“It’s not an easy thing to do, being a pop star from 20 years ago," says Rick Astley ahead of his Melbourne shows. "Your ego is still there”
Back in the ’80s, smooth soulboy Rick Astley was labelled a Stock Aitken Waterman puppet. That’s not true, he protests now, ahead of his Melbourne shows – he was their teaboy.
Rick, you played in quite a few bands before you became famous. What path do you think your career would have taken if super-producer Pete Waterman hadn’t contacted you?
I feel a cold shiver go down my spine thinking that I could still be in a band playing those clubs. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I wouldn’t swap the life I have having met Pete Waterman. There have been ups and downs and moments that I’ve absolutely hated, but I’m one of those people that believes that you can’t really have regrets in the sense that I’ve got a wonderful daughter and a great partner who I wouldn’t have met.
You never know though, I could possibly have been in a successful band that could have gone on to have world domination. Pete wasn’t a known producer at the time; he was just a guy getting his act together, basically. He’d only had the one big hit that was a crossover hit in the gay scene. They were producing Dead or Alive at the time – while I was signing my deal they had their first number one record. I thought, “I’ve gone through a long period with nothing out. We’ll make a single and see what happens.” It just so happened that he then went on to become the biggest producer in the world and by the time my first record came out, we knew exactly what we were doing and that first single was a monster.
You were one of the first success stories of massive production trio Stock Aitken Waterman. Were they bosses or mates?
They were mates, but they were a bit older than I was. I was 19 and I’d just sit there and listen to what they had to say. And because they signed me then got really, really busy, I had to hang around waiting for a really long time, so I used to hang around the studio making tea, doing errands. In fact, I remember when a guy came to play saxophone on one of my songs, I made a cup of tea for him. It was great – I got an apprenticeship out of it. I got to see how they designed their records and some of the engineers who made those records with them helped me make my demos, which is how I ended up getting songs on my first and second albums.
Do you watch any reality pop contests? (Pete Waterman has appeared as a judge on the UK's Pop Idol.)
Yeah, I do. I’ve got a 20-year-old daughter so we’ve definitely been watching them. I fall in and out of love with them. I might watch the first episode, miss a few, then come back into it. Even if you sat there and you go, “This is absolute rubbish,” you still can’t take your eyes off it. To be honest, I think it’s there to dumb us down. It’s there to hit the targets. It keeps you looking at the square box in the corner or the square box in your hand, and don’t think about what’s really going on in the world.
Have you ever mentored anybody yourself?
No, not really. It’s a funny thing because I think anyone who’s done what I did, there are certain times you think, “I wish somebody would have said this to me,” and similarly there are times you look at people having a hard time in the media now and you think, “They could do with a sit down with someone.” Maybe not me because I’ve been out of it for so long, but someone who’s active and can sit down and say, “Maybe you want to think about this because it may not be the best idea.” Maybe good managers do that now because they’ve been around longer, but in my day, you didn’t have that so much. You just wish somebody would have done it. Today, because of the internet, you can’t say anything anymore because it’s news in a second. It was a bit freer in my day. You could make mistakes and do certain things and get away with it. And I don’t really think you can do that so much anymore.
Back then it wasn’t retweeted.
Absolutely, yeah. That’s for sure. My manager has a label and he feels record companies now don’t want to sign a band unless they’ve got their own presence on the internet. But then, you could say that if they’ve got their own internet presence they don’t need a record label. It’s the whole cat and mouse thing. Doing things in my day was simple: you either signed to a big label or you signed to a very small label and you worked with that one and then they eventually signed you on to a big one.
Have you been tempted to write a book?
Well, yes and no. I’ve sat down with someone at some point and we’ve chatted through it and everything, but I’m not too sure that they could make an interesting book. And also, my parents are both still alive … I don’t know whether it’s in my nature to be that honest.
The book has become sort of a thing. You get someone who’s got two hits and they’ve brought a book out and you think, “Okay.” It’s not like it’s their fault. I’ve read some amazing autobiographies recently, some really incredible ones, and they set the benchmark, so you think if you’re going to write one it’s got to be at least that good … I don’t know whether my life would be that interesting, I don’t know.
What’s an incredible one you’ve read, then?
I think the Andre Agassi one was absolutely amazing. You’ve got to read that one. And I also like the Keith Richards one. I read that one last summer. I was in the UK and reading in the garden. The book talked about a song and I came into my little studio room and I listened to it, and it’s just such a great experience. They talk about the way they recorded this or the way the song came about and you listen to the song and go back to the book and it was just really authentic.
Has your music taste changed much over the years? You were always very into soul. Is that still the case?
I like everything, in this iPhone, iPod world where you can do everything all the time. Back in my time, you bought a vinyl record when you were a kid and took it home and it took a bit of effort to actually get it out of the thing and not scratch it. It was a whole different thing; you had to make an effort to listen to an album. You wouldn’t get up and change it. You’d just listen to absolutely everything and discover it all together. I used to go to soul nights because I loved dancing and so did my friends and we loved the music. We used to go listen to black American soul. It wasn’t soul music really, to be honest. I just sort of picked up on the way the guy sang and incorporated that into the way I sang, and that just kind of morphed into what I did. (Drops the volume a notch.) But I’ve always liked a lot of rock music.
You say that like it’s a shameful thing.
I used to play in bands and we used to play covers … we’d just play whatever was popular at the time, really; it’s a release. And I think that’s what a lot of being in a band is. Now I have a little radio show and I interview someone every weekend… I’ve always liked all kinds of music to be honest.
Are you going to be playing new material when you come over?
I’m just going to play my hits that people know from the old days and all the rest of it. I might throw in some odd songs in there to keep me entertained. I’ve been retired for a long time – 15 years all up – and now I’ve been singing for five or six years again. It’s still kind of fresh for me; I still really enjoy doing hundreds of gigs here, there and everywhere.
It’s a bit weird; it’s like being someone else. I understand it’s nostalgic for the audience but it’s quite weird for me. I appreciate the fact that I can go and sing those old songs – don’t get me wrong, I love to get paid for it – but I really do it because it gives me a sense of purpose. It’s not an easy thing to do, being a pop star from 20 years ago. Your ego is still there. I think that’s really tough on a lot of people. I’m 50/50 with it. I do it because I like to get paid. I’m never shy to tell people that. It’s just being honest. It’s the kick. I come away from a gig thinking, “Yeah, I’m worth something.” I can still do it and entertain people and that’s worth it.
Rick Astley is also playing the Chelsea Heights Hotel, Springvale Rd, Chelsea Heights. Sat Dec 1, 8pm. $73.85.