I'm slightly irked by the (now nearly passed) craze of Rickrolling, the practice of posting disguised links to the Youtubed music video for Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up", but not because of the normal reasons to dislike easily-replicated net memes. The trend bugs me because I, earlier this decade, actually listened to and appreciated a lot of Rick Astley's music, and I can't stand being linked, however distantly and indirectly, to any kind of ironic enjoyment. I'm basically Dave Erdman.
Or at least I'm a Dave Erdman who appreciates pop music over a decade old. The statute of limitations isn't there because I labor under the delusion that music was better before; I just like to have a filter in place that simplifies the selection process. Kinda like how I prefer video games to be at least two decades old, or how the dual filters of had-to-withstand-the-test-of-time and had-to-withstand-transplantation-from-a-faraway-culture effectively winnow down film's possibility space to some of the creamier of the crop. Astley's first album, Whenever You Need Somebody, at both nearly 22 years old and, being British, of foreign provenance, passes through a couple filters. So it's allowed.
I first learned of Rick Astley from one of those television commersials — I'm not sure whether they do these anymore — offering a mix tape, CD or whatever. To give the viewer an idea of the selection to be enjoyed with purchase, these spots would scroll the song titles, in white, up the screen; when a song title scrolled past in yellow, a clip from that song would play. (This one is representative, and, though not the particular one I'm talking about, serves up a bit of an Astley song nonetheless.) So Astley's "Together Forever" took its turn in the yellow, I heard about three seconds of it, and my brain, operating on all the musical data accumulated consciously and subconsciously, advised me to go rush that song down. I fired up Napster, Audiogalaxy, Morpheus or whichever piece of filesharing software I was too cool to use in those days and got frustrated trying to download it on dial-up. Then I drove to my usual used-CD haunts on Seattle's University Way and immediately snapped up Whenever You Need Somebody and its follow-up, Hold Me in Your Arms, instead.
Popping the first album into my car's CD player, I heard what sounded to me like some rock-solid pop music. For the first few listens, the wall of Stock Aitken Waterman production simply crashed forth like one big undifferentiated wave of rounded bass, synthesizer pads and overlaid digital glockenspiels, but that was fine by me. Only on repeated inspection did I discover that the tracks were actually quite different. For instance, I'm man enough today to admit that I don't really like "Together Forever" — I find it lazy — and it's safe to say that, if overexposure hadn't dulled "Never Gonna Give You Up" by the end of the 1980s, it's done it a dozen times over today. The title song, however, was and remains my favorite of these big three disc-openers:
(Please excuse the Thomas the Tank Engine video; it's the only one that allowed embedding.)
At first listen, "Whenever You Need Somebody" sounds more or less the same as "Never Gonna Give You Up", but notice one thing: cooler bass. Also notice how each element of the song is just slightly more unusual than its equivalents in the bigger hit. Theme, for instance: given the choice between a song where the guy professes his ironclad devotion to the girl — what else is new? — and one where the guy honestly levels the girl that, yeah, he wants to get with her and thinks she's keen and all, but he's not going to work his boxers in a twist if she doesn't reciprocate. He'll just operate outside of the normal relationship framework instead; no big deal. He's cool. He'll be around. (
I get the impression that, due to its opening trifecta of "Never Gonna Give You Up", "Whenever You Need Somebody" and "Together Forever", Whenever You Need Somebody is critically regarded as somewhat front-loaded. And indeed, those three are followed by a version of "It Would Take a Strong Strong Man" that does not justify its own existence. (I actually kind of hated it even when the disc was at its peak in my personal rotation.) But the track after that? Different story.
"The Love Has Gone" is choice. In fact, I have it on good authority that it's Rick's own favorite from the album, so there. (To quote that same authority, "the song have a danceable tune but very romantic.") The impact of the very first two seconds is enough to keep me starting the song over and over, or at least I would if I didn't like the synth line over the first eight bars so much. It doesn't hurt that the bass is very nearly S.O.S. Band-like. It also avoids the simple repetition of "I love this woman!", opting instead for something a hairsbreadth more thematically complex. Many of my favorite poppiest-of-the-pop tunes have this form, although it may be more simple correlation (what I like sonically tends to fit with it lyrically) than anything:
- I love this woman!
- Except, crap, I just realized she walked out on me.
