Now that's what we've called music

Simon Parkin A pocket money favourite for the past 25 years, the Now compilation series still sells more than the rest of the top 20 albums combined. SIMON PARKIN on a pop institution.

Simon Parkin

A pocket money favourite for the past 25 years, the Now compilation series still sells more than the rest of the top 20 albums combined. SIMON PARKIN on a pop institution.

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In 1983 teenagers were lured into parting with their pocket money by a novel new addiction to the LP racks, a compilation of the latest chart hits called Now That's What I Call Music. Seventy albums and 2,701 tracks later the compilation series has just turned 25.

For anyone aged under 40 which was the first Now compilation they bought is a sure signifier of their age. Was it the 80s pop of the Human League and Howard Jones? Then you're in your late-30s. The uneasy mix of boy bands and Britpop of Blur and Oasis? Late-20s.

Now was first jointly released by Virgin and EMI in December 1983 and soon reached No 1, selling more than 900,000 copies. The opening track was Phil Collins' cover of The Supremes' You Can't Hurry Love, but the LP also included Heaven 17's Temptation The Cure's Love Cats and the biggest hit of the day, Culture Club's Karma Chameleon.

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Since that first compilation, Now have consistently outsold any single artist and spawned versions around the globe, from Indonesia to New Zealand to Canada.

For many youngsters finding £10 in their birthday card from granny was the cue to pop into the record shop to buy the latest in the seemingly never-ending series, which were once plugged endlessly by breathless TV adverts.

Many of us will still have buried somewhere in the spare room or at the back of the wardrobe a Now compilation full of what we once called music.

The series has been through some ups and downs over the years. Sales, in common with record sales in general, have warned slightly, though there have been notable peaks. Now 44 was the biggest selling in the series' history, shifting 2.3 million copies. Its poppy collection, featuring the first single by Britney Spears, as well as songs from the likes of Backstreet Boys, Ronan Keating and S Club 7.

Unlike many of its rivals, Now compilations have always had eclectic track-listings, where else, apart from Top of the Pops, could you hear the Libertines sharing CD space with Ronan Keating.

Whereas in the 80s Now was an almost total reflection of the charts you'd see on Top of the Pops, in the 90s Now morphed into an uneasy collection of Britpop, boy bands and syrupy ballads sung by the likes of Robson Green.

Now 70, which has just been released, finds the indie of The Kooks and The Ting Tings rubbing shoulders with the grimy hip hop of Dizzee Rascal and Wiley and slick American R&B. Showing there is still live in the formula, it has just became the fastest selling compilation ever on iTunes.

Now wasn't the first compilation series. In the 1970s record labels saw compilation as down market products best left to independents such as K-Tel. Particularly nasty was the Top Of The Pops series, which cost 99p and featured cheaply produced poor quality cover versions.

Yet the idea of grouping together the biggest chart hits of the year on a single record was an obvious goldmine waiting to be discovered. It took Richard Branson, then still boss of Virgin records, to take up its cause, roping in EMI to ensure he'd have enough tracks for a double LP.

Nowadays when you can easily compile your own compilation using iTunes, Now seems in theory to be redundant. Yet its success is largely undimmed. In its first week of release the current edition sold 383,002 copies, more than the top 20 bestselling albums combined.

Don't bet against it reaching its 50th birthday.


t Trevor Wright, 37, from Norwich - “I think my sister got the first ever Now for Christmas. No, I cannot remember what was on it. They are the sort of thing that you'd play a lot then just forget and move on to the next.”

t Lauren James, 34, from Taverham - “Oh, I had loads of them on cassette, though I cannot remember which ones exactly, but people like Duran Duran. We'd play them constantly. I remember singing along to Bananarama.”

t Alan Morris, 41, from Norwich - “I think I may have bought the very first one. I used to record the top-40 off the radio, so they seemed fantastic when they first came out.”

t Danny Brunt, 28, from Earlham - “I got one for Christmas, but I remember being a bit disappointed. They were naff and there was only about three tracks on it I liked. I was just repeat playing the Happy Mondays, until Boxing Day anyway.”