A sort of Top of the Pops you could skin up on, the Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation series has been defining generations for 40 years – ever since its first instalment lobbed Bonnie Tyler, Kajagoogoo, UB40 and the Rock Steady Crew onto the same crowded 12-inches of vinyl and told them to make like a sonic chef’s kiss together.
Labels such as K-tel and Ronco had been releasing hits compilations for some years, but the emergence of Now! immediately felt like a bright new era for the pop comp. When two major labels, EMI and Virgin Records, sealed the deal for a joint series on Richard Branson’s boat in Little Venice in 1983 – naming the franchise after the caption on a 1920s ad poster in which the compilation’s mascot pig celebrated a singing chicken – it opened up access to far more hits than a rival series could ever muster. And with Universal coming on board in 1986, expanding the chart-topping caches even further, each new Now! release quickly began encapsulating the mainstream tastes of its time.
Averaging three albums a year, and now totalling over 100 releases, the series has become a bellwether of mainstream music for pop historians. Through these records you can trace the rise and fall of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s hit factory, Madchester and Britpop; plot the peaks of boy/girl band pop, UK garage, EDM and X Factor. You can pinpoint the exact moment in 2001, captured for posterity on Now That’s What I Call Music! 50, when Kate Winslet thought she’d have a crack at Christmas No 1. To its fans, meanwhile, Now! is an array of life-markers and generational rallying points. Here, 10 Independent writers pick the instalments that put the exclamation mark in their musical upbringings.
Now! 1: November 1983
It came through the post. Not like Amazon packages come by the post, quickfire and ceaselessly, but delivered nonetheless by snail mail into eager early adolescent hands. Living in the northeast of Scotland during the early Eighties, I found that one surefire way of bringing some shimmering light and pop colour to the gloom was with records (vinyl was what they were produced on, rather the weird replacement noun used today). Britannia Music was a mail-order catalogue with a long-running three-for-the-price-of-two offer and with choices limited, and money tight, I was quick to nail down a deal with my mum to secure the thrilling trio (to me, at least) of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, Steeltown by Big Country and… Now That’s What I Call Music! 1. Bingo!
The tracklist is a timebomb of Top of the Pops, New Romantic classics and weird ill-fitting off-cuts. Phil Collins, Heaven 17, Duran Duran, the preposterous Kajagoogoo, the inescapable Men at Work (is there a more insidious Eighties earworm than “Down Under”?) and “Double Dutch” by Malcolm McLaren! Maybe Britannia went bust, maybe they ran out of copies of Bat of Hell, but soon enough we were ushering in the mini-epoch of double cassettes. NOW 2 was bought on this superbly bulky but pleasingly portable and Walkman-friendly format.
And what of the legacy of Now! 1? Well, most of it is pop pap. But for a couple of years, I had no idea that the Collins cut of “You Can’t Hurry Love” was a cover of the Supremes classic so I suppose I owe Phil my love of Motown. Now that’s what I call lucky. Gordon Thomson
Now! 8: November 1986
Confession: I’ve never owned a Now! compilation. To this alternative-leaning Eighties teenager who was into The Beatles, The Jam, Depeche Mode, and the Seventies dinosaurs, waiting patiently for Pixies to turn up, the series represented the devil’s own elevator muzak. My brother, though, simple-minded and Simple Minded as he was, became an avid collector of the form. For years, our house quaked to so much chart pap – Nick Berry to Men at Work, Paul Young to The Weather Girls – it was a wonder Bruno Brookes wasn’t instinctively drawn there to mate.
Then in 1986, I sensed a culture milestone seeping through the walls. Now! 8 was arguably its finest instalment yet, with electro-pop mainstays The Human League, Pet Shop Boys and OMD coming of age with “Human”, “Suburbia” and “(Forever) Live and Die”, respectively, and the establishment set delivering such stunners as Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” and even the pop goons coming good thanks to It Bites’ “Calling All the Heroes” and The Communards’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way”.