- Weird. I wonder why?
- Hey, I bet I could get her back if I really tried.
- Y'know, screw it, I'm going to do it, hell or high water.
I have many, many memories of hopping into my car after a workout at the gym, popping in Whenever You Need Somebody — during one long stretch, it was probably already in there anyway — punching it straight ahead to track five and and mentally preparing myself to kick the ass of whatever task lay ahead. I would then follow one listen of the song with another listen of it; call that a "cooldown round". Then would come track six, "Don't Say Goodbye", which doesn't sound like much of anything, but one understimates it at one's peril. Production-wise, I like it quite well — despite going back and forth on whatever that thing is making the boingy pattern on the high end of the percussion — and content-wise, it's not far from the previous number: whatever the guy and the girl had fell apart, but maybe it'll come back together. The difference is that here, the reunion is just a big "maybe", as opposed to the resolve of "The Love Has Gone". It's more like he's begging in "Don't Say Goodbye". Kinda undignified, y'ask me.
Whenever You Need Somebody runs mostly downhill from there. "Slipping Away" merits an honorable number of listens but doesn't ultimately work, "No More Looking For Love" is so bland that it isn't even on Youtube, "You Move Me" isn't much better, and "When I Fall in Love" is another non-existence-justifying cover, not to mention a badly jarring departure from the rest of the set. But I still like the album, even though it'll never again enjoy the same kind of favor from me that I bestowed upon it in high school.
The rest of Astley's catalog is really spotty. Hold Me in Your Arms, his second full-length release, is a quality inverse, having about as many solid tracks as Whenever You Need Somebody has shoddy ones. I seem to recall working up some degree of enthusiasm for "She Wants to Dance With Me" (I liked how they did the verses way more than the choruses and prechoruses), but it's enthusiasm I can't quite resummon. "I Don't Want to Lose Her" would theoretically be this disc's "The Love Has Gone" — I listened to it more than enough times to make that judgment — and I like the guy-reacquiring-girl ambition and all, but goddamn does that steel drum bridge bother me these days. Sophomore slump, I guess. One more data point proving late-80s stuff inferior to early- and mid-80s stuff.
Whether it was Astley's own decision or a handler's, 1990's Free took him in what one might call an "adult contemporary" direction, which I would call a bad move due to the fact that (a) it watered down the pop element and (b) the adult contemporary sphere, such as it is, already had one Michael McDonald and didn't need two. I'd link you up to the disc's opening cut, "In the Name of Love" (yeah, it is time to ban that title), but nobody's Youtubed it, so here's the second-best, "Move Right Out". I can't even remember anything else on Free, which is sort of a terrible sign because I did give it chance after chance.
Three years later came Body and Soul, which I used to think was Astley's nadir but which I've come to see as a net improvement over its predecessor. To be fair, it's a tall order not to frown on an album whose opener is a near-stereotypical exemplar of that early-90s fad where pop stars tried to get all "socially conscious". Because what solves the problem of hungry babies? Rick Astley singing about hungry babies. The whole thing is actually thematically imbecilic — if only you could hear the non-Youtubed paean to womanhood "Nature's Gift", which probably scores the chyx but is nonetheless laughable — but, on a production level, it sounds better and more distinctive than Free.
It wasn't until 2001 that the world would see and hear new Rick Astley material, and when he resurfaced with a video, hot damn was I excited:
My esteem for the "Sleeping" video remains high to this day. (I've said it before and I'll say it again: black-and-white is choice.) As for the song itself, well, almost as high; it probably helped at the time that I had lyrically similar problems getting to sleep with reasonable regularity. Nevertheless, I know full well that I would kill to produce a track that sounds half as solid. Its album, Keep it Turned On, definitely outshines the three that preceded it, but — let's get this out in the open — it lacks three important qualities: Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Perhaps in 2011, when the disc will qualify as decade-old pop music, I'll change my mindset. (Until then, I simply tend to my Savage Garden collection.)
I continue to keep an eye on Rick Astley, though he's put out nothing of interest in eight years. There was a covers album, Portrait, in 2005, but oy, again with the covers. I feel like I shouldn't write the guy off, though; it still seems entirely plausible that he could bust out another "The Love Has Gone" the moment my back is turned, and boy, wouldn't I feel like an a-hole then.