Hit By Hit: 30 Years Of Now That’s What I Call Music

Ian Wade the quietus.com 11/27/13

Ian Wade traces the history of the monolithic Now compilation series

End of November, 1983. I’m in a large out-of-town Tesco – back when such things as Tesco were banished to the outskirts rather than 25 yards apart – and my mum and my sister are preoccupied with actual food shopping, I hang out in the music department and look at the new releases. I spot an album that looks a bit interesting, and slightly more polished than the usual TV advertised affairs on offer.

TV advertised various artist compilations had been a mainstay of the record shop since Winnipeg-based door-to-door salesman Philip Kives invented K-Tel and began issuing such titles such as 25 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits in 1966. A UK office was opened in the early 70s and soon their “20 Original Hits! 20 Original Stars!” tagline was starting to take over the albums market. The less memorable small print on the back – “To ensure the highest quality of reproduction the running times of some of the titles, as originally released, have been changed” – showed the limitations of this 20 track concept, with some tunes edited badly, and the occasional cheap and weird obscurity on side two due to licensing rights.

Also in the early seventies, Ronco came along and proved to be a rival to K-Tel, issuing various releases that were almost a direct thematic copy of their rival’s records. It was their releases such as Super Hits 1 & 2, and Disco Daze & Disco Nites, which were marketed as a “buy-one-get-one-free” offer, freeing it away from squeezing 20 tracks onto one album, they could spread out up to 32 across four sides and do away with the editing. This was seen as quite revolutionary and gave them the edge for a while – well, until Christmas 1983 at least. Quite literally, as Ronco’s parent company went bust in 1984.

The original concept for Now That’s What I Call Music was the brainchild of the head of Licensing and Business Affairs at Virgin, Stephen Navin, and General Manager Jon Webster. They took it to Simon Draper and Peter Jamieson at EMI, who were so impressed that they linked up with Virgin to release it, making it the first time that two major labels had collaborated in such a way. The title itself – and the original porcine branding – was inspired by a 1920s advertising poster for Danish bacon featuring a pig listening to a chicken sing, which Branson had found in an antique shop and bought for Draper to have above his desk. You could see why Virgin were keen on the idea; Richard Branson was a bit annoyed with K-Tel and Ronco wanting his hits – why not do it himself?

And why not indeed? In 1983 they had quite a stellar array of acts – Culture Club, Genesis, UB40, Phil Collins, Heaven 17, Human League, Malcolm Mclaren, Mike Oldfield, Simple Minds, along with fresher turns such as Men Without Hats and the Rock Steady Crew. EMI had Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo, Limahl, Tina Turner and Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack. Throw in chart toppers from non Virgin/ EMI acts such as Bonnie Tyler, Paul Young, KC & The Sunshine Band, Rod Stewart and Men At Work, and top it off with numbers by The Cure, Madness, Will Powers, Tracey Ullman and Howard Jones, and you had an essential document of the pop year.

Of course, while impressed by the quality of hits on display, one was still wondering why the likes of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ or even Spandau Ballet’s megahit ‘True’ weren’t on there. And there wasn’t a sniff of the type of things that I was actually listening to in 1983 – Yazoo, The Smiths, Aztec Camera, Wham!, Echo & The Bunnymen etc, yet somehow that made it more formidable. It’s no wonder it shot straight to the top of the album charts for the Christmas period. This was also some years before compilations got their own chart, so each Now instalment was an instant hit and a number one, with the exception of Christmas 1984 when CBS (Sony) and WEA (Warners) got their act together and released a far superior album to that year’s Now 4 – The Hits Album, gathering together Prince, Jacko, Ray Parker Jr’s ‘Ghostbusters’, George Michael, Van Halen’s ‘Jump’, ZZ Top’s ‘Gimme All Your Lovin” and Kenny Loggins’ ‘Footloose’. While that series started wonderfully, subsequent Hits albums varied wildly in quality. Indeed it was a case of seeing what labels ‘owned’ from the previous few months as regards the biggest singles, and while there were a few amazing Hits compilations, Now basically destroyed them at every turn saleswise, especially when they added PolyGram (Universal) a few years later and had their arsenal at their disposal.

Another key ingredient to Now’s success was the tracklisting, and growing interest in who would be the first track on each disc. Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ – the biggest single of the year when this year’s compilation was put together – naturally kicked things off on Now 85, and as you count through the previous releases, the biggest hit of that quarter usually kicks things off. This has caused some sniffiness from various artists in the past though – Queen would often only want to be track number one or not included at all, while Madonna haughtily exiled herself from the series when Now 7 kept ‘True Blue’ off the number one slot. Everybody else – including The Smiths and The Beatles (albeit that wretched ‘Free As A Bird’ thing) – were quite happy to be on board. If Now albums are outselling an act’s own album by 20-1, then it just makes sense to relax and not be such an asshat about it.

Everyone seems to have a Now album lurking around at their parent’s house, and for some it was their entry into the world of music. As is the way with growing up, you go through periods of life when the charts hold no excitement, and you’re on the look out for edgier kicks. It could be that Now 3 with Propaganda’s ‘Dr Mabuse’ lurking among ‘Smalltown Boy’ and ‘Love Wars’; Furniture’s ‘Brilliant Mind’ and Stan Ridgway’s wonky marine fable ‘Camouflage’ standing alongside Bananarama, Chris De Burgh and Billy Ocean on Now 7; Iron Maiden’s ‘Can I Play With Madness?’ in a Voice Of The Beehive and Heart sandwich on instalment 11; side two of Now 17 which seems to link Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, Faith No More, House of Love and Depeche Mode together with the sub-Faces nonsense of The Quireboys. And so it goes on. For the past thirty years, Now has helped to offer glimpses past the pop spectacle, making one wait for that tune that may lead them somewhere else.

Now that we’re in the download era, the franchise remains as popular as ever. Looking at the economics, it’s not hard to see why. To download the average 44 tracks individually, you’re looking at spending around £40, so it’s a no-brainer to shell out £12 for it in the supermarket. Also, the release pattern for the last decade or so has seen them hit the shelves in spring (around Easter holidays), mid-July (just as the kids break up for summer) and mid-November (ready for Christmas). Also, it’s still one of the few albums that lots of people will still physically purchase on a regular basis. For some collectors, it may be due to the consistency of the brand, for others it’s a tangible thing containing the stuff lurking about in the hard drive. Also, with the licensing lasting for only three years, there has become a huge market for collectors shelling out silly money for rare editions. There’s the Now 1986 CD-only release (last seen going on ebay for £350), or the rare vinyl (the last edition was Now 35), and bizarrely the cassettes (the last one was Now 64).

The brand shows no signs of stopping anytime soon, especially now that with there are only a few major labels left. The shuffling behind the scenes has allowed more Sony/BMG releases in, giving each volume a more rounded tracklist based on the actual charts. Just in time for Christmas, Now has just released its 86th edition, featuring recent number ones from Katy Perry, OneRepublic, Jason Derulo, Miley Cyrus, Ellie Goulding, Avicii and Storm Queen alongside Lily Allen’s John Lewis ad tune and – a first on a Now for the band – the Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Do I Wanna Know’. There’s also a whole raft of Lawson/ Wanted/ Vamps types: essentially weaker echoes of One Direction. It’s no doubt currently selling at a speed that would shame artists’ own releases, and is a safe bet to become one of the biggest albums of the year. Again.

[Stop Press: Now 86 sold 270,000 copies in its first week on sale, down from Now 85’s first week of 317,000.

In comparison, the highest artist album first week sales this year was for Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories which chalked up 165,000.]

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