The series had often featured the odd token alternative act (The Cure, The Smiths, OMD and even Siouxsie and the Banshees graced early comps) but now, elbow-to-elbow with Nick Berry’s “Every Loser Wins” and Cameo’s “Word Up!”, were The Housemartins gently urging the pop hordes to “Think For a Minute”, Billy Bragg bristling through “Greetings to the New Brunette” and Run-DMC and Aerosmith demolishing the basement wall between rock and rap with “Walk This Way”. Now! 8 marked the first cracks in a cultural barricade that would eventually see Madchester, indie rock and rave take over 1990’s Now! 17 like it was a disused warehouse just off the M11. Mark Beaumont
Now! 12: July 1988
I bought Now! 12 on a double cassette aged 13. It was 1988: the year Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s longest-serving prime minister, the pound note was withdrawn from circulation and work began on the Channel Tunnel. And there I am, on the top deck of the bus home from school in my stiff grey uniform, unfolding an inlay card featuring a photograph of a shimmering Californian swimming pool. My purchase was part of one of those intense teenage plans. In this case, inspired by my mum’s enthusiasm for aerobics in our village hall, I’d decided to GET FIT. I’d talked her into buying me silver leg warmers and a shimmering, all-in-one jade green leotard. Once home, I’d wriggle into my kit, slot the cassettes into both sides of my red boombox and snap my limbs into star jumps in time with the compilation’s shifting electric pulses.
I didn’t like the opener by Wet Wet Wet, so I always had to faff around (no skip track back then!) but before long, I’d be sweating to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It”, “Theme” from S’Express, and rapping along with Derek B’s boasts on “Bad Young Brother”. Shouting instructions at myself in the mirror like a mini Jane Fonda, I’d high kick to the giddy piano riffs of The Hothouse Flowers’ “Don’t Go”, and watch the spaniel ears of my perm bounce to Voice of the Beehive’s “Don’t Call Me Baby”. I’d warm down to the wind-tunnel riffs of “These Dreams” by Heart, pressing my nose into my knee while Ann Wilson conjured images of misty moonlit woodlands. Then it would be homework time; I’d peel off my perky lycra alter ego and hunt out ink cart cartridges while Morrissey reminded me I didn’t live in an American power ballad fantasy, but in English suburbia where “Everyday is like Sunday”, silent and grey until the cassette click-snagged to an end. Helen Brown
Now! 20: November 1991
The great fun with the Now! series lies in its Mad-Professor-style mashing together of genres. That point was never more gleefully made than on the 1991 two-CD Now! 20. The music scene was already bustling, with grunge taking over and rave on the rise. This did not, however, deter Now! from releasing one of its most eclectic compilations in November of that year. Highlights included the smash-and-grab techno of 2 Unlimited and “Get Ready for This”. The tune’s lyrics consisted of four glorious words and a question mark: “Y’all ready for this?” Indeed, we were. But then, one quick CD change later, it was off to Middle Earth with elf queen Enya on the aching “Caribbean Blue”. What could be more sublime?
