Now then, now then, now then.
What do a pig, a chicken, a record label and a marriage have in common? Well, a certain egalitarian compilation series reached the not insignificant milestone of 100 editions in July 2018, but not only that, but its first born, the very first Now That’s What I Call Music album, has been celebrating its 35th birthday.
Released on 28 November 1983, back when such compilations of current hits were relatively rare, the double LP set was released on vinyl and audio cassette but not the brand new compact disc format. “30 original chart hits on one posh double album,” ran the blurb. Indeed, 2CD sets are virtually unheard of in the early days of the silver five-incher.
However, a re-release on CD was made available in 2009 to celebrate its 25th anniversary, with (gasp, geek alert) alternative longer mixes of Candy Girl, Double Dutch and Only For Love being included in place of the original shorter single mixes.
A double vinyl reissue followed in 2015 for the ridiculous rip off that is Record Store Day.
As a timestamp of the British singles charts in 1983, it’s pretty pertinent, with plenty of school disco favourites and, erm, all the UB40 and Kajagoogoo/Limahl you could wish for.
But – huzzah! – because Boy George and Culture Club, Virgin Records’ biggest act of the year, were double dropped in it too. So that’s alright then.
In fact, Virgin did something almost unheard of, and provided the public with two new opportunities to buy the cosmopolitan quartet’s Victims on that cold November day.
The melancholy ballad was already available on Colour By Numbers, the awesome foursome’s second LP, but those casual buyers who didn’t really want the hurt of a whole album of Culture Club songs could now purchase Victims as a single (7” or 12”, natch) or as the final track on Now, That’s What I Call Music – both were released on the same day.
Despite its gloomy lyrics (it was only issued as a 45 in five countries), almost everyone expected Victims to match the massive success of ver Club’s previous 45, the oh-so ubiquitous Karma Chameleon, which saw out 1983 as the year’s biggest seller.
KC shifted almost 1.4 million copies and famously denied George’s off-on idol David Bowie making his Modern Love a fourth chart-topping single as a solo artist, a feat that he would be denied to him forever more. Though, of course, The Dame did reach No.1 a further two times with Queen and king of the Stones, Mick Jagger.
For the record, Modern Love appeared on Now 2, after Let’s Dance was vetoed for inclusion on its predecessor by the artist himself. Paul McCartney also said No ta, though he too would quickly relent when the sales figures came in.
In that context, Victims was the hot shot favourite to be Christmas Number One. Though the train of thought at the time was that by including the song on a various artists’ album, it robbed the group of significant singles sales.
Little did they know, but George and co’s days at the pop summit were already behind them. They had to settle for third place in the Yuletide chart, behind a seasonally resurgent Slade and a cover of Yazoo’s Only You by an a cappella bunch of miscreants calling themselves the Flying Pickets. Oh, the indignity.
Jon Webster, co-creator of the Now series, had this to say about the series’ conception in a 2014 interview: “I was working in marketing at Virgin back then. We had hits coming out of our ears: we were the top-selling singles label in the country.”
It’s enough to make you want someone else to eat your hat.
Smash Hits’ choice of cover stars backed his statement up, though: over two dozen Virgin acts appeared on the cover on the magazine during the 1980s. Webster’s colleague Stephen Navin chipped in:
“By the 1980s, Virgin was becoming a real force. The Human League had had a monster hit with Dare, their third album, and Phil Collins and Genesis was huge, as were Culture Club and Mike Oldfield. The company was firing on all cylinders, nudging up against the majors, and the setting up of Now was the apotheosis of this rise. It made 1983 our Annus Mirabilis.”
Indeed, so white hot was Richard Branson’s Ladbroke Grove-based label at the time that the first volume of the Now series could have comprised only Virgin artists. As it was, the track listing was dominated by their signings, including, in addition to those Navin mentioned, the likes of Simple Minds, Malcolm McLaren and (hey you!) the Rock Steady Crew.
Virgin also distributed the record companies Men Without Hats and UB40 were signed to, two more acts who were included. But what was unusual about Now was that Virgin had teamed up with another British label, EMI, bastion of the old guard, to jointly release the collection.
“Our song Temptation was on disc one and we actually appeared on disc two as well, because we had produced and sung backing vocals on the Tina Turner track Let’s Stay Together. So we actually got a double bubble on that one.” – Glenn Gregory, Heaven 17.
EMI acts featured were Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo and their erstwhile vocalist Limahl, while its subsidiary Capitol released the featured singles by Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack, and that magical moment in music history, the now epochal Tina Turner comeback record, Let’s Stay Together. EMI also handled distribution for Island – represented on the album by Will Powers – and Stiff, who supplied Madness and Tracey Ullman.
Notice how Ullman is dead centre on the album cover. And, bingo, it’s the comedian herself who voices the first version of the Now telly ad below.
