The lasting wow of Now That’s What I Call Music

MONTAGE: Graeme Bandeira
MONTAGE: Graeme Bandeira
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It’s been part of the fabric of British pop culture for 35 years, a series of compilation albums that has charted the highs – and occasional lows – of the mainstream charts from the heady days of Phil Collins and Kajagoogoo to Jess Glynne and 5 Seconds of Summer.

Next week Now That’s What I Call Music reaches its 100th edition and its compilers are celebrating the occasion with a special double disc that pairs the biggest pop tunes of the moment with some of the highlights from a series of albums that has featured more than 2,000 artists and sold over 120 million copies.

For Steve Pritchard and Pete Duckworth, who’ve managed the brand since 1990, “it’s going to be quite an album”.

“We’re also releasing three format replicas of the very first Now on vinyl and CD and also for HMV they’re releasing a cassette as well for real collectors,” Pritchard says.

There will also be an accompanying documentary on BBC Radio 2 and a programme on BBC One in the week of release.

Pritchard joined the series from Virgin Records for Now 19 while Duckworth came in for Now 20. “It was just after that that the big 3D logo came in,” remembers Duckworth. “Mark Goodier voiced [the commercials] from Now 21 so when we came in there were changes made and we’ve stuck with it ever since.”

Back in the 80s Now had a rival, called Hits. “You had Polygram, EMI and Virgin doing now and you had Warners, Sony and BMG doing Hits, so at that time in the 80s there was limited access to each other’s tracks,” Duckworth explains.

“Once Now had seen the Hits brand off around 1991-92 almost everything went on Now because there was no other hits album in the marketplace. But there were still people that wouldn’t go on the albums – Madonna notably had never been on a Now.”

Pritchard feels the brand wars actually “played into Now’s hands because you had lots of accessible British talent who the public really took to their hearts” compared to the more American-orientated Hits.

“Having sat through Smash Hits Awards and heard the levels of screaming you could definitely hear a rise in pitch whenever there was somebody that the kids could identify with, a local lad or lass who they felt was one of their own.

Now was the album that solidified it in bringing lots of artists together and give somebody essentially a memory of that period of time.

John Newman

“Nowadays Now is actually a joint venture between Sony and Universal. Universal effectively swallowed half of EMI including Virgin so we’ve got access to everything, really. Warners sit outside the joint venture but they obviously realise how valuable it is financially and in terms of profile for their artists so we tend to have access to most things that are clearable.”

Settle-born singer John Newman, who studied at Leeds College of Music, grew up steeped in the Now albums. “The modern way of saying it is it’s the Spotify playlist of its day. Now was the originator of that, it’s always been there. You get compilations of Stax and Motown and even those Hits compilations but Now was the album that solidified it in bringing lots of artists together and give somebody essentially a memory of that period of time. I always think that Now basically showed off that time of my life and then to grow up and be featured on there, in that period of my life, it’s a really special thing. It’s also a little bit of an elbow dig to another artist, how many Now albums have you been on, which means how many hits have you had. It actually means a lot more than people think it does.”

Leeds band Kaiser Chiefs have featured on half a dozen Now compilations. Bass player Simon Rix remembers the early Now cassettes soundtracking car journeys with his parents. He appreciates the significance of the Kaisers featuring on later Now albums. “I don’t think it was ever an aspiration of the band or anything, but I think aspirations change, from wanting to sell out The Cockpit to wanting to sell out Brixton Academy and being Number One. I don’t think we ever wrote down on a piece of paper we want to be on a Now compilation but I do think it is like a rubber stamp of success because it means you’ve been in the pop charts enough as a guitar band for them to have taken notice of you.”

Mickey Dale of Calderdale band Embrace is a big fan of the Now series. “There was never any filler on there, it was only about the biggest hits so to be included on something that was such a big part of our childhood and growing up was massive.” He’s saddened that the charts no longer have the importance that they did 20 years ago, as physical sales have been replaced by downloads and streaming. “I take more notice of the charts when we’re trying to get in it whereas when I was younger I think everybody had a clue what the Number One single was, but culture has changed a lot around music and entertainment and while everybody still seems to love having music in their lives we just consume it in a completely different way, especially since the advent of streaming and Spotify and all that. Gone are the days of us rushing down to HMV on a Saturday morning with our pocket money hoping that they’d got a 7in single left of Oliver’s Army by Elvis Costello and The Attractions. You’ve got to roll with the times, I guess, but I do miss that sense of anticipation. Music brought people together, so you’d get all the Mods in one corner of the school playground and that kind of thing, and it dictated what kind of clothing you would wear and who you’d hang out with in your social circles. It doesn’t have any cultural importance any more.”

Sheffield synth pop pioneers Heaven 17 were on the very first Now compilation, with their song Temptation (which also featured in remixed form on Now 23). Martyn Ware remembers being approached by the label saying, “it’s going to be a series hopefully, but just to get it off the ground would you accept half royalties? So that’s how they did it.

“On the other side of the coin I suppose the fact that they weren’t forking out so much in royalties initially meant that they could spend more money on marketing, which obviously worked in everybody’s interest because there was a big TV advertising campaign and that became a standard kind of thing. We all take for granted now that records are sold in supermarkets and garages but at that time that was an usual thing and they were at the forefront of that kind of marketing. So, on balance, it did us a great deal of good.”

He too laments the decline of the single’s place in popular culture. “I think young people have got a problem of identity nowadays because it’s so dissolute. There’s no sense of you’ve seen somebody on Top of the Pops, everybody in the country’s listened to it. Not just Top of the Pops, but TV in general; Radio 1 is so segmented now and all the radio stations are so demographic and numbers-based, there’s no room for curatorship any more. I don’t even know what single means any more – they don’t even call them singles half the time, they call them lead tracks or featured tracks; I don’t know what an album means any more when you can cherry-pick whichever you listen to; I don’t know what album and singles sales mean any more, I don’t know what the charts mean any more. Does it matter? It’s nice to be able to say but it doesn’t affect sales all that much because the charts are decided analysing streaming plus whatever minuscule physical sales. I’m not moaning because I’ve had a fantastic life out of it; I’m more concerned for young artists.”

Pritchard and Duckworth believe the Now albums will continue, at least in the short term. But they’re already preparing the way for a new era with an app for mobile phones and tablets. “It’s been really successful because there’s a lot of love for the Now brand and as people move away from ownership a lot of people coming into the streaming market want a simple and direct mobile-friendly app which gives them hints, it gives them all the previous hits,” says Duckworth. “So rather than bombarding people with 40 million tracks that’s like a forest where you don’t know how to get through from one end to the other, the Now app is built for people who want to have easy signposts for what they want to listen to. It’s more of a limited repertoire but we know there’s a market that wants that.”

“We’re hoping that as later adaptations of streaming come online Now will help them into the market because they understand what it means and it’s not too scary, basically,” says Pritchard.

Now That’s What I Call Music 100 is out on July 20. www.nowmusic.com