How about PM Dawn’s “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” – the trippy hip-hop with which disc one concluded? It was a glorious moment on a collection that elsewhere featured Moby’s Twin Peaks-sampling “Go!” and U2 in their brief non-embarrassing phase, grinding through the proto-Radiohead of “The Fly”. What a playlist. What a time to be alive. What a reminder that, when it came to brain-frying variety, nothing could hold a glow-stick to early 1990s-vintage Now!. Ed Power
Now! 29: November 1994
I remember my first Now! album as the exact moment I realised I couldn’t sing. There I was, sat on my own on a long-haul bus, hair parted in the middle, plugged blissfully into a chunky, bright yellow Walkman. In my ears: the angsty, grungy strains of The Cranberries’ “Zombie”, with Dolores O’Riordan’s vocals veering from guttural cry to honeyed lament. How could I not sing along? Then came a tap on the shoulder, as the older kid behind me begged me to stop. By this point, admittedly, I’d also belted out “alternative” renditions of New Order’s “True Faith”, Whigfield’s “Saturday Night”, and, perhaps most egregiously, Youssou N’Dour’s “7 Seconds”. Never did it occur to me until right there and then that my voice may not be the smoothest of instruments. So thank you, Now! 29, for revealing to me that my singing voice is like the bray of a donkey that swallowed a Dyson. I owe you one. Patrick Smith
Now! Millennium Series: June 1995
It was at a birthday party that someone gave me the single cassette version of the opening track on the Now! album: U2’s epic “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”. Featuring on the soundtrack to Batman Forever, it was my most treasured gift (that and Body Shop’s “white musk” lotion). I wore out the double-sided cassette and listened to it all over again on the Now! compilation – while mourning the fact that the boy I fancied didn’t ask me to dance to “I’d Lie For You (and That’s The Truth)” by Meat Loaf, which closes side A, at someone’s bat mitzvah.
But it was track two, Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” that I really fell in love with... so much so that my best friend and I went to see Crow in concert at Shepherd’s Bush Empire the next year, wearing matching silver latex trousers. Of course, the Now!of 1995 was all about Britpop... it not only has Pulp’s “Common People” but also “Some Might Say” by Oasis and “The Universal” by Blur. Growing up in East London, we were only ever allowed to listen to the latter. Suffice it to say, it is thanks to Now! that my generation of millennials knows all the words to Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” and we can (and did) rap the whole thing at my 40th birthday party. It was “boombastic”, as Shaggy would say – also on side two. Victoria Richards
Now! 43: July 1999
When I think of the summer of 1999, I think of the Felicity Shagwell poster on my bedroom ceiling, the brief period in which Mel B was known as Mel G, and the formation of my soul because of Now! 43. I wish I could say it’s a time capsule, or a reflection of a younger me, but that would be lying. A few weeks ago I threw on the video for Blur’s “Coffee & TV” for a friend a few years my junior who’d never seen it. Currently, I am bidding on a Semisonic vinyl record on eBay. The Backstreet Boys tend to be in my annual Spotify Wrapped. This tracklist – James, Gomez, the otherwise entirely forgotten pop group Precious – is so familiar, so listened-to, that I worry it speaks to a kind of cultural stagnation in me, or at least an inability to let go of the past.
I haven’t yet reached the stage of early thirties madness where I insist Martine McCutcheon’s “Perfect Moment” – disc one’s ominous opener – wasn’t crud actually, but I am inclined to pontificate on the genius of the Vengaboys if I get a few drinks in me. That said, I liked that year. I was six and conscious of it all for the first time. Textures. People. Sounds. The news. I knew that I was ageing, that the earnest life lessons imparted in Baz Luhrmann’s spoken-word banger “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” touched me, but that they’d mean more to me later. I wish I’d heeded more of that song’s advice. I looked at the magazines that made me feel ugly. I didn’t dance every day. Why would anyone be reckless with another person’s heart, I’d asked myself. Oops. I did, at the very least, get to know my parents. Thank goodness for that.
Back then, I was always too embarrassed to keep a diary – too girly, I proclaimed, while ranking the members of All Saints in my head – but it’s funny that this silly album basically serves as one. It doesn’t have dates, or any real specifics, but it does capture the mood of a very particular moment in my life. It’s the sound of a boy trying to figure it all out, and naively assuming he’d do it eventually. Adam White
Now! 49: July 2001
I’ve always credited my family for my eclectic music taste, but looking at the tracklist for Now! 49, it was probably that. Released in July 2001, two weeks after I turned nine years old, the album reflects a Britain in the grips of a pop heyday that showed no sign of slowing down.
