In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The internet has permanently damaged our collective sense of humor. It fucking sucks. Nobody has any idea what’s funny anymore. In the past decade and a half, a particular style of non-comedy comedy has risen up out of the global network of bored people on computers. We’ve all somehow apparently agreed that subjecting other people to obnoxious bullshit is the funniest thing that anyone can ever do. I have an eight-year-old who thinks that just fucking screaming in my ear without warning is a genius-level prank. It’s entirely possible that I was a shitty little shit at that age, too, but instead I’m choosing to blame the Minecraft YouTubers who have colonized this kid’s imagination. Fuck those guys. It’s their fault.
I don’t know exactly where this whole something is funny if it sucks idea took hold, but 2007 seems like a pretty good starting point. 2007 was the year of the rickroll — the internet-borne phenomenon where someone would send you a link to something that looked interesting, and you’d open it, and then you’d get little pop-ups of Rick Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up” all over your computer. This stunt apparently started off on 4chan. I didn’t even know 4chan existed back then, so I don’t know whether it was a hive of baby Nazis yet, but let’s just say it was.
The central joke of the rickroll was that there was no joke. Nothing funny was happening. When you rickrolled somebody, you simply forced them to allow “Never Gonna Give You Up” into their headspace. That was it. These people could’ve presumably used any song in the vast history of recorded music, but they went with “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and there’s a reason for that. “Never Gonna Give You Up” is a bad song, and it’s a catchy bad song. It could get stuck in someone’s head, and it could ruin that person’s day. Also, “Never Gonna Give You Up” already existed within the collective cultural memory. After all, a couple of decades earlier, it had been a #1 hit.
Rick Astley, the pasty and deep-voiced young man who popped up on all those office-desktop screens at the end of the second Bush era, came from a rural English village called Newton-Le-Willows. (When Astley was born, the #1 song in America was Petula Clark’s “My Love,” which isn’t great but which has never become a soul-sucking meme.) As a kid, Astley played in some local bands with his friend David Morris, who is currently a virulently right-wing member of Parliament. Astley started off as the drummer for a Northern soul band called FBI, but he pulled a Phil Collins and became the singer once the group’s frontman left. One night, the producer Pete Waterman heard Astley singing, and he decided that he wanted to record this kid.
Pete Waterman was one third of the production team known as Stock-Aitken-Waterman. By the late ’80s, these three guys had basically colonized the UK charts. Stock-Aitken-Waterman got their start crafting hi-NRG bangers for groups like Dead Or Alive and Bananarama. (They produced Bananarama’s chart-topping 1986 version of “Venus.”) Quickly, though, Stock-Aitken-Waterman found their lane by cranking out cheap, samey dance-pop hits for fresh-faced singers like the very young Australian soap opera star Kylie Minogue.
In the US, Minogue’s highest-charting single is her 1988 version of Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion,” which Stock-Aitken-Waterman produced and which peaked at #3. (It’s a 6.) In the UK, though, Minogue was an absolute supernova of a star in the late ’80s, and she had four SAW-produced #1 hits between 1987 and 1990. One of those chart-toppers was a duet with Jason Donovan, Minogue’s co-star on the Australian show Neighbours, and that guy had a couple of his own SAW-produced #1 hits around the same time. All in all, Stock-Aitken-Waterman banged out 13 UK chart-toppers in the second half of the ’80s, most of which sounded almost exactly like one another. My family moved to London for a year in 1988, and I had my pop-music awakening in the midst of all this. That Stock-Aitken-Waterman shit was everywhere. You couldn’t get away from it.
While Stock-Aitken-Waterman were locking down their whole pop-dominance strategy, Rick Astley was hanging out in the background, brewing tea. The very young Astley was painfully shy, so Pete Waterman figured that he wasn’t ready for pop-idol status yet. Instead, Waterman hired Astley as a tape operator and gofer in the SAW studios. Astley spent about a year working in that studio and getting comfortable there. Finally, early in 1987, Stock-Aitken-Waterman released Astley’s first single through their deal with RCA. That single was “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and it practically made Astley an overnight star.
For “Never Gonna Give You Up,” Stock-Aitken-Waterman took everything they could from “Trapped,” a 1985 house single from the New York house singer Colonel Abrams. “Trapped” had been a #3 hit in the UK, so it wasn’t like this was a deep pull. (In the US, “Trapped” topped the dance charts, but it didn’t cross over to the Hot 100.) The blippy bassline and handclap-driven drum track of “Never Gonna Give You Up” are pretty much swiped wholesale from “Trapped.” The “Never Gonna Give You Up” beat isn’t a sample, but it’s definitely a ripoff.
