Is There Something I Should Know?… a brief introduction to NOW!
This rather odd picture looked pretty incongruous on the back of the back of the first NOW! album, when it was released in 1983. Alongside the names of such huge contemporary stars like Duran Duran, Tina Turner, Madness and Will Powers(?) there is this rather odd, hand painted image of a pig blissfully listening to a chicken honking away (presumably musically, judging from the notes emanating from its beak) to celebrate laying an egg, while the pig oinks “Now, that’s what I call music”. It’s like an outtake from a slightly bizarre Foghorn Leghorn cartoon, maybe directed by David Lynch.
Unbelievably, this image was on a poster in the office of Virgin Records Managing Director, Simon Draper. He’d been bought the poster by his cousin, who happened to own the company, one Sir Richard of Branson, who had found the the 1920s Danish Agricultural Products poster in a Portobello Road bric-a-brac shop he spent far too long hanging around because he fancied a girl who worked there. The poster would become legendary during a meeting between Draper and his EMI records counterpart, Peter Jamieson while mulling over a name for this exciting new compilation series the two record companies had made a historic pact to produce together.
Throughout the 70s and early 80s, chart compilations were everywhere. The market was dominated in the 70s by the Top of the Tops albums, and the competing Hot Hits series. Both of these are fondly remembered by middle-aged music lovers rather more for their cover art than for their content, being as they featured scantily clad lovelies in various odd situations (playing snooker in underwear, playing croquet in underwear, skiing in… well you get the idea; featured lovelies included Caroline Munro and Mary Millington).
The content, such as it was, consisted of hastily prepared cover versions of contemporary hits re-recorded by session musicians, usually within days of the single’s release. They were cheap, in more ways than one, and proved massively popular for years, with the original cycle of Top of the Pops albums finally ending with volume 92(!) in 1985.
Both series would be affectionately referenced in the Pulp song Bad Cover Version.
The other big players in the compilation market were Ronco and K-Tel. To people of my age, K-Tel brings back memories of endless TV ads for exciting sounding collections of chart hits, usually accompanied by some contemporary theme (for instance a sci-fi themed album around the time of Star Wars). Whereas Ronco is more likely to conjure images of Clothes Defluffers, or Heated Hostess Trays. But they also ventured into the record market, striking gold with their rock n roll compilation soundtrack releases for the films That’ll be The Day and Stardust but also the slightly less expected success of the disco-themed soundtrack for The Stud (whatever the quality of the film, the soundtrack is astonishingly good).
Both companies released a seemingly endless stream of unrelated compilations for years, but with major problems. As with the Top of the Pops/Hot Hits albums, the production of the albums was incredibly cheap, necessarily so to keep the retail price low, and sell more copies. As a result, the albums themselves sounded dreadful. Tracks would also, often be edited, or simply faded out early, in order to squeeze as many tracks onto one album as possible. At a time when your average album would manage no more than 11 or 12 tracks, these collections would squeeze anything up to 22 tracks onto piece slice of vinyl.
So, come the 1980s, the chart compilation market was in a pretty sorry state of rip-offs and shoddy treatment. Then, in 1983 two Virgin executives, Stephen Navin (Head of Licensing and Business Affairs) Jon Webster (General Manager) had the idea to release an end of year compilation of the labels biggest and best hits, following a particularly successful year. They took the idea to MD Simon Draper, who in turn talked to Peter Jamieson at EMI, who had had a similar idea, after a similarly successful year. This was the moment when it was decided that a compilation album containing both labels’ output would be mutually beneficial than two separate albums. There was also the possibility of licensing other tracks from other labels to create the ultimate album of the year. This would be a quality product, not a cheap cash-in. It would all original artists, spread over two albums so as not to compromise on the content. A deal was agreed aboard Richard Branson’s boat in the Thames, with Virgin taking the lead on the project (after Jamieson had been so impressed with their ideas and enthusiasm). At a later meeting to discuss a title, Jamieson glanced at the poster hanging behind Draper’s desk:
“Seeing the poster with the same title on it that had become so familiar to me was serendipity, ‘fate’ even, and I knew then that this had to be the title of our series. It was a powerful and meaningful statement in its own right, and when abbreviated to ‘Now’, gave the ultimate contemporary message”. (http://www.nowmusic.com/about/)
And a legend was born. And Branson ended up marrying the girl in the bric-a-brac shop. Aaah.