Last Monday, Rick Astley (as in 80s, bequiffed, Never Gonna Give You Up Rick Astley) made a surprise guest appearance at London’s O2 Forum Kentish Town, with Blossoms, to sing Panic and This Charming Man by the Smiths. This was to announce two proper October tour dates – Rick Astley and Blossoms Perform Songs of the Smiths. With footage immediately doing the rounds, people quickly went bonkers.
“I’m not a slave to Twitter,” says Astley three days later, supping on an afternoon beer outside the Mikkeller Brewpub in London’s Exmouth Market. (“I’ve had a pint already, and some are quite strong,” he warns.) He’s co-owned the pub since 2019 (“Working in a pub is hard, I don’t work here!”). And he’s playing a gig here tonight with his house band (“No Smiths, we’re just going to jam”).
“But” – back to Twitter – “some of the responses have been hilarious. I was in bed with my wife this morning …”
Celebrating? “We’ll leave that where it is … and I was killing myself laughing.”
Turns out we’ve both read the same thread, so we pull out our phones to compare favourite tweets.
“Has someone been stealing ideas from Alan Partridge?”
“What’s next? Marti Pellow and McFly perform the songs of NWA?”
“Shakin’ Stevens and the Charlatans perform the songs of the Fall?”
Even Johnny Marr has waded in. “This is both funny and horrible and at the same time,” the guitarist tweeted.
“Obviously, after the whole Rickrolling thing,” – the internet bait and switch prank that fooled you into landing on the Never Gonna Give You Up video – “people are going to see Rick Astley Sings the Smiths and think: yeah, right? So this was our way of saying: this is actually happening.”
So, where did this unfathomably unlikely idea come from? “I performed with Noel Gallagher, the Courteeners and Blossoms at Manchester Arena in 2017,” he continues. “We were backstage, having a drink, which led to me appearing on Blossoms’ Pubcast podcast, chatting about the music we loved growing up.” (Blossoms are from Stockport, Astley from Lancashire.)
“My older brother Mike introduced me to the Smiths. We’d been busking in Manchester, saw [bass player] Andy Rourke with his girlfriend and I’m ashamed to say followed him, because it was an actual, live human, from Manchester – a stone’s throw from us – who made music we loved. We shouldn’t have followed him around the Arndale centre … Christ knows what would’ve happened if we’d seen Johnny Marr or Morrissey …
“So I confessed: one day, I just want to do a gig where I sing my favourite Smiths songs, walk off stage and go: ‘Ticked that box. Thank you very much.’ A few weeks later, they sent a message: ‘We can be the other part of that equation …’”
Covid has obviously delayed matters. But why are they only playing two smallish venues (one each in Manchester and London – which sell out in minutes later that week), when they could fill Wembley … or Knebworth?
“It just seems like the sort of thing you’d want to see in a small venue,” reasons Astley. “I do understand that the Smiths mean an awful lot to people, so I don’t want to tread on that history. I know the words to pretty much every Smiths song. I’ll sing them in the shower, but it’s another thing in front of 2,500 people … Plus, the arrangements don’t go: intro, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus. They’re unconventional. I’ll have the words on a monitor. I’ll have a karaoke machine if I have to …”
This isn’t Astley’s first side project. His band, the Luddites (Astley sings and plays drums) have been pleasing crowds for charity since 2008. “Yeah, my punk rock midlife crisis dad band. Our philosophy is: if we can’t learn it in the time it takes to listen to it, we’re not doing it. We do the Sex Pistols, bit of Clash, Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon … and of course Radiohead, Creep.”
The thing with Rick Astley, I realise, is that his “tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be …” Stars in Their Eyes moment doesn’t take much effort …
“I’m 55, so wear glasses most of the time,” he says, fiddling with his pair on the table. “But, I’m sorry, Morrissey can’t claim the quiff.”
To compare – both quiffs stuck up to the left, as it happens – Astley appears on cover of Morrissey’s The Last of the Famous International Playboys 2013 rerelease. The photo was taken, Astley tells me, backstage on Top of the Pops in 1989, at Morrissey’s request. Apparently Mozzer (who’s smiling in the photo – smiling!) wanted to use an unseen photo of him and Bowie, Bowie said no, but Astley happily obliged.
“Plus we haven’t even discussed what I’m going to wear on stage yet …”
Gladioli, frilly shirt and a hearing aid, surely …?
“That won’t work, cos I’ll have monitors in my ears.”
So, before we go, back to those tweets: “Can we now elect Rick Astley to take over all of Morrissey’s duties?”
“No. I’m not going to rehearse things that he used to say on stage,” adding his views on the current Morrissey, which, although most will agree, we won’t go into here. “I’m just paying homage to some amazing music that still means so much to a generation that I could be their dad.”
And does that mean Morrissey is now legally entitled to perform Never Gonna Give You Up, I ask?
“He always was,” Astley smiles.
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