You can guess someone’s age based on the first Now That’s What I Call Music! they owned. If it was one of the first 10, they’re 50something. If it was bought during the Nineties (Now 17 to Now 44), they’re either side of 40. A Now number approaching triple figures? Most likely a student. If it’s Now 116, the latest in the series, they’re approaching their teens and about to embark upon that magical journey into music fandom.
Mine was the very first one – a vinyl double album released 40 years ago today (November 28). Back in November 1983, Margaret Thatcher was in her pomp after a landslide election victory. Breakfast TV and £1 coins had both just arrived. The charts were dominated by Michael Jackson, football by Bob Paisley’s Liverpool, headlines by the Brink’s-Mat heist and the Walton sextuplets. We drove Mini Metros, watched Dynasty and wore shoulder pads. Then along came Now.
I’d grown out of the “taping songs off Radio 1” phase but not quite reached the “enough cash and confidence to buy whole LPs by one artist” stage. Why limit yourself to 10 or 12 songs (some of which you didn’t know) by one band when, for roughly the same price, you could buy 30 hits by various artists? Therein lies the allure of compilations: they made one’s pocket money or paper round wages go that little bit further.
We all like to rewrite the past and pretend our first album was something credible and hip but the chances are it was a compilation, probably a Now. It’s a musical rite of passage. One that, like the Now series, is still going strong – even in this age of Spotify, YouTube and Taylor Swift’s total world domination.
That first Now set the template for the next four decades. It mixed chart-topping killer (Duran Duran, Culture Club) with also-ran filler (Limahl, Tracey Ullman). Credible acts (The Cure, Madness, Simple Minds) rubbed shoulders with novelty turns (Will Powers, Men At Work, Rock Steady Crew). This is the beauty of Now. It isn’t artfully curated, it’s democratically random. An un-retouched snapshot of the hit parade in all its eclectic, deeply uncool glory.
The phenomenon was launched by some upstart named Richard Branson, owner of hairy hippie-run label Virgin. How that first album got its name is a rather sweet story. Branson frequently visited a bric-a-brac shop near Virgin HQ on Portobello Road, just because he fancied a girl who worked there. Eventually he had to buy something and stumbled across a 1920s poster advertising Danish bacon. It depicted a chicken singing as it lays an egg, while an enraptured pig declares: “Now that’s what I call music.” Branson bought it, hung it on the office wall and the rest is pop history.
The pig became the mascot of the Now albums and Branson went on to marry the girl in the antiques shop, Joan Templeman. Meanwhile, the Now series settled into a rhythm of three releases per year and grew from its humble roots to sell 120m albums – outstripping most of the artists who’ve ever appeared on it. Only two of the 116 Now albums have ever failed to top the charts. It’s estimated that the average UK household owns four Now albums.
My own favourites, naturally, are ones from my teens (namely Now 1 to 16). I also have a soft spot for the Britpop-heavy Now 31 and Now 37 (Hanson! The Spice Girls! The Verve!). A high point of the franchise came with 1999’s Now 44, which opened with Britney Spears’ ...Baby One More Time and shifted 2.3m copies, making it the biggest-selling compilation album ever. Now 48 became a pivotal plot point in Peter Kay’s Car Share, when supermarket worker Kayleigh (Sian Gibson) controversially insisted it was her all-time favourite album. It promptly re-entered the chart on the strength of second-hand sales alone.
The latest in the series, Now 116, was released last week, bang on time to capitalise on the Christmas market. The tracklisting is dominated by pop princesses – Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, Doja Cat, RAYE, Nicki Minaj, Lana Del Rey, Selena Gomez – plus dancefloor fare and endless “collabs”. Candy-coloured songs from the Barbie movie rub shoulders with veterans such as Kylie, Rick Astley and Duran Duran (who also appeared on the very first Now). There’s even Agnetha from ABBA and the Rolling Stones. In short, a textbook Now musical grab-bag.
The story of Now is also the story of how we consume music. The albums were originally double vinyl or cassette. CD was introduced in 1987 and soon became the dominant format – partly due to its capacity, meaning they could increase the tracks from 30-odd to 40-plus. Vinyl was phased out in 1996, cassette a decade later. Minidisc was briefly available between 1999 and 2001. The first to be released as a digital download was Now 62 in 2005.
Surprisingly for something so shamelessly mainstream, Now albums have become prized by collectors and completists. The last vinyl release, Now 35 from 1996, is worth up to £100. CDs from the 1980s can fetch up to £500. Despite its chart-obsessed cheesiness, the franchise has found a zealous cult following, with Facebook groups, fan forums and YouTube channels dedicated to grainy VHS tapings of old TV ads.
Perhaps it inspires such devotion because it is pop’s equivalent of Hansard or Wisden – a nostalgia-inducing, generation-defining document of the past. Stuffed with songs which induce a Proustian rush, whisking us back to our youth and making us come over all misty-eyed. They’re the soundtrack to our lives and your favourite is usually your first.
So what next for this newly 40something phenomenon? Well, streaming services and digital downloads were supposed to signal the death of the compilation. However, sales have been resurgent over the past decade. Just two years ago, Now 108 shifted 25,876 copies in its first week of release – 10,000 more than any other album.
Faced with so much online choice, perhaps punters are rediscovering the simple, convenient pleasures of a compilation. Indeed, downloads are powering the renaissance. Compilations are the fastest-growing sector of the digital album market. Naturally, Now continues to dominate. There’s life in the old pig yet.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to put my back out breakdancing to the Rock Steady Crew.