Rick Astley’s hit track Never Gonna Give You Up has become famous as a meme. But it actually debuted in 1987, long before the advent of social media. The English artist’s single remains one of his most popular songs. It debuted as the first track on the album, Whenever You Need Somebody.
The single achieved number-one status on charts around the globe, first peaking in the United Kingdom It remained at the top of the chart for five weeks, becoming 1987’s best-selling single. Considered his signature song, he often plays it at the end of his live concerts. But what is the story behind the track? Read on to find out the meaning behind Never Gonna Give You Up.
Producing a Modern Classic
Astley recorded Never Gonna Give You Up with PWL Studios in South London. The single is marked by prominent bass lines, drums and sequencing, synthesizers, and reverberators; it is as drenched in 1980s style as it can be. Colonel Abrams’ 1985 hit Trapped was a major influence on the track’s sound.
The song’s concept and eventual title were based on Pete Waterman, the track’s producer. After witnessing his devotion to his girlfriend of three years, Astley opened a conversation that soon became an idea for a track.
The Meaning Behind “Never Gonna Give You Up”
Never Gonna Give You Up was inspired by the song’s producer, Waterman, who had been seeing his girlfriend for about three years. At the time, he was staying with Astley, making the singer privy to a three-hour phone call that he had one night.
When he, at last, hung up the phone, Astley joked that the producer was “never gonna give her up.” This gave them the spark they needed to create their hit. They toyed with the story so that Astley was the subject singing the lyrics. Nevertheless, the general idea of a steadfast relationship remained the same.
The song’s opening lines make it clear that he is laying his heart down. He repeats declarations of love and loyalty. When he reaches the chorus, he gives his pitch for love like a businessman. He makes a number of promises to his beloved that he’ll never give them up, let them down, or hurt them. This iconic chorus has gone on to captivate generations.
The song reached number one on the American Billboard Hot 100 chart on March 12, 1988. This occurred after resident DJ, Larry Levan, played it at the Paradise Garage the year before. Never Gonna Give You Up not only topped the charts in 25 countries but also reached number one for year-end singles charts in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
The Legendary Music Video
Astley’s now infamous music video was filmed in London, mostly near the London Borough of Harrow. It features the singer dancing—somewhat stiffly, the singer has said himself—with rolled-up suit sleeves. While the music video received some acclaim upon release, it would take almost 20 years for it to achieve legendary status.
On October 24, 2009, Never Gonna Give You Up hit YouTube. Since then, it has received more than 15 million likes and 1.3 billion views—as of January 2023. The song still averages almost half a million views each day, with over 13.6 million views each month. This is in large part due to the track’s eventual status as a prank meme.
While this track is a popular slam dunk, it is also a major industry fixture. Producer Mike Stock admitted that he did not fully understand what made the song so endlessly popular. He thought that perhaps its success was because of the singer, track, and RCA’s international reputation as a potent record label. Never Gonna Give You Up took number 33 in Time Out’s 50 Best ‘80s Songs in 2018.
The track has been featured prominently on television. Fans of the Emmy Award-winning sitcom Ted Lasso will recognize it from the second season. In the episode “No Weddings And A Funeral,” the character Rebecca Welton—played by Hannah Waddingham—sings the song at her father’s funeral. Astley later commended Waddingham for her moving performance, adding cryptically that “people” cried at the episode.
Never Gonna Give You Up has also made its way into some strange annals of history. It was reportedly played in the psychological campaign to pressure Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to surrender.
In 1990, after longtime financial and diplomatic relations with Noriega broke down, the United States invaded Panama to remove him. Astley’s track, along with The Clash’s cover of I Fought The Law, was played as part of psychological warfare, likely due to the song’s repetitive chorus, which some people find annoying.
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What began as a song and music video has become so much more. Never Gonna Give You Up was always popular, but 2007 brought it into a higher dimension. It was then that the track became the subject of a new phenomenon: rickrolling.
By burying Astley’s music video in an endless variety of misleading links, pranksters of all calibers took the Internet by storm. These links were often disguised in shortened URLs that re-directed benign links to the track’s music video.
The meme began with a group of users on 4chan but quickly spread across social media. It spiked after a 2008 April Fools’ Day joke by many companies and websites—including YouTube. At the time, Astley said that it seemed like “just one of those odd things” people run with, adding later that it was what was “brilliant about the Internet.”
He has since continued to take the meme in stride, with the occasional lighthearted jest about its longevity. He even participated in a rickroll of his own at the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, emerging in the midst of a song promoting Cartoon Network’s Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends to lip-synch a performance of Never Give You Up on the network’s parade float.
Astley received almost no money from the video’s millions of YouTube hits. He received a measly $12 in royalties from the social media company by August 2010. He said he has never worried about the money YouTube owes him. He has noted he has received enough money to be satisfied from other companies capitalizing on the Internet phenomenon. While he welcomed others to remix the song, he never released a remix of his own.
Where most celebrities may have cashed in, he never attempted to capitalize on his song’s newfound popularity. Instead, he accepted the track’s place in popular culture and found a certain brilliance in it—if also seeming bemused by its status as a running prank.
Like it or not, it is undoubtedly this internet trend that has continued to keep the song so popular after three decades. United Kingdom fans have voted it as one of the best tracks to come out of the British rock scene, particularly in the 1980s, giving it the status of a cultural icon as well. Never Gonna Give You Up has had its time in the spotlight as a major hit, then a source of annoyance, an internet prank, and finally, an enduring song that generations have enjoyed.
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As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.