MEMES, Bonus: A billion Ricks

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Last week, we explored the origin of the “Rick Roll,” a meme that evolved from Rick Astley’s 1987 hit song, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Since the music video resurfaced as the meme in 2007, the internet has also never given up on Rick – so much so that the video recently hit one billion views on YouTube. 
This bonus episode dives deeper into Rick’s childhood, how he was discovered, and how he dealt with not only his fame in the late 80s, but with his more complicated identity as a meme. 
Show notes:

  • Last week's full episode on the origin of the Rick Roll

Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Ben Brock Johnson: How did you hear about Rick Rolling?  

Rick Astley: I have a friend who's he lives in America, he's been there a long time now. He's a record producer and writer, and he Rick Rolled me a couple of times and I had no idea what he was doing. I just thought he's just being an idiot. Right? 

Amory Sivertson: This is Rick Astley.

Rick: And in the end, I must I must have emailed him back or something and said, what are you doing? And in the end I just called him because I just. And he said, what? You haven't heard about this yet? And I said, What? What is this?

Ben: If you are wondering, Rick Roll? What is this?

Amory: Well then it sounds like we’ve "gotta make you understand." That is the title of our most recent episode, which you’ve gotta go back to if you want to understand what the heck we’re going to be talking about in this episode: the first of the bonus installments to our meme series.

Ben: That last episode traced the origins of the Rick Roll — the classic internet meme prank which involves using a disguised link to trick someone into watching the classic music video for the classic 1987 Rick Astley song:

[“Never gonna give you up. / Never gonna let you down. / Never gonna run around and desert you.”]

Amory: A few months ago, we sat down with Rick Astley for our Rick Roll episode. And it was an interesting moment for him because “Never Gonna Give You Up” was days away from hitting one billion views on YouTube.

Ben: Which is both not bad for a song that’s more than three decades old, and also it’s wild to think about one billion views on that youtube video. No ads, at least when I see it. Have you noticed that Amory? Have you ever noticed that? No ads in front of Rick Roll. Has that happened to you?

Amory: Yeah, it just starts.

Ben: If you're lucky enough, it just starts.

Amory: You know, it just might be a record for a song of its age. Just for comparison, I looked up Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the epic music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is at – at least at the time we’re recording this – about 790 million views. So a billion is quite a milestone.

Ben: Rick was delightful. A true gem, as we said in our last episode. We ended up talking with him for over an hour. And much of that conversation didn’t make it into our Rick Roll episode. So, for this Endless Thread bonus episode, we thought we’d bring you a little more Rick.

Amory: Because we know (sings) your hearts been aching for more.

Ben: We spoke with Rick Astley on July 21st, 2021. At that point, “Never Gonna Give You Up” had something like 990,000 views. Team Endless Thread was doing its part watching a little Rick every day.

Amory: Rick Rolling our friends like it was 2008.

Ben: But Rick was pretty calm for a guy on the brink of something this big. Video calling from his garage-turned-home-studio in London, the first thing he wanted to talk about was the stuff behind us.

Rick: What's nice is almost everybody has got a guitar in the background. Paul, what are you doing you got plant pots.

Paul Vaitkus: I got a little rack here. 

Rick: Okay.  

Amory: Paul Vaitkus, our engineer and composer, couldn’t let that go.

Ben: Understandable, so...

Rick: All right, listen, if we're going to if we're going to start showing off, then hang on a second, OK, let's let's just get into–

Paul: I mean, I want to see Rick's studio.

Rick: Ok, let's let's get into the B.B. King signed. Lucille. You don't hear me all right?

Paul: I don't think we're OK with that, Rick.

Amory: After this guitar-measuring contest…

Ben: Not much of a contest if you ask my P-Bass.

Amory: Rick was ready to get into it.

Rick: I am a guy called Rick Astley and I am 55 years old, I was born in nineteen sixty six in the north of England and I've been kind of trying to make my way in music for about 30 odd years, so. And I'm still trying. So here we go. 

Ben: Rick’s version of trying today isn’t quite as hard as when he got his start back in the 1970s and 80s in Lancashire County, England.

