizarre thing [to be singing their songs], but we’re doing it from a position of love.”
The conversation over, Astley returns to sound checks for that evening’s gig and I am left reflecting how, if you had asked me in 1987 who in 2021 would have been the cool one who deserved respect — Morrissey or Rick Astley — I would have given the wrong answer.