Thursday 19 April 2018

Now that's what I call a phenomenon

With the compilation series about to release its 100th instalment, John Meagher examines how it has remained top of the pops for 35 years

Smash hits: Culture Club featured on the first Now compilation
Smash hits: Culture Club featured on the first Now compilation

It was the era of New Romantics, synth-pop and Boy George - and Top of the Pops was a must-watch for music fans every Thursday night. The record industry was enjoying golden years and untold riches were around the corner thanks to the invention of the compact disc.

In early 1983 two of the giant record companies of the day, EMI and Virgin, joined forces to bring out a compilation album to tempt chart-lovers to part with their hard-earned cash. Now That's What I Call Music! - whose title was inspired by, of all things, a vintage poster for Danish bacon - became an instant success. Within a few months, Now 2 was in the shops and a veritable cash-cow was born.

Fast-forward 35 years and the Now compilation is still with us. Now 99 has just been released and its 100th edition will be unveiled in July. A slew of events is being organised to commemorate the occasion.

Far from being a passing fad like some of those other phenomena of the early 80s - the Rubik's Cube, Joe Dolce and mullet haircuts - Now That's What I Call Music! has turned out to be one of the great survivors of a simpler time.

And the astonishing thing about its longevity is that not only is it still knocking about in the era of Spotify, but it remains enormously popular too. Consider this: the second bestselling album in the UK in 2016 was Now That's What I Call Music! 93 (the bestselling was Adele's 25) and last year, four of the top 10 selling albums on iTunes were Now 96, 97 and 98 as well as a Christmas Now special.

While album sales have been in steady decline for the past 15 years, compilation albums have bucked the trend and Now has been at the forefront of it all.

Back in 2008, on the 25th anniversary of the series, I wrote in this newspaper that it "has proved to be astonishingly durable in an age where just about anybody with a basic knowledge of computing can put together their own compilation in minutes".

I wasn't to know it then, but Spotify, launched towards the end of that year, would change the way we consume music forever - and cause further anguish to an industry that had been so reliant on selling physical music. It would have been reasonable to believe that Now would become a casualty in this brave new world. And yet, despite the all-conquering presence of the streaming giant and a host of imitators with millions of paid subscribers, Now continues to sell in strikingly large quantities in both physical and download form.

Now may bypass the critics today (this one included), but there's clearly a large cohort of people who feel loyalty to the brand and will happily buy the double-CD version or opt to purchase it as a download.

With three releases per annum and each boasting 40 to 45 tracks, it's an effective if - let's be honest - outdated way to hear a snapshot of what's universally popular in any given year. There's something undeniably straightforward and no-nonsense about the Now model - here are a bunch of number ones, plus a glut of popular singles that were part of the musical fabric of the past few months.

Taylor Swift features on the 99th Now compliation. Photo: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty
Taylor Swift features on the 99th Now compliation. Photo: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty

Not everyone wants to trawl through the endless choice offered by streaming services or browse the 'expert curated' lists from Apple Music, Deezer and Tidal. More and more of us are feeling overwhelmed by information overload. Sometimes you want to hear the original and not a remixed or alternate version of a single and the Now albums have always delivered the track as originally released.

And is there a better way to get a sense of what captivated the masses in any given year? Any of the Now albums from the past will reveal what we were listening to in our droves in, say, 1988 - Wet Wet Wet, Erasure and Transvision Vamp - or 2000 - Britney Spears, Coldplay and, ahem, Atomic Kitten.

Listen to any of the Now albums over the past 35 years and you'll likely deduce that chart music is both glorious and ghastly, irrespective of the year.

Although I would later sneer at the concept of such mass market compilations, the first album I ever bought with my pocket money was a Now album. It was 1985, I was 10 and it was a cassette copy of Now That's What I Call Music! 5 - and it offered the prospect of being able to hear my favourite songs whenever I wanted and not have to wait until the 2FM DJs decided to give them a whirl.

I vividly recall the presence of Sister Sledge's 'Frankie', Kool And The Gang's 'Cherish' and Paul Young's 'Every Time You Go Away', and a quick Google search reveals that it also contained U2 and Gary Moore. And did I really listen to the politically charged art-rock band, Scritti Politi? I must have - they were on Now 5 too and as it wasn't nearly as easy to skip a cassette player then as it is to shuffle a playlist on a phone today, you tended to listen to everything.

Over the next four years or so, I made my pocket money stretch to every Now album that came out. I discovered lots of great pop - and some truly dreadful tunes too - and it was Now that first opened the window for me into the incredible worlds of David Bowie, Kate Bush and Nina Simone.

And I suspect I wasn't the only one in their adolescence and early teens to be turned on to such totemic giants through such an uncool fashion.

Over the course of three and a half decades Now albums have sold in excess of 250 million copies - a figure that includes spin-offs in markets outside the UK and Ireland. The US version is currently in its 65th iteration... and is showing no sign of fading.

A selection of Then and Now

Now That's What  I Call Music 1 (1983)

Phil Collins

'You Can't Hurry Love'

Heaven 17

'Temptation'

Men At Work

'Down Under'

Kajagoogoo

'Too Shy'

UB40

'Red Red Wine'

Bonnie Tyler

'Total Eclipse of the Heart'

Culture Club

'Karma Chameleon'

Tina Turner

'Let's Stay Together'

The Human League

'(Keep Feeling) Fascination'

The Cure

'Love Cats'

Now That's What I Call Music 99 (2018)

Dua Lipa

'IDGAF'

Taylor Swift

'...Ready For It?'

Bruno Mars feat. Cardi B

'Finesse (Remix)'

Camila Cabello

'Never Be The Same'

Kylie Minogue

'Dancing'

Sigrid

'Strangers'

Sam Smith

'One Last Song'

Stormzy feat. MNEK

'Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2'

Demi Lovato

'Tell Me You Love Me'

U2

'You're The Best Thing About Me'

Irish Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment