Now 100: What compilation albums were like before Now That’s What I Call Music

Legendary Now That's What I Call Music hits 100 editions this summer – but what did compilations look like before?

Now That's What I call Music albums – known as Now! to its fans – has been collecting the biggest contemporary chart hits since December 1983, when the very first edition topped everyone's Christmas list and spent five weeks at the top of the Official Albums Chart.

Although Now! is one of the most well-known hits collections, they didn't invent the format: compilations by various artists had been around in some form or another for a couple of decades, usually released by a record label wanting to showcase their own artists. 

Tamla Motown, for example, had a successful Motown Chartbusters brand which gave them three chart-topping albums and telemarketing companies K-Tel and Ronco released collections featuring tracks licensed from record labels. Ronco managed a couple of Number 1s on the Official Albums Chart with various artists' albums – the That'll Be The Day movie soundtrack in 1973, and the amazingly titled Raiders of the Pop Charts in 1983. But you weren't guaranteed a record full of actual hits.

Michael Mulligan, who spent twenty-five years in music retail - including ten as Head of Music for Tesco - details the evolution of the compilation in his upcoming book, The Story of NOW That’s What I Call Music In 100 Artists, released to coincide with the release of Now's upcoming 100th compilation. In the foreword, he recalls of the Raiders albums: "It featured seven songs from the Virgin vaults, one of which was the compilation's only Number 1, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me by Culture Club; customers scanning through the rest of ‘Raiders’ thirty strong track-listing would have scratched their heads at the non-chart padding provided by The Chaps rendition of ‘Rawhide’, ‘The On And On Song’ by Precious Little, and a jazz-funk workout of the ‘Bladerunner’ theme by Morrissey-Mullen."

The compilations' success was due in part to the huge inconvenience of listening to a variety of singles by different artists – back in the vinyl days, you'd have to race over to the turntable every three minutes or so to change the song. Compilation albums, then, gave you a good half-hour of interrupted tunes – perfect for a party. And when CDs came along, you could have hours! Who needs DJs, eh?

But what if you wanted to get your hands on hits and the label hadn't released it on a comp? One weird quirk of the pre-Now! era were cut-price albums of covers by session singers. Yep, proving that the song was the star, among the shameless copycats was the Top of the Pops series – nothing to do with the long-running BBC TV show – which was hugely successful. The series, known for its slightly pervy covers featuring women models, scored a couple of Number 1s in 1971, before "budget" albums were disqualified from the chart because their lower price gave them an advantage. Listeners of early editions were hearing a future superstar, however – Elton John was known to have started his career appearing on anonymous covers. Says Michael Mulligan: "While TV advertised compilation albums were nothing new [when Now! launched] it was still necessary to reassure potential buyers these were ‘Original Songs, Original Artists’ and ‘Full Length Versions’ – not the imitations of variable quality."

So the Now! series wasn't a pioneer, but they had a distinct advantage that two huge record labels – Virgin and EMI – were behind them. Now! came about when the two label bosses, irked at quality of some compilations featuring their artists, decided to join forces rather than put out rival albums, enlisting songs from 12 other labels too to ensure a bigger collection of popular hits and, of course, more sales. The first edition, a double album, boasted eleven Number 1s including Duran Duran, Phil Collins, Culture Club, and New Edition. The deal was said to have been inked on Richard Branson's boat, at Little Venice in Paddington, London.

The comp's iconic name came from an antique poster bought by Branson for his cousin Simon Draper and hung over his desk at Virgin Records. The poster, featuring a pig listening to a chicken singing and saying yes, you, guessed it "Now. That's What I Call Music" was a joke as Draper was notoriously grumpy in the morning. The pig himself was the mascot of the first few albums before the covers became more arty and the visual feast we know and love today, although he does make a guest appearance on the 100th edition, released on July 26.

Now! was a runaway success and all but one of the first 13 editions topped the Official Albums Chart – poor old Now 4 got trapped at Number 2 behind a rival compilation The Hits Album. By 1989, hits collections and other compilations by various artists, like soundtracks or charity albums, were quite a dominant force on the Official Albums Chart. It was decided to create a chart especially for them, the Official Compilations Chart, and have the Official Albums Chart reserved for albums by a credited artist.

See the Official Albums Chart history for Now! releases and spinoffs pre-1989

Michael Mulligan's book The Story of NOW That’s What I Call Music In 100 Artists, the authorised history of NOW, to be published by Trapeze on 4th October. NOW That's What I Call Music 100 is released on July 26.

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Actually incorrect info from the Official charts company. The pig was only used on Now 3, 4 and 5.....facts first please...You say more arty afterwards. Only the volumes from Now 6 to Now 16 could be considered imaginative. From 17 onward it seems cheap computerised graphics were the order of the day.