Amory: He grew up in a musical family. His mom was a piano player…

Rick: She could read and she could play classical music, but she could also sit down, and if you started singing a song from whatever musical or whatever anything, she would just play it. It didn't matter where you started. She would just play it. 

Ben: His voice, that epic voice, came from his father.

Rick: He had a great voice, but he never did anything with it. He used to sing around the house and the streets of the little town I'm from, but I don't think that was my introduction to music at all, my introduction to music. To be honest, if I'm going to be really honest about it, I was getting out of our home that I live in. I was brought up by my dad. I didn’t actually live with my mom. My mom and dad divorced. They had five kids but one passed away before I was born. And I don’t think my dad was a happy camper to be honest. And they’d been through a lot. Obviously losing a child is the most devastating thing anybody can go through as parents. And I think. You know I just don’t think there was a lot of sunshine really. And I think music caught me really early where I just thought this is a joyful place to be. 

Amory: Well, your voice is really unlike anything else. And did you have formal vocal training? 

Rick: No, I did not. Obviously, I was in a church choir and stuff, and I'm sure there was an element of singing with other people and singing a part. It's not like in pop and rock music where you can do a little... or if you do that in a choir, everyone just stands there looking at you, going what you're doing, you fool, you know what I mean? So I think in some ways that was probably quite an early good thing to do and made me sort of respect the people that you're working with. Whatever they're doing has to work with what you're doing. So but no, I've never really had any training. No.

Ben: Rick graduated from choir to a band.

Rick: I started to kind of thrash away on drums whenever I could, the school drum kit and all the rest of it.  

Amory: Now, we went into detail about how Rick was discovered in our earlier episode. But just a quick refresher. In one of Rick’s bands, he started singing.

Ben: The story is well-known to any Rick Astley fan. A London music executive, Pete Waterman, came up to the North of England to see Rick’s band play. This was a huge deal for a couple of kids from the sticks, they gave it their all, but Pete didn’t like the band.

Amory: He loved Rick’s voice, though.

Rick: Just to broaden that story ever so slightly. He was also dating a girl, believe it or not, from the little town that I'm from, which is one of the reasons he agreed to come up north and see the bands was because he was coming to see her as well. And she was a hairdresser and hairdressers, was above an amazing record store that just sold soul records. And Pete Waterman, that's how he met her. I don't want to you know, it's not it isn't like a Hollywood script or anything, but there's a little more of a nugget of a story of how that all came to be. It's so it's so easily Pete Waterman could have gone I'm not coming up the motorway to see some bloody rubbish bands. Not tonight, but tonight. I do want to go and see I want to see Gaina. It was the hairdressers. So hahah.

Amory: man.  

Ben: So, Rick Astley fans, remember to write a Thank You note to Gaina, the hairdresser from Lancashire County or thereabouts.

Amory: Pete told Rick he had a job waiting for him in London. It wasn’t a glamorous job.

Rick: I made tea for Bananarama, which I think they have never, ever forgotten, to be honest, it's gin and tonic, now. If I'm getting them a drink now, believe me, it's gin and tonic.

Ben: But Pete didn’t want Rick’s voice to go to waste.

Rick: Pete had this thing about, you know, lots of people that he worked with that we should do, you know, it's not a bad thing to do a cover. And if it shows the artist in a certain light and we did a version of When I Fall in Love,” which, to be honest, was an insane thing to do because Nat King Cole is one of the greatest things that's ever lived. You shouldn't really go anywhere near the Temptations either, but we did that as well. We did like a slow down version. And I'm like a 20-year-old kid at this point, sort of trying my best, you know.  

Amory: So instead of a cover, Pete had songwriters Mike Stock and Matt Aiken make something new for Rick.

Rick: But they kind of they're never going to give you up thing. They wrote that song way before it got released. 

Ben: Did you like it immediately? 

