(New to the countdown? Catch up here.)
Rick Astley holds forth, in a thick northern English accent, in front of a glass window; behind him, we can see New York City in wintertime. “I don’t like being in front of cameras,” he says, looking straight into the camera, and laughs uncomfortably. “So I find that quite hard, you know. As I said before, I’m quite a shy person in a lot of ways. So to bop around in front of a camera, I find very hard, you know. I find doing TV’s very hard. Singing in front of a real audience, I don’t find that a problem. I feel confident then. So it’s been quite a difficult thing to get used to.”
We cut to Adam Curry, who calls Astley “Slick Rick” and confidently declares that since the time of that interview, Astley has grown accustomed to cameras. Pressing his fingertips together, Curry recaps Astley’s success: “in 1987, his hit ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ was the hit of the year in the UK and in Europe, and it also went to number one in the States in 1988.” He does not mention that two decades later, it would be huger than ever (69 million YouTube plays and counting, at this writing). I choose to believe that this is not because Adam Curry didn’t know the future, but because he didn’t want to blow our minds by explaining the Web, YouTube, and Rickrolling.
We begin the video with some electronic drumbeats and meet Mr. Rick Astley, who is dancing, or doing his best simulation of it: he shimmies in place, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Spoiler alert: this is basically what he does for the entire video. He’s dressed like he’s meeting a girlfriend’s family for dinner, in a striped polo shirt and a dark jacket. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands, so he keeps opening and closing them.
We cut to Rick outside at night, in front of a stone wall with two archways. He’s wearing a black turtleneck and a white trenchcoat, and is doing the exact same almost-a-dance. There’s also a platinum-blonde girl in a sleeveless black shirt, who is dancing, marginally more gracefully than Rick.
Still in the instrumental intro, we get a third look for Rick: outside in the sunshine, in front of a chain-link fence, with a blue work shirt buttoned all the way up and a pair of sunglasses. These are the many moods of Rick, I suppose. His British pallor makes him look like a twerpy vampire, but for some reason, he doesn’t explode into flames. He keeps doing his weight-shifting routine. There’s another platinum-blonde girl, this one in a sleeveless white shirt, and she spins around.
“You’re no stranger to love,” Rick sings, and sweet mother of Barry White, this 22-year-old who looks 12 has a baritone coming out of his throat that sounds like it must have been surgically implanted. This was the essential experience of watching a Rick Astley video: the incongruity of a hapless, vaguely handsome British kid having one of the biggest voices in pop music.
Rick pledges his fealty to his love interest–“a full commitment’s what I’m thinking of”–while we cut between his two outdoor looks (with a dash of the platinum blondes for variety). The camera is moving around as fast as it can, swooping past Rick in an effort to give him some extra energy. Then we hit the chorus and return to the striped polo look. Rick is indoors, singing on a stage in what looks like a cavernous restaurant. The joint is devoid of customers: the idea is presumably that he’s practicing his act (with the two blondes serving as his backup dancers) before the evening rush, not that every paying customer has bolted down their food and fled.
The restaurant’s bartender is wiping down the bar. He’s wearing a white shirt and red suspenders, he’s handsome, and he’s black. This proves to be important, as he will act out a brief drama of a crossover hit: first he looks up skeptically at Rick; then he nods approvingly while tossing a drinking glass in the air, catching it, and polishing it; then he starts dancing behind the bar; and finally he starts really rocking out, doing spins and jumping up so he can do a split and touch his toes in midair. Since it’s hard to imagine anyone whiter than Rick Astley, this performance plays as a cross-racial seal of approval. It also helps to have somebody in this video who can really dance, since it is basically a disco tune.
The song is the heavily synthesized work of British production team Stock-Aitken-Waterman. In the UK, they were oppressively successful from 1986 to 1990 with their assembly-line hits, but many of their flagship artists, such as Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, never really cracked the States. Rick Astley was a drummer-turned-singer in a soul band who worked as a tape operator and “tea boy” (British for “gofer”) in the Stock-Aitken-Waterman studio. Even before Rickrolling, this song worked people’s nerves: witness Nick Lowe‘s 1990 track “All Men Are Liars,” featuring the lyric “Do you remember Rick Astley? / He had a big fat hit that was ghastly.”
The bartender runs in place, throws his rag in the air, and somersaults over the bar. He is running neck and neck with Tom Cruise’s Cocktail performance for the “Craziest Bartender of 1988” medal. The blondes keep on looking over their shoulders at the camera. Another man enters the video; he’s even blonder than the girls. Now and then, the editor cuts to a brief clip of Rick’s shadow. The bartender has come outside so he can jump against the chain link fence, bouncing off it in an acrobatic fashion. Super-blonde guy turns out to be a pretty good dancer, swiveling his body and spinning on his knees. The bartender runs up the stone wall and flips his body into a somersault, which is a real Matrix move without the benefit of a special-effects budget. Man, I hope whoever played the bartender parlayed this video into a West End show or an Olympics medal or something.
We cut between Rick’s various looks as he keeps repeating the chorus. (“Never gonna” is heard fully forty times in this song). Rick has a big grin on his face, and seems totally unconnected to the song emotionally. This is the track’s big flaw: when the chorus was misheard as “Now I’m gonna give you up,” as it frequently was, it seemed just as plausible a lyric. Rick’s vocal performance didn’t give you any emotional cues as to whether he wanted to pick out silverware together or to ditch you by the side of the road with some loose change for the bus.
“Never Gonna Give You Up,” as Adam Curry mentioned, hit number one–for two weeks in the US and five weeks in the UK. (It was followed later in 1988 by the soundalike number-one single “Together Forever,” which we covered early in this countdown.) You can watch it here.