The egalitarian compilation series which sells more than the top 20 albums combined is 25 years old. Johnny Dee celebrates a British music institution
If you're under 40 it's possible for people to tell your age from just two cultural signposts - your favourite Grange Hill character and your first NOW That's What I Call Music album. Both place you at around your 10th birthday when Gran gets confused in the CD section at WH Smith and buys you whatever there's the biggest display of.
It seems as if the NOW albums have always been with us, perfectly reflecting the chart music of each era - epic in the 80s, all boy bands and Britpop in the 90s and an incongruous mix of indie and R&B today. Unlike other compilations, though, there has always been something oddly eclectic about the NOW That's What I Call Music series with bands like the Smiths sitting uncomfortably between Howard Jones and Fiction Factory in 1984, the Libertines sharing CD space with Ronan Keating and Duncan James in 2004 right up to the Black Kids' appearance on the new NOW 70. NME and John Peel may have laid claim to shaping alternative music tastes over the decades but it's just as likely that a NOW album gave many of us our first ownership of hip-hop, acid house or alt-rock.
Today, comps like NTWICM are propping up an ailing music industry; in its first week of release the current edition sold 383,002 copies, more than the top 20 bestselling albums combined.
It wasn't always so respectable: in the 70s, major labels viewed compilations as cheap and nasty products that they wanted nothing to do with. Instead independents such as K-Tel, Arcade and Ronco would license songs and cram as many hits as possible on to two sides of cheap vinyl - often cropping tracks down to two minutes to squeeze them all in. Worse still were the Top Of The Pops comps on Pickwick, which cost 99p and featured hastily assembled cover versions.
Despite massive sales, it took until 1983 for the mainstream music biz to recognise these albums' potential. Richard Branson, then still boss of Virgin records, was chairing a meeting in his office when the revolutionary suggestion was made that they release all their hit singles of that year on one album. Better still, if they got EMI involved they could make it a double album. Brilliant. But what to call it? Glancing around Branson's office for inspiration someone noticed a poster produced by Danish Bacon Factories featuring a cartoon pig craning his ear to the sound of a cockerel with the accompanying caption "NOW that's what I call music". Quite why or how Branson owned such an item remains a mystery but it gave birth to a British music legend. Nowadays we take TV-advertised compilations for granted, but then the chance of being able to own 30 songs on one album or cassette including 11 number ones was unprecedented.
Since 1983, the Now albums have consistently outsold any single artist and spawned versions from Indonesia to New Zealand. Like Elton, Oasis and Rod they're a British institution; maybe next time the Brits roll around they could get a Lifetime Achievement award. Who to accept it would pose a problem - Limahl, Robbie, Phil Collins and Dizzee Rascal all share equal responsibility in this egalitarian success story. Though Richard Branson in a pig costume might work.
NOW that's what I call trivia!
One artist you'll never find on a NOW compilation Madonna, who has compilations of her own to sell and refuses to sully her good name. When NTWICM 10 (which included her ex-beau Jellybean's hit The Real Thing) helped keep her off the top of the album charts it led to NOW and all other chart-hogging various artists albums being sectioned to their own private top 20 island.
First track ever Phil Collins - You Can't Hurry Love
The best-selling volume NOW 44 sold 2.3m copies in 1999, making it the joint 41st bestselling album in the UK of all time. Such was the power of Vengaboys' We're Going To Ibiza and Liquid Child's Diving Faces.
The unsung hero of NOW Ashley Abram - a singles buyer for Woolworths and others in the mid-80s. He was employed by Branson after the success of the first album as an independent middleman to keep all the labels happy and has compiled every volume ever since. You'll find his company, Box Music, involved in dozens of other compilation brands.
The first CD NOW 4 came out as a 15 track CD (the double LP and tape editions contained 32 tracks). Mint copies on eBay fetch around £500.
The rival Virgin/EMI's NOW albums were challenged by the WEA/CBS Hits titles of 1984-89. The rival series petered out after Hits 10, only to re-emerge with titles like Huge Hits, presumably as some marketing expert realised "hits" rhymed with "t*ts".
Edited highlights Occasionally songs are edited to cut out swear words and lengthy fades. This was particularly sad for Mark Owen, who had 30 seconds sliced from his track Four Minute Warning. A song that had been recorded to last exactly four minutes.
Rewriting history Errors in the CD booklets are legend. This from Volume 57 is our favourite: "Glasgow's Franz Ferdinand, as all historians kNOW, take their name from the Austrian Archduke whose murder kick-started World War 2"
As seen on TV Tracey Ullman voiced the first TV advert before being replaced by Gary Crowley. Next Brian Glover became the voice of the NOW pig, a major role he took to with customary Yorkshire grit selling "30 original chart hits on one posh double album". By Volume 4 his days were already numbered as he struggled with high-pitched over-excitement listing tracks by "Giorgio Moroder and Philip Oak-eeeeeee". David "Kid" Jensen became the voice of NOW until Volume 21 when he was replaced by the mellow tones of Mark "Goody bags" Goodier.
Longest-running consecutive artist Girls Aloud (13 volumes - NOW 54 to 66). Tom Jones features six times, always with someone else
Total number of tracks 2,693
The evolution of the NOW covers... 1. The golden age The first cover featured photos of all the artists pasted into the word "NOW". Very tasteful. 2. Year Of The Pig The cartoon pig found his way onto the covers of 3,4 and 5 alongside three coloured balls bearing the legend "NOW" and a lightning flash for added subtlety. 3. The computer age NOW 7 (August 1986) to NOW 15 (August 1989) included the familiar balls and flash laid over generic desktop screensaver images of sand, sea and space. 4. The superhero era From 1991 until the present day heroic giant capitals have heralded each new instalment of the NOW story along with seasonally themed tat (summer beach balls, fairylights for Christmas. etc).
Most popular NOW artists
1 Robbie Williams (28 hits, 4 with Take That) 2 Kylie Minogue (21 appearances) 3 U2 (18 appearances) 4 Girls Aloud (17 appearances) 5 Britney Spears, Queen, Tina Turner, UB40 (15 appearances)
Now 9 was the very first Now album i bought back in March 1987. There were only two Nows that year, they started producing 3 from 1988 onwards although they went back to 2 in 1990 and 91, and then back to 3 again.