(100) Days of Soundtrack: #25 – Rick Astley – Whenever You Need Somebody

The internet finds Rick Astley hilarious, because the internet is collectively two years old. In one of its first collective decisions, the online hivemind decided that “Never Gonna Give You Up” should be the ultimate prank. It’s the sort of joke which gets tired the first time it happens, as you click the link and the opening strains of the song waft out at you, and all you can do is ask “why?” There are worse songs. There are goofier ones. Cheesier ones. There are straight up weird songs that would really blow someone’s mind if they were linked it from nowhere. The web chose “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

It’s not that there’s nothing inherently funny about Rick Astley… even as kids, his deep voice coming from his dorky ginger body was an easy joke to grasp. He’s the Doogie Howser of 80s R&B, and if that joke hit home for you, you are probably old enough to have loved Rick Astley non-ironically. That’s the thing: people once legit loved this man’s music. It’s no cheesier than any number of 80s songs considered “classics.” “Don’t You Want Me” is, to my ears, worlds worse, but “league-rolled” doesn’t have the same ring, I guess. In my younger days, by comparison, I liked Astley’s stuff just fine, until the web made whatever novelty was in the song wear thin, like everything else the web really runs with far enough. It’s only fair to give the album that made the man amous a fair shake. So while I am confronting you lovely folks with this on April Fools Day, acknowledging the confusing modern history of the song as a stand-in for an actual punchline, I would like to seriously explore Rick Astley’s 1987 effort, Whenever You Need Somebody.

Like most albums of the era, Astley saves the hit for first. It’s Tom Jones schmaltz, for sure, but it’s also no worse than anything that a Tom Jones would have recorded. We ignore how well layered this era of pop music was. Give it a real listen, and think about all the different parts combining into this silly, simple song. By track 3, we have hit #2, “Together Forever,” which, if the Rick Roll needed to be a thing, is the better option. It’s as cheesy, but doubly so by trending so close to the original hit. The video is INARGUABLY worse than “Give You Up”s. The topic matter is just as ridiculously pie-eyed. Yet again, if we analyze this for what it is, and when it happened, it’s still cotton candy, but the Cadillac of cotton candy. There’s nothing here that stands out as any more egregious than any number of other artists.

No, the real painful parts of Rick Astley’s career are in the “bad boy” inflected title track, which starts off like a less successful “Give You Up”. The melody is not remotely coherent, and the style outside of the chorus doesn’t fit that deep cheesy voice. Keep in mind that this means there are three songs in a row which are basically the same song, because “Together Forever” is also, for all intents and purposes, the same song as “Never Gonna Give You Up.” They’re in the dull “love you, yes I do!” of “Don’t Say Goodbye,” and the weird gallop of “Slipping Away.” They’re in the “repeat the chorus until you are driven insane and begin slow fade” trick which ends most of these songs. “Never Gonna Give You Up” is legitimately high quality Astley. A little more digging would find much more embarrassing stuff. Not that you didn’t do embarrassing stuff when YOU were 20, right?

By the time “It Would Take a Strong Strong Man” starts up, with the drum intro and the synth riff threatening to go four-for-four with the same track, one is about ready to go back in time and throttle Astley’s ginger neck, but this is when his R&B style actually gets a bit of rhythm and a touch of blues. It’s no longer the bouncy 80s confection of his hits. Something authentic creeps up in Rick’s voice, like this is the one song he truly connected with. It is not a stroke of genius, but it is a legitimately good song. It follows with “The Love Has Gone,” which has its own somewhat darker mood as the first real lost-love song here. It is automatically a breath of fresh air, because it stands out fully from the rest of the pack. “When I Fall In Love,” one of the stronger highlights of the so-called great American songbook, is also done passably here, giving Astley a claim as an old school crooner despite the deeply 80s sound on this album. Shuttling to the opposite side of the musical spectrum, “You Move Me,” despite some cringeworthy lyricism, comes out of left field with a legitimate new-wave groove. Rick’s voice doesn’t have the same synthetic velvet feel here as it does on his hits, which makes it a more interesting instrument. What this means, of course, is that Rick Astley is not a joke artist. He is dated, for sure, but he’s a man with many more facets at 20 years old than most musicians have literally ever. One need not like him, but one should take him seriously.

So let’s reconsider Rick Astley as the go-to punchline to every joke on the internet. It is not only so easy as to become banal, but it’s not accurate. Astley doesn’t leave a sterling legacy, but if you can seriously look at Toto’s “Africa” or Journey’s “Separate Ways” and not see the utter epitome of a groanworthy musical era there too, and maybe even more strongly, perhaps you just need to be more honest with yourself.

Alex Lupica (@Alex_Soundtrack) has been in love with music since he was a toddler, despite its infidelities. (Really, music? Nu-metal? How could you!). Alex is Editor-in-Chief at The Daily Soundtrack.

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