The Now! That’s What I Call Music series celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and ITV showed a one-off documentary on it. Cramming 30 years into an hour meant it was always going to be a bit rushed. But this documentary covered even more than 30 years, indeed much of the first part was covering the history of compilation albums in the UK and then the events leading up to the creation of the Now! series.
An early series of compilation albums known of Top Of The Pops ran from 1968 until the early ’80s by Pickwick Records, but they were nothing whatsoever to do with the BBC’s Top Of The Pops. They were kind of a cheap cash in. The songs weren’t even the original versions, but re-recorded covers of the day’s hits by session musicians, and the album covers always featured a scantily clad model. But the fact that they sold showed there was a gap in the market. Later compilations albums included the versions by the original artists and were released by companies like Ronco and K-Tel, and if the adverts are anything to go by they were uber-cheesy.
Richard Branson set up Virgin Records which he describes in his own words as something which “started out as a hippy company”, in the ’70s signing leftfield acts such as Mike Oldfield, Tangerine Dream, Gong and the Sex Pistols, and in the early ’80s they truly broke through into the mainstream with acts such as Phil Collins, Human League and Culture Club. K-Tel kept asking Virgin to use some of their acts for their compilations, but instead Virgin decided to make a compilation album themselves, teaming up with EMI. So this is where the story of Now! itself begins.
The name of the series came from an old poster of an advert for Danish bacon. It showed a farmyard scene with a pig looking over a wall listening to a chicken sing and saying “Now, that’s what I call music”.
Richard Branson bought it from a bric-a-brac shop where his girlfriend and later wife worked, and he gave the poster to the boss of Virgin Records Simon Draper.
The pig would temporarily become the face of the series, and TV adverts for Now 3, 4 and 5 showed an animated version wearing sunglasses, renamed ‘Big Pig’ and voiced by Brian Glover. Apparently Big Pig polarised opinions, some loved him and some hated him. I very much think I would have been in the ‘loved’ corner. The series is referencing this early mascot, as the Now! That’s What I Call 30 Years cover has pig-shaped balloons wearing sunglasses on it.
Speaking of Now! That’s What I Call 30 Years, one of the songs it features is ‘Into The Groove’ by Madonna. Nothing unusual about that you might say, but Madonna has never appeared on a Now! album before. The programme offered an explanation why. Apparently Madonna was annoyed at the Now! albums knocking her album True Blue off number one and that ultimately it led to record companies successfully petitioning for compilation albums to be included in a separate chart, which in Britain they are to this day. This story has a bit of an urban myth feeling to it to be honest. Madonna’s songs featured on rival compilation series The Hits, so it seems more likely that record company politics and deals had something to do with it rather than a diva strop.
The programme showed that with compilation albums in general you got record companies allowing the makers of the compilation to include a big hit, as long as they included a few lesser known ones as well as a way of making some money back. This is of course why the quality in these albums is so up and down and why as they pointed out you always get a track on a Now! album which looking back you have no memory of.
Having said that, being included on a Now! album has proven to benefit lesser known acts and allowed people to discover them. Both Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 after ‘Temptation’ was included on the first Now compilation in 1983 and Jeremy Cunningham of the Levellers after ‘This Garden’ was included on Now 26 in 1993 stated that it introduced them to a wider audience and their record sales went up.
Other acts were not just eager to be included, but liked to know where they were included. Queen were said to have been very keen to be on the pole position of track one on side/CD one. Liz McClarnon of Atomic Kitten mentioned being very happy when ‘Whole Again’ was the first track on CD1 on Now 48. There was a consensus in the programme that CD1 is the A list, and CD2 is where the lesser stuff is dumped. There is some truth in that, but honestly I tend to prefer CD2, as it’s usually more varied and interesting.
Unsurprisingly the very first Now album is the one more that was most examined on the programme. Glenn Gregory mentioned Heaven 17 technically appear twice, once with ‘Temptation’ and when they collaborated with Tina Turner for a cover version of Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’. Similarly the first Now! album has Kajagoogoo’s ‘Too Shy’, Limahl’s solo single ‘Only For Love’ and the rest of Kajagoogoo’s single without him, ‘Big Apple’. The series is often called a snapshot of pop music of the time, but on there we have a snapshot of a pop career.
The evolution of the Now! album covers has been quite intriguing. The first two were fairly ordinary, black background and photographs of the stars. For the next few Big Pig featured, and there was red, blue and green circles spelling out NOW with lightning bolt for the ”that’s what I call music” and a pink circle for the number. Big Pig was dropped after Now 5, but the logo continued right up to Now 17.
After that it’s clear they were having some uncertainties with the branding as Now 18 had a weird news headline effect, and Now 19 had quite a sickly colour scheme of purple and yellow, and in both cases the number was faded into the background for some reason. From Now 20 onwards they started using computer generated 3D graphics and a logo which still continues to this day. Now written and resting on a pedestal saying “that’s what I call music”, and that itself resting on a large number. The settings and graphics have got more and more elaborate as time has gone on, but the basic design remains the same. See, this is something I could go on all day about, but I can see why the programme didn’t.
We do get a brief but still interesting interview with their graphic designer Gary Debique though. Early on the covers had to be made and photographed, and one of the most famous and well-liked covers was Now 12, where they had to make the title out of vinyl and stick it in the bottom of a record executive’s swimming pool, and Now 16 was made using real fireworks.
The interviews weren’t bad for this sort of programme. We got to hear some of the history some from people involved with them such as Richard Branson and ex-Virgin Record MD Jon Webster, and acts who have featured on the CDs. Most of the ‘talking heads’ types were bland, but I quite liked some of them. The Sun’s showbiz editor Gordon Smart talking about how the Hits and Now! were a rivalry like VHS vs Beta or Pepsi vs Cola. Una Healy from The Saturdays reminisced about chewed up cassette tapes and trying to fix them with a biro, and the fact that the Hits series had a dice on the front cover. OK, not exactly profound, but kind of fun in that nostalgic/relatable way. I liked Dermot O’Leary’s homemade Now roulette wheel where he selects a track from an old Now! album with it to play on his radio show.
The series has gone through many format changes, from vinyl to casette to CD, to downloads today, and the early CDs and the later vinyl Now!s are worth a bit of money these days as they are rare. People on the programme offered many reasons why they think the Now! compilations are so popular, from the fact that they have nostalgia appeal, that the variety means that there is something for all the family or something for whatever mood you are in, or that they are a easy choice to put on at parties. Leaving this programme if there’s one thing I take from it it’s that on the whole the Now! series is a good thing for the music industry and for the music buying public.
Of course there were lots of people on programme talking about their first Now! If you’re wondering, mine was Now 42 on cassette. I think I’ll dig that out and do another post on that at some point, it’ll be interesting to see what I make of it in hindsight.