Sunday, February 4, 2018

Never Gonna Hear "Never Gonna Give You Up" The Same Way Again AKA I'll Have What That Bartender's Having

There once was a song. Those who heard this song were hard-pressed to name any aspect of the song that was remarkable in any way whatsoever: not the melody, not the lyrics, not the production. It was the most generic pop song in the history of popular songs. Naturally, given the tastes of the 1987/1988 record-buying public, this impressively generic song became a #1 hit in virtually every country in the Western world.

Sometimes, late at night, alone in the dark, I ask myself why. Why "Never Gonna Give You Up"? Why Rick Astley? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do fools fall in love? Why do hot dogs come in packages of ten, but hot dog buns come in packages of eight? Some possible answers:
  1. An invisible race of aliens secretly invaded planet Earth in 1987 and implanted "Never Gonna Give You Up" receptor chips into our feeble humanoid brains. Thus, when the song hit the airwaves, we were instinctively inclined to enjoy it, without fully being able to articulate why. 
  2. Stock Aitken Waterman deliberately gave the rhythm track the same number of beats per minute as the human heart. Listening to "Never Gonna Give You Up" is like ... listening to life itself. 
  3. Homo sapiens are nothing but a bunch of masochistic, self-loathing nihilists, and in late 1987/early 1988, we eagerly relished the opportunity to achieve this ultimate act of self-hatred. 
Valiant attempts, but still somehow unsatisfactory. Occasionally, a phenomenon comes along that simply cannot be explained, like the unicycle, or Pauly Shore. I'm afraid the initial popularity of "Never Gonna Give You Up" will remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of our age.

Question: Are there any actual instruments being played on this song? It's like scrolling through a news website and realizing that none of the actual stories on that site were even written by that site. I feel like I hear a string section, but is that really a string section? I feel like I hear horns, but are they really horns? Is this song just one giant illusion? Indeed, "Never Gonna Give You Up" could be considered Stock Aitken Waterman's most notorious display of studio magic - or should I say black studio magic? Best/worst production choices:
  • The faint echo of Rick Astley's voice that can be heard over the instrumental intro at 0:08 and 0:16 - it's like a foreshadowing of the horror to come 
  • The significantly heavier echo applied to the end of the second line of each verse ("So! do I-do-I-do-I," "Too shy, to say-it-say-it-say-it"). Please, somebody, help, let me out of here!-here-here-here... 
  • The silky bridge, with its choir of female sirens cooing "Ooh ... give-you-up," punctuated by Rick's gruff, spasmodic "Nevah-gonna-give! Nevah-gonna-give!", followed by a repeat of the second verse with all the "instruments" stripped away, leaving only Rick and whatever the hell that thing is that's making all those throbbing noises 
"Never Gonna Give You Up" was one of those songs I used to hear on the radio all the time and I never once gave it a moment's thought. I don't believe I particularly cared for it much. I used to get it mixed up with Rick Astley's other big hit, "Together Forever," and I also used to get Rick Astley mixed up a little bit with Michael McDonald, if you can imagine that. They both sound more black than they really are. That said, at least Michael McDonald sort of looks the way he sounds; Rick Astley looks like he'd sound like, I dunno, Morrissey? The point is, soft rock stations couldn't get their fill of "Never Gonna Give You Up." They wanted to have Rick Astley's baby. Then one day, I forgot about the song, and I didn't really miss it.

Fast-forward to 2008. A friend suddenly tells me about this new internet meme revolving around some cheesy song from the '80s. He tells me he's not familiar with the song. He sends me a link to the video. I instantly chuckle, and boast my extreme familiarity with the piece. Hey, I was grooving to "Never Gonna Give You Up" before the internet even existed, you damn kids! Actually, I hated the song back in the day, but I'll take my pop music street cred wherever I can find it.

The moment I heard about Rickrolling, I understood exactly why it was humorous. "Never Gonna Give You Up" was the epitome of inane, flavorless late '80s pop. There was absolutely nothing interesting about it. Suddenly, the song's utter lack of artistic value was what made its employment as a running gag so surreal and, dare I say, appropriate. The song was stupid. The meme was stupid. Somehow, like the invisible finger that forms above your nose when you place your two index fingers together and let your eyes lose focus, two stupid ideas met in a new, hidden dimension, and formed a brilliant idea.