Rick: Yeah. And I can say that with all modesty because I didn't write it. So I'm not saying, hey, it's a great song and you know, I just felt really comfortable with it straight away. And it's so repetitive that never going to never going to never go. It's like and again, I just knew straight away that there was something about that tune. And I think now when you listen back to never going to give you a bit, it's a bit difficult because it's been around for a while. But I think it's got a quality about that song that is almost. I think it sort of slips people by sometimes because of the whole Internet side of what's happened with that song? I don't think sometimes people realize how great it actually is, it is a crafted pop song. Do you really mean it's and I can say that, like I say, because I didn't write, I didn't produce it. I just sang the Goddamn thing. 

Amory: Rick told us that when the song came out, the feeling was surreal. He had no experience at being famous. He showed up to shoot the music video for Never Gonna Give You Up with a bag of his own clothes.

Ben: You don’t do that Amory? That’s what I do.

Amory: When I shoot a music video, I guarantee you it will be with a bag of my own clothes.

Ben: This is, of course, the music video that would, years later, resurface as the Rick Roll. Rick’s newfound fame in the late 80s was tough on him. But, it’s arguable that the Rick Roll… that would be tougher.

Amory: Rick’s thoughts on that, and on hitting the big 1-000-000-000 on YouTube, in a minute.

Ben: In the late 80s, Rick Astley was everywhere.

Amory: By the mid-90s, he wasn’t. He stopped putting out music for the most part, he focused on his family. He grew up.

Ben: It wasn’t until around 2008 that he was reunited with his smooth-singing, step-touching former self. That’s when Rick’s friend — the one he talked about at the start of the episode — sent him a link disguised as something else, which turned out to be...

Amory: Do-do. Do-do-do-do.

Amory: After that initial “What-the-hell-is-this?” feeling familiar to all Rick Roll victims, Rick’s mind started going into hyperdrive.

Rick: If he knows about it to the extent that he's actually doing it to me, then obviously most of all I know it's a worldwide thing, the Internet, but if you go back to that time, things did happen in different parts of the world on the Internet that took forever to catch on somewhere else, if at all. You know what I mean?

Amory: What were you doing in your life around this time? Because you you did you are these these huge hits in the late 80s and then you stepped away from music for a good period of time, but then you kind of resurged around the time that the rock roll.

Rick: Yeah, it's kind of strange. It is really weird because it's really strange, actually, because for about 14 or 15 years or more or what have you, I never sang any of my old songs. I never did gigs. I didn't do anything. I didn't really make you know, I had to dabble at making a record, but it just my heart wasn't in it. And I don't think anyone else was going to be in it. And it was just like I just wasn't really interested. And it was like just just seemed like a lifetime away.

Ben: The Rick Roll rolled its way into popularity. And the requests to perform, to tour, to travel to festivals, they started rollin in.

Amory: But Rick turned them down. All of them. He wasn’t interested.

Rick: And then I got an offer to go to Japan and my wife and our daughter, who was about 14, 15, then just kind of cornered me in the kitchen and said, look, this, you're doing this. And I went and did the biggest karaoke I've ever done in my life. It was just amazing because that's what it felt like. And I said to the audience, I said, strap yourselves in because we're going full on karaoke. Tokyo, this is happening right now, you know, because it just felt weird. You know, I hadn't been on stage and sing those songs properly for 15 years. I'd sing them at friends weddings for a laugh, you know what I mean? And that was it. So.

Amory: During our interview, Rick used one word more than any other to describe his thoughts on the Rick Roll.

[Compilation of Rick saying "weird."] 

Ben: Because Rick’s experience was weird, he wasn’t sure whether to embrace the fame or keep his distance. He knew that at least part of the renewed appreciation for his music was ironic. But there were other people that truly loved the sudden reappearance of Rick Astley.

Amory: Rick felt appreciative of this love, even if he had mixed feelings about the meme.

Rick: If I'm hand on heart, I'm not sure I would have played some of the festivals we've done around the world in different places if I didn't have that song and what it's sort of become. So I'm not going to I'm not going to I'm not going to stand there and say no, it's because I'm an incredible artist, you know, I'm just not going to do that. It'd be ridiculous. But the positive upside of that for me is that we do get to do the festivals.  

Ben: Can you tell us a little bit more how you really feel about the role?  