Back then, the summer certainly seemed to go on forever. This was pre-social media, and my brothers and I seemed largely innocent to the horrors going on in the world at the time. The music we were exposed to only seemed to affirm this. S Club 7 refused to stop moving, a post-“Millennium” Robbie Williams was crooning about “Eternity”, and Atomic Kitten were nursing an “Eternal Flame”. Meanwhile, Stereophonics wanted everyone to “Have a Nice Day” and Geri Halliwell had the latest forecast: “It’s Raining Men.” Girl power was everywhere, from the Spice Girls and the Sugababes to the pop queens ruling stateside: Madonna, Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child and Christina Aguilera.
This was also a time before streaming democratised our listening habits. Kids still cornered you in the playground to ask if you preferred rock or metal, pop or rap. My friends were all under the impression I loved the Spice Girls, while at home I was screaming along to “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus and blink-182’s “The Rock Show”. Now! 49 also delivered my first tastes of both US hip-hop and UK garage, from Outkast’s immortal “Ms Jackson” to DJ Pied Piper’s No 1 smash “Do You Really Like It?”. I loved it all. That bonkers mixtape remains a reminder that, when it comes to music, you need to leave your cynicism at the door. Roisin O’Connor
Now! 51: March 2002
Admittedly, the influence of Now! was significantly less significant in Australia than it was in the UK. That being said, growing up, I can distinctly remember the scarlet red cover of Now! 51, a CD that blared for all of 2002 from my older sisters’ bedroom. There is one primary reason that I can recall this album so vividly and that reason is “Bad Babysitter” – the very sexual, very fun, and very inappropriate for a seven-year-old spitfire track by female rapper Princess Superstar. Gleefully filthy lyrics about “getting paid while getting laid” and references to masturbation, Chanel and Valium fell on immature ears, but that bubblegum-snapping pop chorus embedded itself into my brain forever.
This being the 2000s, there was, of course, an appearance from Britney Spears with “Overprotected”. My prepubescent soul, ensnared by parental controls on the TV and strict bedtimes, identified strongly with this faraway pop star and her frustration at being so sheltered. Looking back, much of the Now! 51 tracklist still features regularly on my Spotify. It’s a testament to just how formative the compilation was for my music taste: there was the pop-punk of “In Too Deep” by Sum 41 (whom I saw at Alexandra Palace only a few months ago) and Alien Ant Farm’s “Movie”, as well as the irresistible groove of Christina Milian’s “AM to PM” and Ja Rule’s “Always on Time” (the early Noughties, it seems, was a particularly punctual era). Also, “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias – need I say more? Annabel Nugent
Now! 70: July 2008
The year was 2008: George Sampson had just won Britain’s Got Talent; weekends were spent watching Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging on repeat; the aquarium filter on Photo Booth was the hot new thing; and I had just been given Now! 70 for Christmas. While most eight-year-olds spent that Christmas Day playing with their new toys, or, I don’t know, hanging out with their families, I exiled myself to my bedroom to choreograph a dance routine to every song on Now! 70.
Estelle and Kanye West’s “American Boy” was an easy one to dance to as I donned Kanye-esque sunglasses and my older brother’s oversized jacket. I vividly remember singing along to Dizzee Rascal and Calvin Harris’s “Dance Wiv Me” as I reenacted Dizzee’s star role in the accompanying music video in which he swaggered around a nightclub and chatted up girls. Mortifyingly, I would (try to) rap: “What’s up, darlin’?/ I been keeping my eye on your movements…/ You need to let me get behind your backbone.” Sam Sparro’s fizzy dance track “Black & Gold”, too, had the perfect rhythm for a subtle pop-and-lock routine. As you can probably tell, I took this task very seriously.
When the Christmas period ended, I learnt that my neighbour shared a similar enthusiasm for Now! albums. I had a penchant for choreography; she had an eye for camera angles. So, we got to work and used my pink compact camera to record our own music videos. Somewhere, in the depths of YouTube, there is a video of me earnestly lip-syncing to Duffy’s “Warwick Avenue”. Ellie Muir
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