Here's the strangest part of all: since Rickrolling became a thing, I actually like the song now. Perhaps this is what Karl Marx meant by his remark about history repeating itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Of course, as any true Rickrolling aficionado will tell you, half of the appeal of the meme is in the laughably dated, relentlessly clean-cut video, which, until 2008, I had never seen. Allow me, if I may, to perform a shot-by-shot analysis of the first 18 seconds of this music video:
  1. Close-up of Astley's ginger-coated skull bobbing up and down behind the tip of a microphone and in front of what appears to be a massive stained glass window with an oddly pinkish tint to it, although the movement of Astley's head against the background seems to suggest low-budget usage of a green screen. 
  2. Medium shot of Astley bobbing in the same manner as in Shot #1, again standing behind a (now more visible) microphone, and again in front of this supposed stained glass window, the medium shot revealing his outfit, which consists of a grey sport coat, a striped polo shirt, black belt, and khaki slacks. The shirt is tucked into his slacks, which seem to be pulled up unnervingly high - even for 1987. 
  3. Unexpected close-up of Astley's nondescript shoe. 
  4. Slightly more interesting close-up of Astley's hand. 
  5. Return to the medium shot, featuring Astley bending his elbows and wiggling his arms, but not, apparently, in time with the music. 
  6. Return to the close-up, mercifully sparing us his ill-advised elbow movements. 
  7. We're back to the elbow-jutting in another medium shot. I spoke too soon. 
  8. Close-up of Astley, now in an entirely new setting: it appears to be an ancient stone building with Renaissance-style arches. He's also wearing an entirely new wardrobe, consisting of a tan trench coat and a black turtleneck sweater. The enthusiasm of his smile is somewhat unsettling. One can also detect an occasional flash of light in the background. Is there ... a fireplace somewhere off camera? Did they film this in a lightning storm? During an air raid? What's going on back there? 
  9. Wide shot of Astley in front of the same brick building, featuring the same eerie flashes of light, but, as with Shot #8, revealing no explanation of the source. 
  10. Medium shot of Astley in front of the brick building that's almost as bland as he is. (Is the flickering light supposed to be from ... the reflection of water? Is he standing by a canal??) 
  11. A medium shot of a blonde-haired woman with a yellow ribbon in her hair, wearing a sleeveless black top, dancing in front of the "stained glass window" seen earlier. Initially her back is to the camera, and then, without warning, she spins around and reveals her wholesome, chipper face to the world. 
  12. Slightly wider shot of what appears to be a different blonde-haired woman with a yellow ribbon in her hair, as her black garment clearly has sleeves on it, while the other woman's does not. She performs some type of retro disco move with her left arm while dancing in front of the same pink-tinted "window" image. 
  13. Now we come to a third setting, this time in broad daylight. Rick is wearing sunglasses and a long-sleeve button up light blue shirt, possibly tucked in to an appallingly high-waisted pair of slacks, possibly not, leaning against a fence. This must be "Outdoorsman Rick." 
  14. Slightly wider shot of Outdoorsman Rick, the camera panning around his body as he shuffles his legs, claps, and punches an imaginary foe, again not in any apparent rhythm. And yes, the waist on his slacks is just as frighteningly high as it was on his first pair of slacks. 
  15. Close-up of another blonde woman, standing outdoors and wearing sunglasses like Rick, but also wearing some sort of lightly tie-dyed sleeveless summer dress, twirling gaily in front of a building with white bricks. The camera gradually zooms out as she twirls. 
  16. Close-up of the same woman twirling, although perhaps not capturing the same exact twirl as before. 
I ask you: has any video, within its first 18 seconds, ever crafted a mood quite as powerful? True, the piece arguably never surpasses the aesthetic precision of its majestic opening, but then again, how many videos ever could? Indeed, the next thirty seconds or so merely recycle bits of the already-revealed imagery (Stone Building Rick, Outdoorsman Rick), aside from a cryptic shot of a gyrating shadow (possibly Rick's?) at 0:30. Nothing new truly enters the picture until the 0:51 mark, where we are suddenly presented with a black bartender in a white shirt and red suspenders who pauses from wiping the counter to promptly turn his head and glare off towards the back of the room with an expression that seems to say, "Whoa man, what the hell's going on back there? Looks like they're having a good time." Sure enough, after a quick cut to another shot of Rick and the Dancing Blondes, the camera cuts back to our suspendered mixologist, who is now flipping a glass and bobbing his head in what I might describe as an "All right, I can get into this!" gesture. Ladies and gentlemen, that's not the only thing he's about to flip. This dude's just getting started.

At 1:18 he truly begins to break out of his shell as he spins and spins with more vigor than the Tazmanian Devil, then leaps into the air and ... does a jumping jack! Who knew Carl Lewis was in the "Never Gonna Give You Up" video? At 1:34 he starts to jog on an (I presume?) invisible treadmill, and then at 1:42, WHOA, look out, he does a backflip over the entire freaking bar! All I can say is, whatever they're paying this bartender, it's clearly not enough. When he pops up again at 2:07, he's changed out of his suffocating bartender wardrobe and is now sporting the athletic gear he clearly feels liberated in, as he bounces buoyantly against a chain-link fence. Then at 2:25, he does a full somersault under the Renaissance arches, pausing robotically upon completion, as if he were dancing to Herbie Hancock's "Rockit." But wait, he's still got one more moment of glory in him: at 2:46, he runs up the brick wall, tumbles backwards, and lands on his feet with a thousand-watt grin. All well and good, but what I'm wondering is: while he's busy prancing around and flying through the air and having a grand old time ... who the hell's manning the bar?


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Anonymous said...

Did you look at the "Popup video version" of this masterpiece ? It explains so much - the bartender was quite hungover when he reported to the set and had to do his acrobatics several times before getting everything right. One of the dancers could not learn the steps well enough (kind of like a 80s "left shark" fiasco) so they left her out of most shots. The director for the video was hired only THE DAY BEFORE they shot it. Astley's manager argued with the director about whether the sleeves on his trench coat should be rolled up or not. Now why he was wearing a trench coat is another story.

Herr Zrbo said...

Your fastidiousness to detail in describing this video reminds me of Joyce's description of Dublin in Ulysses. Truly a work of art.

Little Earl said...

I'm honored by your praise, Zrbo, but I was actually more influenced by Hugo's description of the Paris sewer system in Les Miserables than any segment of Joyce's oeuvre.

Pop-Up Video? Those came out long before Rickrolling. I guess someone must have realized how ridiculous this video was even in the late '90s.

Anonymous said...

So the Rick Astley POPUP video used to be up on You Tube but it disappeared and was replaced by some Death Metal guy who does a reverse Rick Roll on people seeking to see the Rick Astley. The guy's name is "Zerbo" which is interesting since that appears to be close to one of the bloggers here - perhaps he is moonlighting - anyway here is the link to the video but