But “Never Gonna Give You Up” isn’t house music, and it has none of the gospel-descended euphoric desperation that drives so much house. I’m not sure “Never Gonna Give You Up” even has a genre. The itchy depth of “Trapped,” and of American house music in general, is nowhere to be found on “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Instead, the track is about the chintziest, shallowest Motown pastiche you’re ever going to hear. The strings are transparently fake. The horn stabs might be even faker. Over that beat, Rick Astley bellows thoroughly generic love-song lyrics from straight off of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman assembly line.
Astley’s big lyrical pitch on “Never Gonna Give You Up” is fidelity. Astley’s narrator knows he’s not very exciting, but he assures you that he’ll always be there: “A full commitment’s what I’m thinking of/ You wouldn’t get this from any other guy.” Who could resist that! Astley mostly makes his case through sheer repetition. Again and again, he tells you that he’ll never give you up, let you down, run around, or desert you.
The jumpy beat does not pair well with Astley’s plummy moan. Astley’s voice has all the chesty showiness of his British white-soul ancestor Tom Jones, but he has absolutely none of Jones’ swagger. Instead, Astley sounds like the version of Tom Jones who’s too shy to reach out and hold your hand. The depth of Astley’s baritone somehow makes him sound like more of a square. That production and Astley’s voice are both awkward, but they’re awkward in different, oppositional ways. They work against one another. The song is a tonal mess, a clusterfuck. Nothing about it works, and yet that chorus forces itself into your brain anyway. I hate it.
Astley recorded “Never Gonna Give You Up” with Stock-Aitken-Waterman late in 1986, and the producers released the single in the UK in January of 1987, figuring that was the best time to introduce a new artist. Simon West, who would later make Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, directed a video of Astley emitting earnest nice-guy gumpiness in various London locations. We progressively watch as one bartender — really a member of the resident Top Of The Pops dance crew — gets very into it. “Never Gonna Give You Up” went on to become the biggest hit of 1987 in the UK, and it also topped charts around Europe before getting an American release. This type of clumsy imitation-soul is exactly the sort of thing that American record buyers can usually smell coming a mile off, but for whatever reason, “Never Gonna Give You Up” took off over here, too. For a brief minute, Rick Astley became a global star.
Years later, Astley seemed to have a pretty good sense of humor about the way his biggest hit became an internet punchline. Talking to the LA Times at the height of the rickrolling phenomenon, Astley had this to say: “It’s a bit spooky, innit?… I think it’s just one of those odd things where something gets picked up and people run with it. But that’s what brilliant about the internet.” On the contrary. That’s what fucking sucks about the internet. Astley continued:
If this had happened around some kind of rock song, with a lyric that really meant something — a Bruce Springsteen, “God Bless America,” or an anti-something kind of song, I could kind of understand that. But for something as — and I don’t mean to belittle it, because I still think it’s a great pop song — but it’s a pop song. Do you know what I mean? It doesn’t have any kind of weight behind it, as such. But maybe that’s the irony of it.
That is the irony of it. But in the pre-irony days of 1988, America rickrolled itself. We will see Rick Astley in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Nick Lowe namechecked Rick Astley on his 1990 single “All Men Are Liars”: “Well, do you remember Rick Astley?/ He had a big fat hit, it was ghastly/ He said I’m never gonna give you up or let you down/ Well, I’m here to tell you that dick’s a clown.” Here’s Lowe’s video:
(Nick Lowe’s highest-charting US hit, 1979’s “Cruel To Be Kind,” peaked at #12.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the oddly hynotic 2012 viral video that edits together clips from Mad Men to make it seem like the show’s characters are singing “Never Gonna Give You Up”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Busy Signal’s oddly effective 2014 dancehall overhaul of “Never Gonna Give You Up”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2015, when the members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed a Foo Fighters show, the band rickrolled the bigots, playing “Never Gonna Give You Up” at them from the back of a truck. This somehow led to a friendship between Rick Astley and the Foo Fighters. A few times over the years, Astley has joined the Foos onstage to perform “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Here’s video of Astley and the Foos doing the song at a 2017 show in London:
(The Foo Fighters’ highest-charting single, 2005’s “Best Of You,” peaked at #18.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the years since the rickrolling phenomenon, a whole lot of animated movies have used “Never Gonna Give You Up” as a punchline. The song has appeared in Happy Feet 2, The Angry Birds Movie, and The Lego Batman Movie. It’s also been in Bumblebee, which is technically not an animated movie but which uses it for the same type of joke. The best of these usages of “Never Gonna Give You Up” is probably John C. Reilly singing it in the post-credits scene in 2018’s Ralph Breaks The Internet. Here’s that: