Poptastic compilation hits 100
OFF THE CHARTS: Jonathan Isaby’s love of the series has resulted in him buying every single album
Little did anyone guess that Now That’s What I Call Music would go on to become the most successful music franchise in history. Thirty-five years later NOW juggernaut has never been more powerful and this Friday it will release the 100th album in the series.
The 30 tracks have been expanded to 44 and it still represents the most popular of current tastes – the album opens with Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa and ends with Justin Bieber and along the way there are hits by Ariana Grande, George Ezra and Jess Glynne.
NOW 100 also has a hefty nod to nostalgia with a CD of “classic” tracks. One can only wonder what today’s teeny-boppers will make of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer or UB40’s Red Red Wine. That NOW 100 will enter the charts at No 1 is a formality.
Of the 99 previous releases 98 have topped the charts (the only exception being NOW 4, which was kept at No 2 by a rival compilation). In total the albums have spent 654 weeks at No 1 – the equivalent of 12½ years – with NOW 97 clocking up 14 weeks alone.
Every home in the UK owns the equivalent of four NOW albums and total sales are in excess of 120 million. But if the franchise is now a fundamental part of Britain’s music scene, back in 1983 there were misgivings as to whether the format would work at all.
Joint managing director of NOW Steve Pritchard has been with the brand since 1989 and says there were serious doubts about its longevity.
“The first one I worked on was NOW 19 and people were wondering if it had a future,” he says.
“One of the main worries, believe it or not, was the numbering system. There was concern that as the numbers got bigger than the ages of the people buying the albums they would get turned off the idea. Now that’s a strength.”
Poster for Danish bacon
The idea came about in the offices of Richard Branson’s Virgin records.
Other compilations had been on the market since the 1970s but they were either made up of cover versions rather than the original artists or else, in a bid to cram as many popular tracks as possible on to one disc, featured drasticallyshortened, lower-quality renditions of the songs.
Branson approached rival record company EMI and suggested a collaboration. Not only would their combined roster ensure the biggest stars of the day could feature but they would use full-length tracks and include proper packaging and sleeve notes.
The series took its name from a 1920s advertising poster for Danish bacon featuring a pig saying, “Now that’s what I call music” as it listened to a chicken singing.
Branson had bought the poster for his cousin and also used the pig as the logo for the early NOW releases. In a neat twist Branson went on to marry Joan Templeman the girl in the shop where he bought the poster.
“When NOW 1 was released the other compilations just couldn’t compete,” says Pritchard.
“Between Virgin and EMI we had an incredible repertoire of artists and more importantly, I think, the commitment to produce a highquality album of hits.”
The record flew off the shelves, selling 1.1 million copies and the series settled into a steady pattern of three releases a year – timed to coincide with the school holidays at Easter, summer and Christmas.
Richard Branson and wife Joan in 1981
And, as Pritchard explains, from the start the compilation process was driven by what was popular at the time.
“In a sense what we did was foreshadow the modern idea of the playlist,” he says.
“We pitched ourselves at kids who listened to singles. If you were a fan of a particular artist you would save your pocket money to buy that artist’s album. But if you were just a fan of pop music, NOW provided an incredibly good value way of accessing the whole pop chart in one go.”
One man who will be relishing the prospect of NOW 100 more than most is Jonathan Isaby. The 40-year-old editor of Brexit news site BrexitCentral.com has been collecting the albums since he was nine years old and now owns every single one.
The first one I bought brand new was NOW 10 in 1987
“The first one I bought brand new was NOW 10 in 1987,” he says.
“At the time it was the most economical way to get all my favourite singles in one place. And then I got into the habit of buying every new one when they came out.
“And eventually as an adult I realised that if I picked up the first nine on eBay I would get the full collection.
“The first 31 are all on tape but when NOW 32 came out I got a CD player for Christmas to coincide with it so since then they have all been on CD. And yes I do play them!”
The first and latest albums
Part of the success of the franchise is its democratic selection policy. The compilations are a reflection of what is most popular at that time and so avoid any accusations of musical snobbery. It can also make for some odd inclusions or juxtapositions.
NOW 1 features tracks by happy pop stars Kajagoogoo and sad goths The Cure, for example, and in 1993 art-rock miserablists Radiohead appeared on NOW 26 alongside cheery Take That and DJ Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince.
The series has also featured no fewer than 21 artists who have had a solitary No 1 hit and never appeared again.
“NOW is not subject to anything but the public taste,” says Pritchard.
“It is compiled by the nation’s pop lovers and as such is never judgmental or subjective. I come across tracks on the early ones that seemed important at the time that I simply can’t remember now.
“But at the same time there might be kids out there who buy it for Rihanna or Calvin Harris who then come across something different and have their eyes opened.”
For Jonathan Isaby the appeal lies squarely in the transformative p o w e r of music itself.
“Given my age I’m a bit of a fan of music from the 1980s so the early compilations are my favourites,” he says.
“But I do enjoy listening to the new ones as a way of keeping up to date with contemporary hits.
“But the real magic for me is that I have been listening to NOW compilations since I was nine. They have literally been the soundtrack of my life.
“Each new release represents a four-month chunk of my life and listening to them takes me right back to where I was and what I was doing then, whether that’s my school days or going off to university or something from my subsequent career.
“Music can be so evocative and each one of these albums is an instant way of bringing back lots of memories.”
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