Music

Hits, flops and Kylie Minogue: How NOW That's What I Call Music! endured for 40 long years

NOW compilations are the great leveller, where megastars, one-hit wonders and assorted oddities of chart music meet

Images: Alamy

The year is 2124 and humankind survives on a scorched Earth. The sun it burns and the rivers run dry. Men in futuristic bondage gear roam an apocalyptic landscape in clapped-out cars, shooting each other with crossbows over the last dregs of a bottle of Highland Spring. There are robots. Bad robots. Nobody can figure out where it all went wrong. And yet one unalterable truth remains – one unblinking beacon of hope and certainty in a strange and hostile world. Aunt Pat still gets you the latest NOW That’s What I Call Music! CD for Christmas. And a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. 

For exactly four decades, the fat boxes of NOW compilation CDs and cassettes have bulged stockings more unambiguously than the contents of a steroid-jacked, shirtless backing dancer’s jeans crotch as he gives it the big one next to Gina G on Top of the Pops circa 1996. Launched in November 1983 by the cunning upstarts at Virgin Records, NOW has gone on to become the most successful and enduring compilation series in history, with global sales well over 200 million.  

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Competitor series have been sent the way of the dodo by the digital playlist, and yet NOW remains. Not only because it’s a cheap’n’cheerful musical go-to gift for those stubbornly wedded to the physical format (thanks, Aunt Pat), but because over time NOW has taken on a certain patina of nostalgia, milked through endless reissues (there’s even a NOW stage musical coming to UK theatres next year). To many, the 115 instalments and counting in the core numbered series – to say nothing of 250-plus spin-off iterations from Now Dance and Now Xmas to Now That’s What I Call Mum – represent snapshots of musical youth seared into memory. 

They’re the great leveller, where megastars, one-hit wonders and assorted oddities of chart music meet. Blast the vast contents of the sprawling NOW discography into space and extra-terrestrials might millennia from now sift through it and marvel “my, how these humans made eclectic, sometimes great and yet oftentimes truly awful music,” not to mention, “Kylie Minogue must surely have been their leader for she featured on 32 different volumes!” Here’s a brief timeline of some of the most significant releases in NOW history. Call it Now That’s What I Call The Best of Now That’s What I Call Music.  

Now That’s What I Call Music! (1983) 

In late 1983 at the Virgin offices in London, Stephen Navin and Jon Webster crunched the numbers on packaging together loads of hits from the young label’s burgeoning roster (plus that of partners EMI) and concluded: “ker-ching!” Everything from Phil Collins’ You Can’t Hurry Love to Karma Chameleon by Culture Club and Kajagoogoo’s Big Apple made it onto the 30-track debut compilation, which on its cover boasted “11 number ones!” Rush-released in time for Christmas, it sold over a million copies in the first four weeks alone, and the NOW odyssey began.  

NOW 8 (1986)  

By the late 1980s everyone wanted to be on NOW, with huge stars battling it out to get the coveted opening track position. In 1986 another big label, PolyGram (later Universal), threw their weight behind the series and helped take NOW to another level with this multi-platinum monster capturing
the quintessence of Thatcher-era shimmery excess. Duran Duran! Pet Shop Boys! Grace Jones! The Human League! Paul Hardcastle? 

NOW 29 (1994) 

Rippling-torsoed boy bands, lumberjack shirt lovin’ American alt-rockers and slouchy-cool Britpoppers were battling for the affections of Britain’s hormonal youth. The savvy curators at NOW weighed up their options in this febrile atmosphere, and led on a song around which the zeitgeist could surely coalesce – Pato Banton’s Baby Come Back featuring Ali and Robin from UB40. The rest of NOW 29 is no less bonkers. It’s surely the only place in history where Take That, Crash Test Dummies, REM, Oasis, East 17 and Chaka Demus & Pliers all meet. 

NOW 44 (1999)  

The late ’90s are back in vogue in 2023, aren’t they? Crop tops and low-rise jeans are everywhere, Robbie Williams is the subject of a big Netflix documentary. I was a teenager in the late ’90s and let me tell you: it was crap. As NOW 44 – which I suppose I should mention is the series’ biggest seller ever with a whopping 2.3 million copies shifted – starkly reminds me, via Lou Bega’s STD anthem Mambo No 5 (A Little Bit Of…), brain-rot electro-guff like Eiffel 65’s Blue (Da Ba Dee), and two solo tracks (two!) from the eminently rubbish Geri Halliwell. Now that’s what I call shit! 

NOW 70 (2008) 

Still going strong well into the new millennium, which was more than could be said for Robbie Williams, NOW was breaking records even as late as 2008 – the same year Spotify was launched, incidentally – when it racked up its fastest selling release yet (383,002 units in week one). Indie landfill (The Kooks, The Ting Tings) met TV talent show alumni (Girls Aloud, Leona Lewis) to give NOW one of its last great
commercial hurrahs. 

NOW That’s What I Call 40 Years (2023)  

The latest release in the catalogue, out just in time for Christmas as ever, is a 100-track compilation of compilations, surveying all 40 years of NOW from 1983 to the present day. A journey starting with Karma Chameleon concludes five discs later by way of Bananarama, Snap!, Britney Spears and Ed Sheeran with what else but our glorious leader Kylie’s Padam Padam. Aunt Pat’s already away down the shops. 

nowmusic.com

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