Now That’s What I Call Music

21 01 2012

Part of the fun of doing this Pop Encyclopedia is being able to look back and view things in context. It is easy to look back see the full story of say, Ghost Town, because you are looking back from a historical point of view. This is all well and good, but pop music is pretty much about the moment. For me, nothing, except maybe Top of the Pops, defines this immediacy of pop music in the way that the Now That’s What I Call Music series of albums does. Now doesn’t care about context. It does not care if you are beginning a career that is going to change music forever, or if you are clearly a novelty that will be forgotten about in months.  It is “just” a collection of all the big hits from the moment, providing endless perfect snapshots of any moment in music at any time.

The Now series is now up to 80, and although I have not bought one in well over a decade, it pleases me that it is still going strong. Everybody remembers their first Now (mine was Now 43) and if you go back to your first one – or any of the ones you played over and over – as an adult, you feel a wave of nostalgia as two songs that really could never be placed together in any other context (Now 48 for example followed Papa Roach with Planet Funk). You will remember endless pop songs that history perhaps hasn’t been so kind to, because they didn’t have a big influence, even though they were inescapable at the time.

They are also the perfect “in” for teenagers, and I feel for any teen who didn’t at some point get a Now album. When you first discover music, you don’t really care about the context, about the genre’s or anything, you just either like, or dislike the music – Now collects everything in the way that a teenager just discovering the thrill of pop music does.

The Now series was started in the early 1980s by  Stephen Navin, John Webster and Simon Draper, all working at Virgin Records. A few key descions were made which set Now apart from all the other hit compilations. First they got EMI (and then later all the other major labels) on board, so it wasn’t restricted to just one label and wouldn’t have any gaping holes in it. Second it was spread over two vinyl’s (later replicated on double tapes, and double CD editions) allowing songs to play out in full, and in the highest quality.

The first Now boasted 11 number 1 singles, across two records. The album list for the first Now makes as interesting reading as any other – Phil Collins sits happily next to Malcom McLaren who seqgues into Bonnie Tyler – The Cure, Madness, UB40, Men at Work all pop up.

Now 48, which was my introduction, is a typical Now album. It mixes the credible (it was how I discovered Blur, Madness and Supergrass) and the exact opposite (Lolly, whose career consisted almost entirely of covers of popular 80s songs, The Cartoons, who were the very definition of a novelty band) and appears to have no predjusices. In fact looking back, it appears to take great joy in lurching from genre to genre with gleeful abandon.

There are songs here that I had completely forgotten about – Adam Rickett’s I Breathe Again for example. Rickett had come out of a show I never watched (Coronation Street) and spend most of the time walking around with no top on, which presumably didn’t appeal that much to the teenage me. Yet when I fired up the album on the spotify playlist, I discovered that not only did I remember the tune, I still knew most of the words. Somehow an ex-Corrie star’s single hit had stuck with me on some level, which makes me wonder just how much of my mind is filled with pop lyrics.

I was joining the Now series as it was reaching its halcyon days. Now 44 would become the biggest selling Now of all time and remains in the top 50 best selling albums in the UK ever. Looking at the tracklisting to that one, its a genuinely outstanding flashback – Britney Spears, Lou Bega, Shania Twain open the album with the biggest hits of the time, two solo Spice Girls quickly turn up (with a third to follow on Disc 2), Moloko and Jamiroquai pop up with their most memorable songs, and the second half of disc two is the epitome of the Ibiza sound that floated around in the background at the time. It might not make sense to anyone around at the time as to why this is the best selling of the Now albums, but this was a pop renaissance in alot of ways, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least.

My Now will not mean much to anyone who didn’t grow up in the specific timeframe I did – you won’t get a gleeful moment remembering I Breath Again in all likelyhood. But it is likely that you will have your own Now…that you deeply adore, and that is the magic of the series that everyone can have their own Now. That is the true spirit of the series. I don’t care about the ones after I stopped buying them, or before I started, but the ones in that period mean alot to me, just by virtue of existing at the same time, they form the soundtrack to my formative pop years.

In a way Now represents pop music in its purest form. Nobody cares about a generation other than their own (save for some odd curiosity) but will have a blind love for songs that happened to soundtrack their existence in their formative years.  The format has unsurprisingly been echoed all around the world, in South Africa, The US, New Zealand and Australia. Other similar albums exist elsewhere I’m sure. I salute them, and I especially salute Now, for being a valuable way of getting into pop music in the late 90s, and a valuable way of finding my way back there.

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