It’s not easy being a dance-music star.
This is one area where success isn’t synonymous with respect. With dance hits, the beat and arrangements are really more important than the vocals. In music circles, the feeling is that just about anybody can do vocals on a dance single. So dance-music singers may get to the top of the charts, but musically, they’re considered by most critics and knowledgeable fans to be at the bottom of the barrel.
Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Taylor Dayne, Expose and the queen of them all, Madonna, are rattling around at the bottom of that barrel. These respect-starved performers will be the first to tell you that a bulging bank account and lofty chart figures aren’t everything.
It’s not only female dance-music singers who get no respect. Some males, like Rick Astley, have the same problem. The 22-year-old English singer is riding high with the danceable single “Never Gonna Give You Up,” from his Top 20 RCA album, “Whenever You Need Somebody.” He’s one of the few artists ever to crack the pop Top 5 with the first single from a first album.
“It’s like a dream come true,” said Astley, who was in town recently as part of a promotional tour. It was the sudden success he was talking about, not the critical reaction. Some critics pulled out their barbs and have been using him for target practice.
A genial redhead with boy-next door-charm, Astley held his composure when the issue of his singing talent--or possible lack of it--arose. “Never Gonna Give You Up” boasts a jackhammer beat, a catchy melody and a nifty arrangement. But some of Astley’s vocals sound technically augmented. The producers used a double-tracking technique that’s employed to make weak voices sound more muscular.
Defending his abilities, Astley said rather sternly, “I have a strong voice and I have good range. That double-tracking is just a production technique. These producers use that all the time. I didn’t always agree with them using it. But it has nothing to do with beefing up my voice. People who think that are wrong.”
Astley may have a point. The renowned team of Stock-Aitken-Waterman produced the album. Before Astley, this trio was best known for its work with female dance-music artists Bananarama and Samantha Fox, who’ve had some very polished hit singles.
But these women are considered pretty no-talents. Most of the credit for the hits has gone to the producers. Part of Astley’s problem is guilt by association: As the latest find of this team, his records must be a product of studio wizardry. Some are even saying he’s a male Samantha Fox.
Astley issued a challenge: “Listen to ‘When I Fall in Love’ and say I can’t carry a tune. I defy anybody to honestly tell me that after hearing that song.”
His version of this dreamy romantic ballad, performed with minimal instrumental backing, is a startling oasis on what’s basically a dance-music album. His voice, much deeper than you’d expect, has strength, feeling and a nice texture. He’s no Nat Cole (who did the definitive version of “When I Fall in Love”) but there’s certainly some vocal talent there--talent not really evident on the dance cuts that dominate the album.
The best way for Astley to quiet his detractors would be for him to do some concert and club dates. But, he said, none are likely before the end of the year. He’ll probably record another album first.
“I’m confident about my singing,” Astley reiterated. “Some people will be surprised when they see me in person. In the meantime, let them say what they want. I have no control over that.”
Astley comes from a small blue-collar town just outside Manchester, in the northwest of England. A veteran of several teen bands, he started out as a drummer but turned to singing as an “act of mercy.”
“I wanted to save audiences from having to listen to the bass player who was doing most of the singing in this one band,” Astley recalled, laughing. “He was awful. I was new to singing but I was better than him.”
Being a singer, Astley insisted, wasn’t part of his plans. “I never wanted to be the front man for a band. I never wanted to do the pop-star bit. I was happy playing drums and letting someone else take over the leading role. If I had been in a band that had a competent, aggressive lead singer, I might still be a drummer today--or a musician of some sort.”
Impressed by Astley’s singing on the band’s club dates, Peter Waterman, of the production trio, signed him. The team worked on his album off and on for two years. “Never Gonna Give You up” was actually recorded in late 1986 and was a worldwide hit before finally scoring in the American market.
Astley is in the throes of the worst part of being a hot new artist--traveling from country to country doing interviews and TV shows. During a late afternoon snack at a Hollywood restaurant, he looked worn out. A day of interviews, he admitted, had done him in.
“This isn’t really hard work,” Astley explained. “Someone who digs ditches for a living would probably be happy to trade places with me--sitting in a fancy restaurant, eating lobster and crab and talking about what it’s like to be famous. But this is hard work. It’s mentally exhausting like you wouldn’t believe.
“I have to do all this promotion through the end of the year. It’s career-building and it’s necessary--I know that. But that doesn’t make it any easier. I’m doing a lot of talking but no singing. I miss singing. I don’t do much of it on the TV shows. If the record company told me at the end of this year I’ll have to do another year of this promotion, I think I’d quit.”
The pressure of being a pop star has been gnawing away at Astley for a while. In England, where he’s a big star and fodder for the sensation-seeking tabloids, Astley admitted he’d often like to run away and hide.
“Sometimes I wish this would calm down,” said Astley, who now lives in London. “Then my life could be my own again. But I really don’t want all this to calm down. I like what’s happening to me--some of it anyway. It’s nice to be popular. But I wish I could do it part-time and be obscure the rest of the time. I can’t have it both ways. If all this stopped, I’d be very sorry.
“It’s very confusing. Is there an answer? Am I making any sense?”