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The Hits Albums 1-10 – Two tribes go to war

The_Hits_Album_1Batman needs the Joker. Tottenham Hotspur need Arsenal. Jerry needs Tom. But I suspect NOW could have done without the bother of the Hits Album. Having seen EMI and Virgin come together to dominate the charts over Christmas 1983, and perhaps more importantly, repeating the success in the early months of 1984, it was perhaps inevitable that the other big boy record companies would think “we want some of that”. And so it was that two more of the major labels, WEA and CBS, joined forces to take NOW on, head on, for Christmas 1984. And, briefly, they would take over as top dog. But thanks to mismanagement, poor marketing and NOW upping its game, it would be a short-lived victory.

The Hits Album copied NOW’s template so slavishly it could be accused of plagiarism. The cover design is, for the 80s, relatively under-designed, with the slight whiff of a rush job. The giant capital lettered HITS in the centre tips a hat to the NOW brand, almost egging it on into a fight. The spiral background being the slightest concession to the swirly, garish design favoured by its rival. Yuppie minimalism seems to be the order of the day here, with the Monopoly style outer edge giving it to us straight: star photos, names and, unlike NOW , the song titles too. No messing here, they were so confident they were not going to leave anything to your imagination. You want the hits? Well you can have ’em: Thriller, Ghostbusters, Drive, I Feel for You, Freedom, Purple Rain… this was as strong a line-up as any NOW album, and probably bigger than all of theirs bar NOW 1. The back repeats the formula, but with a weird star shaped thing replacing the spiral, and the actual track listing taking centre-stage.

The gatefold inner apes NOW’s look to a tee (photo, mini bio on the song, album details and catalogue number), but because the layout is simpler, it allows space for a vital photo of the artists current album. This was bound to make things easier for lazy or stupid people in Woolworths the following Saturday when they wanted to buy Chicago’s Chicago 17 or Shakey’s Greatest Hits.

While I’m not going to go into too much detail here (after all this blog is about NOW not HITS!) it’s note worthy how Hits did differ from NOW in one area which probably went completely unnoticed by the buyers of each series. Due to the labels involved, there is an unavoidable bias towards American acts on the Hits albums. Now when those artists include Jacko, Prince and Madonna, you can’t really complain. But when you’re trying to persuade ‘the kids’ of the relative merits of The SOS Band, The Cars or Deneice Williams, it looks a bit more like filler, to make up those precious 32 top chart hits, which, incidentally would have been two more than NOW had had on an album up to that point. But with NOW 4, they decided to go for two more as well. Not that it helped.

Incidentally, I’ll just quickly quash a vicious rumour about NOW that has been repeated ad nauseum by lazy journalists over the years:  the reason Madonna never appeared on NOW albums has got nothing to do with her being a huge megastar who wanted nothing to do with compilation albums, it’s simply that her record company didn’t want her to.  She may have been able to appear on the first NOW with Holiday; Warners were happy to license other artists to the album, and Madonna was nowhere near big enough to throw her weight around about not wanting to appear on dirty old compilations. She obviously had no such qualms appearing on most of the first 10 Hits albums, and even on the first Monster Hits compilation, which I’ll come to later.

The Hits Album was released in direct competition with NOW 4, and trumped it in the number one stakes, racking up three (Freedom, Careless Whisper and I Feel For You) and just about every number two that got stuck behind Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes for nine weeks, including Hole in my Shoe by neil (sic) which looks very odd finishing off the album, following in the footsteps of such giants on side four as Van Halen, Meatloaf and Shakin’ Stevens.

The best track is obviously Kenny Loggins’ Footloose. By a mile.

The_Hits_Album_2Hits 2 followed quickly, in April 1985, possibly the reason why NOW refrained from releasing an Easter collection, and instead diverged into the first of a series of NOW Dance albums. (NOW 5 would eventually arrive in the summer.) It’s a very strong line-up again, featuring three massive chart toppers (I Wanna Know What Love Is, You Spin me Round, Easy Lover) and one that no one remembers (Jim Diamond’s I Should Have Known Better). There were other good tracks on there, too, with Kirsty MacColl’s excellent cover of Billy Bragg’s A New England, Prince’s 1999 and Close (to the Edit)  from Frankie label mates, Art of Noise.

Maybe as a sign of the design chaos to come, there seems to be much confusion over the correct title of the release. It’s commonly referred to as The Hits Album 2, or simply Hits 2, but the spine refers to it as Hits 2 The Album… catchy.

Phil Collins appearance here, on Easy Lover,  indicates a little tit-for-tat game that would happen a lot over the next few years, due to the fact that EMI/Virgin (NOW) and WEA/CBS (Hits) were not likely to license their own acts to the rival series, at least not when they were releasing albums at the same time. Every so often an opportunity would arise where an artist broke ranks to record something for another label. We saw how on NOW 4, they took advantage of a rogue Motown album to include a Michael Jackson song, and on Hits 2, Phil Collins duet with Philip Bailey appeared on Bailey’s label, CBS, so Hits were able to include it. Even if it hadn’t been a number one, it would probably still have been included just for the sake of including a track from one of the rival series’ artists.