Rick: I'm sort of detached from it, and I think it's the only way to be about it. Our daughter, when it first started to kick off and things were happening and there was a thing about MTV wanted me to accept an award for some whatever kind of what it was. 

Amory: Best act ever. 

Rick: Which is which is ludicrous. And I think what they thought I thought they I think they thought they were being ironic and funny, putting me in that category with U2 and Christina Aguilera and whoever else was in that category. So you can imagine I said, no thanks, I'm not coming. You can keep your award. It's OK. So anyway, so that was so I just wasn't doing it. But the point being our daughter, who, as I say, was a teenager, said, look, you do realize it hasn't really got anything to do with you. And the way she said it just hit me like a ton of bricks, but in a really great way. And that was like it was like just going just just seeing it in a different way and saying she's absolutely right. It could have been Dave Roll, Brian Russell, you know, Mary Roll, any role you like, somebody just somebody just shows my video and that song, it could have been anybody's. So I think from that moment, I've always just viewed it and said, you know what? Anything positive towards, you know, my little world coming out of it, I'll take anything else. I'm just not even going to think about it. And I've tried. Don't get me wrong, I know I've made money from it because it's just boosted the life of that song. And all the rest of it, of course, has a billion.

Ben: views on YouTube has to be sending. Right.  

Rick: Just think about that for a second. I don't even mean in regards to my thing. Right. Forget this thing for a second. Right. Just a billion of anything. What the hell? You know what I mean. A billion. What it's like. I just again, I don't mean to be old school and like an old granddad. I'm just saying if the word billion wasn't used very often when I was twenty one billion was for like stars and stuff. You don't I mean?

Amory: There was another word that Rick used a lot… one that not all meme subjects can relate to: lucky. And when your music video from 1987 hits one billion views on YouTube in the year 2021, that is pretty damn lucky.

Ben: Because, as many people told us as we reported this series on memes, the Rick Roll isn’t just a good prank, it’s a good song. One that perfectly encapsulates a specific era while also feeling timeless.

Amory: You were talking earlier about how you how if Pete Waterman hadn't been dating someone at a club where your band was playing, you might never have been discovered by Pete Waterman. I mean, and the Rick rule kind of has that feeling to it to where it's like. What a bizarre thing to happen to kind of reboot. Totally. Yeah. To to. Yeah, yeah. Infuse this energy into your career. And I just wonder if you ever think about that. Yeah.

Rick: Well I mean I guess. I guess it's sort of. It's a bit of fairy tale, like, really, and don't get me wrong, it's not like I'm not conscious of it most of the time during the meeting, but it's just a weird thing that and listen, there have been a bunch of songs throughout musical history that sort of have a comeback, if you like, mean and they become something at a sporting event that everyone sings now generally mean or whatever it is, you know. But in terms of the way that that's sort of being adopted, if you like, by the Internet, it's just weird. And I always thought I was unbelievably lucky. Anyway, normally, pop music, rock music, whatever it is, you have to have what is now termed as The X Factor by Simon Cowell and what have you. It's got to be something else. And I almost think my anti X Factor was the thing that made it work. And ironically, all the all the all these years later, that sort of still kind of sits right with people. It's just in that context, you know, the real thing. It's like if I was super sort of suave and this that the other looked, you know, I don't know, like like a sex symbol style thing in that video, it just wouldn't work. It's just, you know, it's like I'm just like this 20-year-old, whatever. I was. Twenty one year old dude, you looks 12 years old, who came to a video shoot with his own clothes in a bag.  

Ben: Thank you, Rick. Thank you. Really appreciate your time. It's been it's been lovely. 

Rick: Thank you. Pleasure. Absolute pleasure. 

Amory: This bonus episode of Endless Thread was produced by Dean Russell.

Ben: And WE are a production of WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. I’m Ben Brock Johnson.

Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson, and we’ll be back in your feed on Friday with the next full episode in our meme series.

Ben: Byyyyyyyye.

Amory: (mumble sings) Never gonna give you up…

Ben: (mumble sings more)

Amory: Alright, I’m hitting stop.


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