The idea of record companies joining forces to release a various artists album themselves was an unusual idea: until the Now series, most of these compilations were issued by budget labels who licenced specific tracks from record companies to include on a record. (Often, popular songs would be re-recorded by an in-house orchestra employed by the issuing label, rather than using the hit recording by the original artist.).
Webster added that “compilation albums were cheap and nasty things with black and yellow sleeves. They were mostly 20 Top Hits! or collections of as-seen-on-TV music from companies like K-tel. Supermarkets sold loads of them.”
It was being overwhelmed with requests from these budget companies to buy tracks that inspired the team at Virgin to create a collection they would put out themselves, and involving EMI increased the range of material they had access to.
They also licenced specific songs from the other major companies: the first volume of Now featured Howard Jones and Rod Stewart, appearing with the permission of WEA/Warner group companies; KC And The Sunshine Band, Men At Work, Bonnie Tyler and Paul Young, via CBS (now Sony), though nothing from Wham! or Michael Jackson’s all conquering Thriller; and New Edition and The Cure via PolyGram (now Universal).
The latter conglomerate joined up with EMI and Virgin from Now 8 in 1986, but WEA and CBS initially decided against joining the fold. Instead, they teamed up to launch their own rival series to Now, called The Hits Album, the first volume of which was released in November 1984. (A shorter-lived series called Out Now was launched the following year, a joint effort between MCA and Chrysalis.)
Thereafter, perceived quality ‘various artists’ comps became an important part of the market, clogging up the listings so much that the always charmless Madonna (the most notable name never to appear on a Now) complained that NTWICM 10 (which, ironically, included her ex-beau Jellybean’s hit The Real Thing) help keep her off the top of the album charts. The hoo-ha led to then compilers Gallup sectioning Now and all other chart-hogging v/a albums to their own private top 20 island. Stephen Navin:
“Simon Draper, our boss, had this 1930s poster for Danish bacon in his office, showing a pig listening to a hen singing, with the caption: “Now that’s what I call music.” Richard Branson had bought it for Simon’s birthday from an antique shop on Portobello Road – he’d go there because he fancied the owner, Joan, who later became his wife. We were discussing a name when someone just pointed at the poster. And that was it. The pig even made it to the back sleeve of the first album, and the front of later ones in an attempt to develop the brand, but some people really hated it, and it eventually went.”
But the most prolific and biggest selling was still the Now series. Worldwide sales of Now titles now exceed 100 million copies. “For a lot of people, the full title, Now That’s What I Call Music, is a bit of a mouthful. But having the word NOW – those three big capital letters shouting out from the album sleeve – is a pretty arresting image,” said Navin. “And it’s gone into history as the most successful and longest-lasting compilation series ever. Would it have been so big under another name? My guess is yes – Virgin was so hot, and EMI was a massive force. It raised the bar in terms of what a compilation album was, and of course that first one made an ideal Christmas present.”
In December 1983, that first Now collection debuted at number seven on the UK Albums Chart and reached number one a week later, staying at the top for five non-consecutive weeks. So what was the full tracklisting? Let’s drop the needle and find out…
1. Phil Collins – ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’
2. Duran Duran – ‘Is There Something I Should Know?’
3. UB40 – ‘Red Red Wine’
4. Limahl – ‘Only for Love’
5. Heaven 17 – ‘Temptation’
6. KC and the Sunshine Band – ‘Give It Up’
7. Malcolm McLaren – ‘Double Dutch’
8. Bonnie Tyler – ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’
9. Culture Club – ‘Karma Chameleon’
10. Men Without Hats – ‘The Safety Dance’
11. Kajagoogoo – ‘Too Shy’
12. Mike Oldfield – ‘Moonlight Shadow’
13. Men at Work – ‘Down Under’
14. Rock Steady Crew – ‘(Hey You) The Rock Steady Crew’
15. Rod Stewart – ‘Baby Jane’
16. Paul Young – ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)’
1. New Edition – ‘Candy Girl’
2. Kajagoogoo – ‘Big Apple’
3. Tina Turner – ‘Let’s Stay Together’
4. The Human League – ‘Fascination’
5. Howard Jones – ‘New Song’
6. UB40 – ‘Please Don’t Make Me Cry’
7. Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack – ‘Tonight I Celebrate My Love’
8. Tracey Ullman – ‘They Don’t Know’
9. Will Powers – ‘Kissing with Confidence’
10. Genesis – ‘That’s All’
11. The Cure – ‘The Love Cats’
12. Simple Minds – ‘Waterfront’
13. Madness – ‘The Sun and the Rain’
14. Culture Club – ‘Victims’
BONUS: Although he was absent from Now 1, George Michael’s Cover To Cover concert tour of 1991 featured both his own songs and many usually faithful interpretations of songs by Bowie, Stevie Wonder, The Police and The Eagles. One of the more surprising choices was a flawless take of Culture Club’s Victims. It’s a powerhouse masterpiece of emotion.
Watch and weep.