Sunday 16 June 2013

Now That's What I Call Music! 30 years on

With HMV and Woolworths having gone the way of listening booths and shellac, no one piece of public space could be said to represent modern pop. If you had to locate each of the primary colours of pop music you could look in student unions, or school playgrounds, or Cheeko's night club in Archway, but none would give the full picture.

The heart of pop, from the outset, has been found in the single and, in turn, the compilation album. An entirely commercial enterprise, the 'comp' is designed to sell as many copies as possible by including the greatest number of hit singles from the shortest amount of recent history, genres be damned. Thirty years old - and 84 compilations down the line - 21st century pop is defined by Now That's What I Call Music.

"I used to do a paper round" says pop obsessive, compilation collector and Universal Music employee Mark Wood, "and after two weeks I'd have enough money to buy Chart Explosion or Mounting Excitement, one of the K-Tel comps. When you're a kid, they're fantastic value - you could either buy three singles, or a comp with 20 hits on it."

Wood says that the market for compilations has never been stronger. "In a market that went down last year, comps held up. In 2008 Now 69 set a record first-week compilation sale - that’s ANY comp ever - of 382,000 in one week in March. And then in August Now 70 broke that record with 383,000 in week one. Now 71 ended up with 2008 sales of 964,000 in about six weeks. Unbelievable!"

The decline of the CD single has helped to keep comps in rude health - they are now the easiest way to find a physical, hard copy of many hits. In time, Now 85 will become a snapshot of early 2013; comps are social history time capsules. Another hugely successful series is the  British Hit Parade on the Future Noise label. These cd sets include every hit single from a particular year starting with the first chart in 1952 - the 1962 set came out in February. While the likes of Finders Keepers and Soul Jazz can re-shape and chisel the past, these comps give you a true and resonant idea of Britain in the early sixties. With every hit chronologically sequenced, Lonnie Donegan and Max Bygraves brush cheeks with Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. Totally inclusive, they are, in their own way, pop perfection.

Ashley Abram would have loved the option that public domain affords Future Noise - he has lost count of how many times he's been asked why Madonna hasn't appeared on a Now, the vagaries of artist consent and inter-label politics being beyond most people. Abram compiled the Now series from 1983 to 2012, leaving when EMI was sold off and split up. He was originally poached by Richard Branson from Ronco after his Raiders Of The Pop Charts comp had "knocked John Lennon off the top of the album chart." Not everyone is as sniffy as Madge about appearing on a comp: "U2 have gone on about the 'iconic' Now series" says Abram. "One of them, I think it's Larry Mullen, is really mad keen - some people just like the charts, I suppose. And Pride (In The Name Of Love) was on Now 4 so they've appeared on a lot of Nows."

He finds the collectors' market for early Now CDs "quite bizarre. Now 4 is the scarcest; even though it's a multi-million selling series, it sells for hundreds of pounds. And there's a mythical Now 5 CD but I've never seen it." The very first Now - Paul Young, Kajagoogoo, Men Without Hats et al - was issued on CD for the first time in 2008 to appeal to this lunatic fringe. The plan was for the other non_CD Nows, volumes two to seven, to follow but they never materialised.

Ashley Abram says there are "no hard and fast criteria" for a track to be included on a Now, but he liked to "keep the process a bit mysterious. We don't have a final track listing until three weeks before they hit the shops. All I do is go in for a day at Abbey Road, a long working day, and sequence it there. I usually make a few notes beforehand. Occasionally bands demand where they'd like to be on the CD. Queen used to."
Track one, by any chance?
"Yes! But we always agreed, and it always worked."

Now 85 is out on July 22nd.

*my favourite unlikely opening sequence is on Ronco's 20 Star Tracks from 1972: Procol Harum - Conquistador; Joan Baez - The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; Royal Scots Dragoon Guards - Amazing Grace; Free - Little Bit Of Love.


  1. Now 17 from 1990 is my favourite.
    09:Happy Mondays : "Step On"
    10:Primal Scream : "Loaded"
    11:Depeche Mode : "Enjoy the Silence"
    12:Jesus Jones : "Real Real Real"
    13:Inspiral Carpets : "This Is How It Feels"
    14:The House of Love : "Shine On"

    06:Jam Tronik : "Another Day in Paradise"
    07:JT & The Big Family : "Moments in Soul"
    08:Mantronix featuring Wondress : "Got to Have 09:Your Love"
    10:Bizz Nizz : "Don't Miss the Party Line"
    11:E-Zee Possee featuring MC Kinky : "Everything Starts With An 'E'"
    12:D Mob featuring Nuff Juice : "Put Your Hands Together"
    13:Adamski featuring Seal : "Killer"
    14:Orbital : "Chime"

    It has indie rock / madchester / 90s dance/rave.

    Plus Cliff and Phil Collins.

  2. I got Now 1 for Christmas when I was 10 - along with K-Tel's "socks pulled up" nearly-as-good Chart Hits '83, and have bought every volume since.
    I must admit I rarely play the most recent volumes - but they do paint a "warts & all" picture of pop in ways 'retro' compilations never can. In my opinion, the first 14 years of Now gave us a low 'wart quota' with it slowly rising until (in my opinion) the dreck outweighs the good stuff by circa 2007 (Now 67). (In fact I did recently play vols.39 thru to 70 in order to work out when it 'all went wrong'. I can't knock the modern 'Now's as compilations, they just no longer float my boat musically
    There were always months when pop quality dipped and this can be seen by the Now's (Now's 6, 21, 24, 32, 38, 39, 40, 41 in my humble opinion)
    My all time favourites of all is probably Now 2, but it would have been better if the series had started back in 77/78 and charted the glories of the 77-83 era and all the great progressions.
    I've recently 'made' myself digital versions of the first 6 'HIts' albums too, tracking all those hard-to-find single versions in order to get it right

    Incidentally, 20 Star Tracks was one of the few albums my parents had when I was small - I called it "the Purple Record" - and whilst I can't remember side 2 being played much, it's probably the reason Soldier Blue & Lady Eleanor are still two of my favourite singles of all time, plus Greyhound's I Am What I Am, the lesser-spotted Laurie Styvers, Poppa Joe & Cat Stevens' doing the 'song we sing in assembly'

  3. Of course there's an age thing involved, but for me the quality of the albums ebbs and flows a lot rather than being a consistent upward or downward trend - I suppose the modern ones are theoretically the best as compilations because they're longer and there aren't any rivals left so they can scoop up almost all the tracks worth including.

    Funny thing is, the Now albums weren't a part of my life at all when I was younger, but then five years ago I decided a bit impetuously to start a blog about them and before I know it I'm well on the way to collecting the full set. If you want to work out how old I am, Now 32 is probably my favourite and 33 is pretty good too (I promise I'm not only saying that because of the act who make their sole appearance on that one!)

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