Another example of this is the inclusion of The Pet Shop Boys on Hits 4. Although signed to EMI subsidiary, Parlophone, West End Girls had originally been released on CBS  in 1984 when  it had not been a hit. By 1986 it was a massive number one, and The Pets were big news. And no doubt CBS still held some rights. Odd that the Pet Shop Boys aren’t one of the featured acts named on the cover though.
The_Hits_Album_3Hits would continue to be successful throughout the mid 80’s, relying on a dependable bunch of stalwarts (Madonna, Prince, Eurythmics, Paul Young) and a succession of huge number ones (The Power of Love, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, Eternal Flame).  They would, like NOW, sometimes struggle to fill the quota, leading some truly odd appearances for people like ELO (the massive number 28 hit, Calling America… no, me neither), The The (the brilliant Infected on Hits 5 would, amazingly not be their only appearance) and The Jesus and Mary Chain (April Skies). The last two are great songs and you could argue it’s laudable that they were brought to a wider audience, but they just seem so out of place. Drive by The Cars would shamelessly appear on The Hits Album AND Hits 3 just a year later! Somehow, for reasons history does not record, the song made the top ten twice; number 5 in 1984 and number 4 in 1985. That doesn’t excuse its inclusion twice in such a short space of time.

Hits did often seem to be the slightly edgier cousin of NOW’s pure pop factory, but the fact is their respective track listings were probably interchangeable. Many ‘free agent’ artists not signed to one of the major labels would appear on both series’, sometimes if the albums were out at the same time, an artist would appear on both albums with different tracks (the same track by the same artist was rare, but not out of the question).

For me, what eventually did for Hits was, ultimately, having no faith in the strength of the content, leading to a series of horrendous marketing decisions which led to customer confusion, and eventually, apathy.

Just like NOW, Hits took a while to find an established look, or ‘brand’, and it’s arguable they never did. Ask old farts like me to describe a NOW cover, or the NOW logo, and most will have a stab at the balls (as it were) or the giant floating capital letters still in use today. Some might even mention the pig. Ask those same old farts about the Hits albums and you are likely to receive a shrug, or the kind of blank-faced look more commonly associated with my stupid cat.

My stupid cat

My stupid cat

The_Hits_Album_4The first three Hits albums all used some form of giant letter and Monopoly board approach, which was very distinct and stood out. it also gave the feeling of being a bit brash, sure of itself and just a tad cocky. And when you’re featuring such luminaries as Strawberry Switchblade, Matt Bianco, or Frankie by Sister Sledge, six months after NOW had included it, cocky doesn’t sit too well. Also, by this point, NOW had employed a new design team and the artwork had more of a whiff of cryptic cigarette adverts about them, which to mid-80s teenagers was always going to appear much cooler than an album emblazoned with “As advertised on TV”, like the old K-Tel and Ronco albums used to.

To counter NOW’s new look, Hits 4 featured a Mondrian inspired elaborate ‘4’ on its cover. Truth be told, the style was probably more likely inspired by the then current Studio Line range of hair-gunk products, which also used Mondrian as a ripping-off point (as did a LOT of things in the 80s), but we’ll give them the befit of the doubt. With no NOW album in direct competition, Hits 4 has a strong line-up. I mean REALLY strong. Side one is as strong as NOW 6’s opening salvo, but it sustains the quality much better, only finally stumbling on side four, which still manages to include Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love (See the full track listing here.)”>The_Hits_Album_5Hits 5 featured a giant red die, of course, where all the sides have five on them. I’ve no idea what the thinking behind this was. It’s very silly. There was some continuity on the branding though, with the Hits strap at the top of the design retained from Hits 4. Hits 5 went head-to-head with NOW 8 at Christmas 1986, and would see Hits first CD compilation (it would be the start of NOW regularly releasing a CD as well, after the abortive NOW 4) and it fared badly in comparison.

Hits 6, potentially, hit on something unique and special with its spectrum of criss-crossing lines on the sleeve. Not as garish as the early NOW albums’ attempts to mimic Max Headroom or the horrible Paintbox graphics that used to appear on-screen on Top of the Pops. Although it’s not immediately representing a ‘6’, once you know that’s what it’s meant to be, it makes perfect sense. That, along with the more elegant ‘Hits Album’ rather than just ‘Hits’, should have set the series up in the style stakes. it’s simple, minimal, adaptable, everything a successful brand should be. So of course, they ditched it.

