Crafty Crooner

By Oliver Bennett

The coronavirus has not been kind to EC1’s hospitality industry. Some bars and restaurants may unfortunately have to close.

But there have been openings too – including Mikkeller on Exmouth Market, a Danish craft brewery. With a gleaming new open brewery at the back, a bar/ diner in the front and a cellar space for events it’s a growing business that opened during lockdown.

And Mikkeller has another claim to fame: it’s backed by pop star Rick Astley. Still busy making music – he had to cut a world tour short earlier this year because of the coronavirus – Rick spoke to the EC1 Echo at the brewpub with his wife and manager Lene.

“Lene is Danish and knew Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, who started the brewery,” says Rick. “He told me he was a bit of a fan of mine when he was young.” The two conversed, a contact suggested the Exmouth Market site and the idea “just grew”.

Rick has now had three beers dedicated to him, including Astley’s London Lager, and he is enjoying the whole business. “I’m starting to become a beer aficionado,” he says. “I never wanted to be the ‘pop star turned publican’ type but this is an adventure: always moving and exciting, and in a great area of London with a good community. It’s great to think that someone’s making beer on your doorstep.”

It’s also true, he says, that beer culture has changed. “Beer was once a bit of an old chap’s thing and this is a total reversal,” says Rick, who grew up drinking Tetley’s in his home town of Newton-le-Willows, near Manchester. “Beer is now paired with food which was never the case before. But to be clear: I’m not going to be down here pulling pints. For me it’s a side project –but one that’s very exciting and gratifying.”

To set things off, Rick did a short gig late last year. Then came lockdown, pausing projects and causing a huge hole in the hospitality industry.

“Every city in the world is now going to up against it,” says Rick. “The scary thing is that if your business was not in good shape beforehand, it’s going to be hard to survive.” It will have an effect on London, he says – while the family are west-London based, Rick and Lene’s daughter chose to live in Copenhagen and he fears for a loss of new ideas. “Cities like London and areas like Clerkenwell need young energy,” he says. “I hope that the bar in this beautiful area will become part of the community. That would make it good for me.”

Rick Astley, 54, remains very active as a musician and earlier this year had to curtail a world tour. “It was weird to be away when the world was changing,” he says. As a youngster he learned to play drums alongside AC/DC, and went onto model his trademark baritone on soul singers including Bill Withers and Al Green.

“I was influenced by soul,” he says. “That big voice thing has come back a bit if you look at people like Lewis Capaldi and Rag’n’Bone Man.” In his 20s he moved to London and met 1980s hitmakers Stock Aitken and Waterman. “They weren’t famous then,” says Rick. “I met them in a scruffy studio when they hadn’t had a hit single. It was in Borough which was then a bit forgotten. They wanted to be hit-makers like Motown. In six months they had become massive and when my song came out the doors had all been opened. But they were great songwriters and incredible musicians.”

Of his best-known hit from 1987 Never Going To Give You Up Rick says that “it has taken on its own life in a way I’d never have foreseen. It’s a pop song from 30 years ago that’s somehow part of public consciousness.”

Rickrolling – a social media fad linking posts with the video for Never Going To Give You Up – came as a surprise. “I wish I could claim I invented it,” he says. “I feel grateful. Not every artist wants their music to be used in a meme and some would be offended. But I think I’ve got enough distance from my past to just enjoy it.”

Rick has played his share of ‘80s nostalgia festivals. “I love them,” he says. “You have a glass of wine and hang out, and on stage all you’ve got is 40 minutes. It’s quite a suit of armour – you don’t have to explain a song from your fourth album.” But even he was surprised after making made an album, called 50, in his west London garage at 50 years old, which became a surprise hit. “It went to number one, selling 400,000 copies. It blew me away. I did everything in my garage and didn’t expect anything.” As for his continuing career, Rick is grateful. “I was the youngest on tour and now I’m the oldest on tour,” he says. “But I’m pleased. Not everyone has carried on. Kylie, Madonna, Katy Perry and Beyonce perhaps – but not many. I’m full of gratitude.”