Forty years ago, on November 28, 1983, an album was released that would, in its own way, prove as influential as any record made that century. Now That’s What I Call Music was a double-vinyl LP and cassette with a cover boasting that it contained “30 great tracks including 11 Number Ones” and featuring the cream of that year’s chart toppers, including Duran Duran, Madness, Culture Club and, er, Will Powers’ “Kissing with Confidence”.
Now That’s What I Call Music entered the UK charts at #7; a week later it hit the top spot – and stayed at #1 for the next five weeks. Four months after that, Now 2 was released, and achieved similar success… and so began a phenomenon that would go on to become arguably the most successful musical franchise in pop history.
Almost exactly 40 years later, on November 17, 2023, the latest in the series, Now 116, also topped the UK charts – meaning that of those 116 releases, 114 have reached #1, with only Now 4 and Now 115 being kept off the top spot (in the former’s case by a rival compilation, in the latter’s by the official Barbie movie soundtrack). In fact, so successful has been the franchise that in 1989 a whole separate album compilations chart was created just to stop the likes of Now dominating the Top 10.
Added to those numbered compilations have been no fewer than 260 themed or genre-specific spin-off compilations (from Now That’s What I Call Christmas, to, rather mind-bogglingly, Now That’s What I Call Punk & New Wave), as well as the Now Yearbook series and even genre-themed TV channels.
For Gennaro Castaldo, Communications Director at UK record labels association the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the Now brand has been a fundamental part of the success of the British music industry over the past four decades.
“Now helped to revolutionize music listening and has become part of Britain’s rich music landscape,” he says. “Whether on vinyl, cassette, CD, downloads and now streams, and always collectible, Now has been a mainstay of UK music consumption.”
The numbers generated by the brand are staggering. Over those 40 years and 116 albums, more than 2,400 different artists have featured on the compilations, and 675 of the tracks included have reached #1 in the British singles charts. In total over 110 million copies of the numbered editions have been sold in the UK – meaning that, statistically at least, every household in the country owns around four releases in the series. In addition, the franchise has expanded across 30 countries worldwide, from Finland to Saudi Arabia. The first U.S. Now was released in 1998; October 2023 saw the 88th volume in the U.S. series.
Jamii Layton is the Managing Director of Now, and after a long and diverse career in the industry admits that it was partly the compilation series that prompted his fascination with pop music in the first place.
“Since I was a kid I’ve followed the charts every week,” he says. “Like many people, I received the first Now for Christmas in 1983. I played it so many times and was fascinated with the idea that I now had access to so many singles in one place. Now offered the opportunity to listen to, and collect, a large number of singles that I may never have owned otherwise.”
The idea first began in the offices of Richard Branson’s Virgin label. Although compilation albums had existed in one form or another since the 1970s, they had until then either been filled with cover versions rather than the original artists, or else featured shortened mixes of the hits. They were also mostly label-specific.
Branson approached rival company EMI with a new idea: to collaborate on a high-quality compilation that would combine the best of both their rosters, using the full-length versions of the singles and packaged with high quality sleeve notes. He also wanted to feature only the biggest stars of the day: if the song was a hit, it was on, regardless of genre.
EMI were not only happy to get involved – they even agreed to Branson’s peculiar idea of taking the name for the album from a 1920’s poster advertising Danish bacon - featuring a pig listening to a singing chicken and declaring: “Now That’s What I Call Music”. The pig would go on to become an integral early part of the Now brand’s logo.
With a release cannily timed for the run-up to Christmas, that first record flew off the shelves, selling over 1 million copies, and was followed by a regular schedule of three new Now albums a year, supposedly timed to coincide with the school holidays at Easter, summer, and Christmas.
From the very start, part of the charm of the series has been its entirely democratic approach – and it has occasionally made for some eclectic juxtapositions. Now 1 featured bubble-gum popsters Kajagoogoo rubbing musical shoulders with both goth legends the Cure and Bronx hip-hoppers the Rock Steady Crew; and in 1993, Radiohead's "Creep" appeared on Now 26 alongside "Boom! Shake the Room" by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.
The latest edition holds true to this eclecticism, including tracks by Rick Astley, Lana Del Rey, the Killers, Olivia Rodrigo, Doja Cat, Calvin Harris, Stormzy and the Pretenders. Also featured are Duran Duran – making them the only band to have spanned the entire series, 1 to 116.
“I think it has always been a playlist based on current popularity,” says Layton. “That was based primarily on the singles charts, and still is, but also will encompass airplay popularity, film and TV associations and significant events in music.
“The numbered volumes are a record of that time in pop and the charts. They feature examples of multiple genres brought together – and because a track’s inclusion is because of its popularity (however that is assessed) there’s no judgement or opinion. It’s all about the music – and I think that is still very appealing.”
Gennaro Castaldo of the BPI also believes that the importance of the brand goes beyond its impact on the industry itself – and that the diversity of artists included on the compilations has helped shape the cultural landscape of the last 40 years.
“Of course Now has been hugely important commercially, with well over 100 million albums purchased,” he says, “but it's important culturally too. When you hark back to young fans in the '80s or '90s starting out on their music journey by listening to a Now album on their Walkman or Discman, or you think of the thrill for a new artist seeing their song on a Now album for the very first time… it’s been a real badge of honor.”
That cultural impact has been profound. Whether by accident or design, the release of that first Now album coincided with an extraordinarily fertile period in music. From the furnace of punk, pop music was blossoming into an integral part of the modern cultural fabric: the music press was booming, MTV in America and Top of the Pops in the UK had become essential viewing, and alongside them bands were making regular appearances on “mainstream,” non-music-based TV shows. And perhaps most crucially, the original rock ‘n’ rollers of the 1950s and 60s had become parents to teenagers themselves, meaning that pop music was no longer confined to a single generation.
“Pop music increasingly became a talking point,” says Layton, “especially as the start of Now came during the period where music videos became essential viewing and UK pop stars were enjoying a wave of success across the world.”
By reflecting this musical creativity and diversity in a single double album, each of the Now releases became in itself a microcosm of the period’s cultural zeitgeist.
“I think the impact was huge,” he continues. “The Now releases would be a real talking point between my group of friends growing up. It allowed huge numbers of hit singles into people’s homes and lives that they may not have otherwise discovered and enjoyed… and helped underline the singles charts’ role in becoming one of the key barometers of current tastes. I have huge admiration for the way the brand was developed over those formative years.”
With the brand’s continued expansion – in October a touring musical was announced for 2024 – it seems Richard Branson’s original pig-inspired idea continues to bring home the bacon… not just for the Now franchise itself, but for the music industry as a whole.
“Since the 80s, Now That’s What I Call Music has provided the soundtrack to our lives, brilliantly capturing the unique sounds, styles and trends of different decades while reflecting back the sonic highs of each new year in music,” says Castaldo. “It’s hard to imagine our record shops without this wonderful and versatile music brand, which still makes itself felt in so many other ways too, and continues to remain relevant. Happy birthday Now and thank you for shaping our music experience.”