Profile: Rick Astley - never give you up

WHEN the MTV Europe music awards pitched up in England last week, the organisers anticipated the Best Ever Act would go to an obvious contender: the Beatles, possibly, since they were being held in Liverpool. Or U2.

What they could not have envisaged was that the title would go to a cheesy 1980s pop star who only had one hit that anyone remembers – and only then because it was one of those annoying songs you can't get out of your head.

But Rick Astley – he of the high-waistband trousers and auburn quiff – stole the show. The 42-year-old polled 100 million votes – more than all the night's other winners combined – to snatch the ultimate honour. The event had been well and truly "rickrolled".

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For those whose grasp of internet argot begins and ends with the word "google", this is the name of the phenomenon that rescued Astley from obscurity and transformed him into an unlikely icon. After years in self-imposed pop exile, the crooner from the Stock Aitken Waterman hit factory found he had a new fan base when pranksters started tricking internet users into watching the video of his 1987 hit 'Never Going To Give You Up' by clicking on more enticingly-labelled links.

For example, a surfer exploring a celebrity gossip site might click on a link for Britney Spears' new video and find themselves watching Astley bopping around in a beige trench coat or in over-sized sun-glasses. Since the rickrolling trend began last year, the video has been viewed more than 20 million times on YouTube.

Astley has kept his dignity intact by neither complaining about the prank nor taking his new-found popularity too seriously. But then Astley is used to being mocked. Even when he was at the peak of his career, his admission that the first song he ever wrote was called 'Ruddy Big Pig', caused Smash Hits to refer to him ever-after as Rick "Ruddy Big Pig" Astley. Somehow you can't help feeling he should just wear a "kick me" sticker and be done with it.

The sentiment Astley has expressed most clearly about rickrolling is embarrassment that such an anodyne song should be causing such a fuss. "If this had happened around some kind of rock song with a lyric that meant something – a Bruce Springsteen, 'God Bless America' or an anti-something kind of song, I could understand that," he has said. "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 weight behind it, but perhaps that's just the irony of it."

What is ironic is that a man who once walked away from fame should now unwittingly find himself the centre of international attention once more. Not that Astley always feared being in the public eye. As a young boy growing up the youngest of four children, in Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire, he was always performing, first in church choirs and then as a drummer.

He joined a band called FBI and when its singer left, he filled the breach. Then Pete Waterman turned up at a gig and offered him a contract – but only if he ditched his friends. An honourable lad, Astley, then 19, turned him down, but when it became clear the band was going nowhere and Waterman gave him a second chance, he changed his mind. Soon he was off to the SAW studios in London, where he spent two years making tea before 'Never Going To Give You Up' spent five weeks at number one and became the biggest selling single of 1987.

For two years Astley, whose voice was so deep many people thought he was black, was pop gold: he had eight consecutive top 10 hits (including a cover of Nat King Cole's 'When I Fall In Love') and two huge albums. But then, suddenly, it all went wrong.

Astley, keen to be taken seriously, parted company with SAW, and soon after he fell foul of the tabloid newspapers. Although squeaky clean (he remained with his childhood sweetheart Jake throughout those years, splitting up just as his star was on the wane) negative stories appeared suggesting he had sold out his FBI bandmates. He had one more passably successful album before Body And Soul bombed in 1993 and, burned out, he walked away from the pop industry.

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For almost a decade, Astley lived a comfortable life in London with his wife Lene Bausager, a Danish promoter for his then record label, RCA, and now a film producer, and their daughter Emilie. With no pressure on him to earn, he indulged in his hobbies, keeping a motorboat on the Solent and tinkering on the fringes of the music industry. Then, unexpectedly, he returned to the fray, bringing out the albums Keep It Turned On in 2002 and Portrait in 2005.

An appearance on the BBC pro-celebrity duet contest Just The Two Of Us would have given him a higher profile, but he pulled out at the last minute because it clashed with the Academy Awards ceremony where the Sean Ellis film Cashback, produced by his wife, had been nominated for Best Live Action Short Film.

Astley admits he has a complex relationship with fame, finding it both attractive and repellent. "I don't mind admitting I've had a bit of therapy to try to resolve some of these issues," he has said. "Fame's such a weird thing, but why would you not do something because you might get famous?"

It's impossible to know whether such philosophical ponderings were at the core of the rickrolling phenomenon, which began in March 2007 when the number of people trying to view the first official trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV caused the system to overload and a user of the imageboard 4chan changed the link to that video.

By the following year, it had become such a cult that on April 1 every featured video on the front page of YouTube brought up Rick Astley. Surreally, a group called Anonymous which opposes the Church of Scientology also adopted Rick Astley, dressing up in trenchcoats and blasting out his hit at scientology centres worldwide.

The tongue-in-cheek obsession with the singer reached its apotheosis last week when he won his MTV award courtesy of his new "fans", who sabotaged the contest by setting up computer programmes to bombard the website.

Though ostensibly grateful to those who voted him in, Astley shows signs of tiring of their mischief-making. He refused to attend the awards, leaving gossip blogger Perez Hilton to accept the trophy on his behalf. And when you listen to the hoots of laughter his win has provoked, it's easy to see why. "Rick has become a lovely joke," said Richard Godfrey, a senior vice-president at MTV. But for Astley, at least, it seems the joke is beginning to wear thin.