Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"We begin to feel the happy exhilaration of being fully conscious in the present moment. We begin to be fully alive in the Now."

Whilst reports of the death of the single have been greatly exaggerated, there is no question that the format has recently been deprived of a number of commercial avenues that it once took for granted. A sharp downturn in physical sales has resulted in the High Street chain stores replacing the space it occupied with video games, DVDs and whatever other merchandise they can move in a hurry. A shift in televisual viewing patterns has meant it nigh on impossible to see the video of your favourite band enjoy mass exposure on the terrestrial airwaves. Fortunately there is still one long-running music industry institution that wholeheartedly celebrates the wonder of the pop single, and it’s appeal is currently as strong and vibrant as it’s ever been.

Volume 71 of Now That’s What I Call Music was recently released in November, following hot on the heels of the fastest-selling Now! Album ever (a record set by Vol 70, which broke the previous record set by Now 69) with first-week sales to rival Oasis or such acts at their prime. Proof need be that the series which first launched 25 years ago still has a large place in the heart of the music-buying public. But what has sustained its commercial and cultural appeal over that time, while other acclaimed and popular compilation series have been forgotten? I hope to answer that by explaining my passionate love affair with these records and exactly why they are not only the biggest compilation albums ever seen, but also the best.

On its release in 1983, there were two very important differences between the Volume 1 of Now That’s What I Call Music and other compilation albums that existed around that time. Firstly there was the unprecedented step of rival record company teaming up in order to expand the number of hit songs they could put onto the albums. Whilst the majority of the tracks were the result of the agreement between the two big guns of EMI and Universal, smaller and independent labels were also involved whenever they could bring some hits to the party. The abundance they had at their deployment was extremely noticeable on Volume 1, which contained a staggering 11 No.1 singles (still a Now! Record) Secondly, it was the first major series of compilations to be released as double albums instead of a single LP. This meant that more songs could be included without having to sacrifice audio quality (as squeezing more tunes on a piece of vinyl meant thinner grooves and a thinner sound, such was the practice employed on other compilation specialists like K-Tel and Ronco).

Like many other youngsters, what initially drew me to the records was the outstanding value of money that they offered. When even one 7” single represented a significant outlay of pocket money, to be able to collect a minimum of 30 chart hits in one very reasonably priced-set felt like Christmas had come three times a year. It was the availability of competitive compilations like Now! that rendered the budget compilation albums such as Pickwick’s Top of the Pops obsolete. The point is even more apposite in recent times, with Nows holding up to 50 tracks over their 2 CDs. The more cynical music aficionado would suggest that the economic benefit is the only why these albums are so popular, that they represent a tawdry bargain too good to be true. But there’s more to it than that…

For example, there’s the vast scope of all the different styles that are contained within the albums, something that you won’t get in the majority compilations that rigidly stick to certain genres. The delicious irony of the Now! Albums is that selecting tracks using the deceptively conservative criteria of record sales leads to a complete lack of prejudice in what sort of music goes on them, tracks that are as varied as they are variable. Where else are you going to find a range of good songs such as“Ms. Jackson“ by Outkast, “Destiny“ by Zero 7, “Don‘t Stop Movin“ by S Club 7 and “Pyramid Song” by Radiohead? Or where Supergrass is followed by Shaggy?* Now 71 continues this wide range of sounds, housing Kings of Leon, Katy Perry, The Script and The Saturdays all together.

Of course it wasn’t long until the other major companies wanted a piece of the action, and clubbed together to release compilations of their own, the most notable being the “’Hits’ collaboration between CBS and Warners. This series initially enjoyed similar levels of sales and interest to the Nows, helped by the fact that they had access to arguably the three transatlantic pop heavyweights of the 80s: Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson. But whilst the Nows have consistently been at the top of the compilations tree, Hits has been subject to numerous rebrandings, relaunches and relatively sluggish sales. Why did they fall by the wayside? Whilst both series were comparable in terms of the commercial calibre of the artists, Hits tended to lack the variety contained within the UK Top 40, and bar some notable exceptions (“April Skies” by The Jesus and Mary Chain for example) the compilations had a very un-British metallic sheen about them, as if they had been in rubber-stamped in a record company office rather than jacking up a high-tech tape recorder to someone’s house party.

The first set that I purchased was Now 10 in 1987, amongst its many attractions was the beautiful neon sign & twilight sky that adorned the sleeve. It was representative of the golden age of Now! Artwork which at its best brought to life all the romanticised extravagance of the 1980s, and helped establish the series as premium pop product. After a few years of jauntily haphazard sleeves (which sometimes involved a collage of the artists involved and/or the cartoon pig lifted from the Danish Meat Industries advert that inspired the series title), the graphic design department started to push the boat out from Volume 6 onwards. Other notable sleeves included the sunshine n skyscraper effect of Vol. 11, the Castrol GTX-esque liquid metal sleekness of Vol. 8 and the Blue Peter inspired plastic fire-propelled rocket of Vol. 13. Not only did the sleeves look fantastic, but one couldn’t help but marvel at the physical attention to detail that went into producing these iconic images, when a lazy trip to a copy of Photoshop was not an option. Exactly how many takes did it get the swimming pool photo of Vol.12 just right? Sadly the necessary evil of brand-recognition came around in the 90s (not helped by the monstrosities that were the sleeves for 17-19), which is why the design has remained stubbornly consistent from Now 20 onwards. But despite not being part of the releases in nearly 20 years the motifs and design of the early albums are fondly remembered and helped establish the series as the brand leader.

Ultimately records can only be judged by the level of satisfaction that they bring to the listener, and the true appeal in listening to past Nows is that they represent a true snapshot of whatever the pop landscape happened to look like at that time, good songs and bad. I cannot stand the re-writing of cultural history that occurs on a constant basis within the media and the industry, and it’s the record labels in particular that have been ravaged by the nostalgia bandwagon. Visiting an old Now is truly visiting a non-revisionist heaven, the bona fide pop classics plus the refreshment and joy got from listening to the songs modern-day compilations wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.

Sadly there was a distinct lack of inspiration in track selection in the woefully point-missing retrospective “Now That’s What I Call 25 Years” released earlier this year, which contained only songs that we have heard (and still hear) all too often. But those after a true nostalgic experience could well be in luck, as early next year sees the release of Now 1 (previously never released on CD before), indeed this is the first time a past now has been re-released ‘as-was’ with its original track listing. A perfect way for a new generation to experience the new joys of old Nows. In another 25 years time, who knows what music we’ll be listening to, on what format, or how we will purchase it. But as long as the Nows are around, we will always have a definitive document of what new music fans were listening to.

*The answers are Volumes 49 and 31 respectively.