In 1987, it was virtually impossible to go anywhere without hearing Rick Astley. The then 21-year-old released his debut single “Never Gonna Give You Up” that summer, and it went on to top the charts in 25 countries and become the best-selling single of the year in his native UK. His debut album Whenever You Need Somebody spawned several more singles, including a second number one hit in “Together Forever.” But peaking so early meant that there was nowhere to go but down, and though his next two follow-up albums, 1988’s Hold Me In Your Arms and 1991’s Free, were far from failures, they didn’t manage to match the heights of his debut. After his fourth album, 1993’s Body & Soul, failed to even make a dent in the charts, Astley retired from the music business.
In 2001, Astley returned with a new album, Keep It Turned On which, oddly enough, was only released in Germany. Likewise, his 2005 followup, Portrait, an album of pop standards, only came out in the UK. But the music industry had moved on, and neither got any significant notice in the charts. Though he maintained a small core following, it seemed that Astley’s days of international fame as anything other than a staple of 80s retro compilations had passed.
Then came rickrolling. The internet prank of tricking people into following links leading to the “Never Gonna Give You Up” video brought a whole new life to the song, resulting in millions of views on YouTube within a very short time when it became an internet sensation in 2008. Some artists might have been highly offended to see their work (ab)used in such a way, but Astley was extremely good humored about it (even participating in several live rickrolling pranks himself) and in being so managed to ride the phenomenon directly back into the spotlight. Astley had become a star again, touring internationally and, in 2016, releasing his latest album (and first true international release since Body & Soul), 50. The album went platinum in the UK, resulting in his first number one spot on the album charts since his debut record.
All of which brings up to his show last Wednesday at the Lincoln Theatre. The crowd was a mixed one, ranging from mega-fans who knew every word and every note (and in a few cases had even made their own t-shirts to celebrate the occasion), to some who had shown up knowing and waiting for only one song. But at the center of it all stood Astley, triumphant, back at the center of the stage where he belongs. Still managing to look impossibly young for a 52-year-old, Astley has lost none of the energy, charm, or singing voice that made him famous in the first place. For many 80s stars, beginning a set with a new song (in this case, “This Old House”) would be the death knell to the evening, but Astley managed to pull it off with aplomb.
Of course, clearly not wanting to take too much risk of losing the audience, Astley followed this up with his second biggest hit, “Together Forever,” as well as two more tracks from Whenever You Need Somebody (“Don’t Say Goodbye” and “It Would Take a Strong Strong Man”) before jumping back into the newer material with “Keep Singing.” From there his set wandered into what might have been lesser-known territory for some in the audience, with songs from Hold Me In Your Arms (“She Wants To Dance With Me”), Free (“Cry For Help”), and Body & Soul (“Hopelessly”) mixed with more tracks from the new record, but the performance by Astley and his band was strong enough to hold the room. In what wasn’t even his most interesting choice of covers for the night, he performed Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” a song that despite being a bit stylistically out-of-place amongst the rest of the setlist still managed to work.
Astley began the encore with the title track from Whenever You Need Somebody (his third biggest hit internationally, despite not having been released as a single in the US), and then followed it up with a medley (which he noted wryly that his daughter had asked him never to play again upon hearing it) of his 1988 hit “Take Me to Your Heart” and a cover of Rhianna’s “We Found Love.” Then, in what was certainly the most unusual moment of the evening, he took over the drum kit (noting that he had gotten his start in music playing drums) for a rocking cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” And he pulled it off, too.
Of course the night couldn’t end without that song, and so Astley and his band launched into “Never Gonna Give You Up,” which he extended with both an audience sing-along and band introductions. As the room erupted with energy, it was clear that this track, his very first release from so many years ago, would remain the defining moment of Astley’s career. And that he was totally fine with that. In the meantime, though, he had proven that far from being simply a nostalgia act, Rick Astley has returned. He left with a promise that if the audience would come back, he would too.