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In Focus

‘Where else can you hear Bob the Builder singing Mambo No 5?’ The bizarre legacy of Now That’s What I Call Music!

For decades, Virgin Records’ Now compilation albums have been preserving in aspic the music trends of the past. To celebrate its 40th birthday, Michael Hann speaks to the executives who dreamt it up and its die-hard devotees about the series’ legendary origin story and its wacky journey

Tuesday 28 November 2023 07:09 GMT
Britney Spears, Martine McCutcheon, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Crazy Frog: ‘Now’ albums have it all
Britney Spears, Martine McCutcheon, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Crazy Frog: ‘Now’ albums have it all (Getty)

If you want to trace the history of pop over the past 40 years, don’t bother with books. Don’t look at lists of greatest albums. Don’t listen to earnest critics agonising over whether My Bloody Valentine were more influential than Public Enemy, or trying to parse the real meaning of Taylor Swift’s Instagram posts. Just pick up some compilation albums. Specifically, some copies of Now That’s What I Call Music!the long-running, bestselling music series that released its first album on 28 November 1983.

The stats are staggering. Its 116 volumes sold so far are more than the total career sales of Abba, Fleetwood Mac, Phil Collins or the Bee Gees, and 113 of them have reached No 1, spending a total of 771 weeks – nearly 15 years – at the top of the charts. The albums have featured 2,409 different artists and 675 No 1 singles.

There are artists for whom Now has become a second home: Robbie Williams has appeared 38 times; 32 as a solo artist and six as a member of Take That. There are artists who featured on Now in its early stages, never to reappear – such as Will Powers, whose “Kissing with Confidence” was track 25 of the first ever edition in 1983. And there are those artists who simply can’t be banished, like The Rolling Stones, whose “Undercover of the Night” featured on 1984’s Now 2 and whose latest single “Angry” appears on this year’s Now 116.

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