The_Hits_Album_6Maybe it was because Hits consistently came in second place that the parent labels, CBS and WEA, felt it was the designers who were letting the side down rather than the content. It must be very difficult for two of the world’s biggest record labels to admit that, maybe, they haven’t quite got as much good content as they would like to fill just 64 tracks a year over two compilation albums (Hits would never release more than two per year). If you, Joe Public, aren’t buying it, and are instead going for their rival, then it stands to reason that the designers are rubbish. Obviously.

So between Hits 4 and 8, the only design constant was the font used for the title (and even the title would change from Hits back to The Hits Album). Whilst this, in itself, shows a surprising continuity, the ‘Big Idea’ of each sleeve is so radically disparate and that title almost an afterthought) it’s no wonder the public could be confused that this was actually a series. the NOW balls was an instantly recognisable logo, so much so that they could have been placed in almost any scenario and people would still know this was a NOW album. Hits would never have that.

Hits 6 had seen the giant BMG record label join the fray. They, along with MCA, had made a shameless attempt to get on the compilation bandwagon with two Out Now! albums (I may try and analyse these at some point, if I can hold of them). The track listings may have been good, filling in many of the blanks left by both Hits and NOW, but clearly this was a cash-in rather than an attempt to launch a serious rival. It’s possible they simply wanted to test the water with a view to a potential link up with one of the rivals. BMG would add little to the table, beyond exclusivity for a few more artists, potentially  making NOW’s job slightly harder, but by this point NOW had lassoed Polygram into their stable.

The_Hits_Album_7A giant 7, and an odd building block design for 8 continued to show that, frankly, Hits didn’t have a clue. Maybe the bosses were right, and the designers WERE clueless. It must have been frustrating to see album after album throwing away the promise that line-ups  including Prince, George Michael, Madonna, a-ha (when they were still huge) were failing to top NOW. Hits 7 would feature such stone cold classics as Eric B and Rakim’s Paid in Full, I’ve Had the Time of My Life and Never Gonna Give You Up.  But it also featured utterly forgettable one hit wonders from the likes of LaVert, Scarlet Fantastic, Desireless (which reached the dizzy heights of number 53, but their story continues below) and as well as a Ray Parker Jr song that ISN’T Ghostbusters! It’s this “throw enough mud and some will stick” approach that makes Hits seem cheaper and more ‘fly by night’ than NOW. NOW’s line ups always betray a certain amount of thought and preparation. Hits track listings generally work like this: All the big songs on Side one; maybe keep back a number one for side three; everything else in no particular order.

The_Hits_Album_8As an example, Hits 8 features Bros. Largely forgotten today, in the summer of 1988 they were the biggest thing around and were on their way to a massive Wembley appearance (topping the bill at a kind of one-day Glastonbury for screaming teenagers that you could get the tube home from) just months after their first single. I Owe You Nothing (ultimately their only number one) is easily the biggest track on Hits 8 and should open the album. It’s track 5, halfway through the first side. The album actually opens with Stay on These Roads, by a-ha, a top 5 hit, but not the hottest of ‘Hot Hits of Summer ’88’ advertised by the album cover. Hits 8 also featured Desireless again. I did say on Hits 7 that they were a one-hit wonder, with Voyage, Voyage. Well, that still stands because it’s the same bloody track (albeit in a very mildly remixed form, though it doesn’t say that on the track listing). Putting Drive on two on the first three Hits albums is one thing, but putting the same track on two consecutive releases? That suggests either incompetence or such a lack of respect for the  punters it almost makes you glad the series would ultimately fail.

And failure was but a short step away, thanks to Christmas 1988, and Hits 9. Except it wasn’t Hits 9. Well, it was Hits 9 but it just didn’t say it was Hits 9. For some reason it was decided to drop the number, releasing it as simply The Hits Album,  but the catalogue number confirms that this is in fact Hits 9 (if you are the sort of sad case who looks at album catalogue numbers and then writes blog posts about them). That horrible cover is a still from the dreadful, hugely irritating, and more importantly, cheap-looking, Bruno Brookes-narrated, TV commercial.

The_Hits_Album_9If this was their idea of a re-launch, or in modern parlance, a re-boot, of the series then it would turn out to be an utter disaster. there is zero brand recognition here, and going up against NOW 13 in the crucial  Christmas market, this would prove utterly suicidal for the series. it didn’t help that the track listing was dreadful, with an over reliance on including tracks that were as up to date as possible, rather than what was necessarily popular (Yazz’ Stand Up For Your Love Rights is a great song, but The Only Way is Up was the earlier, massive hit, and found itself opening NOW 13). When big hits were included they seemed to be the wrong ones: Orinoco Flow and One Moment in Time may have been number ones, but would ‘the kids’ really want them on their Christmas double album of top chart hits from the year? And I don’t care how high in the charts Chris de Burgh got, he shouldn’t be anywhere near this album.

This insistence on being more ‘now’ than NOW may have also scuppered the chances of three of the labels’  artists in the Christmas charts. It’s extremely rare for Christmas songs to appear on Hits or NOW, but Hits 9 featured TWO songs released specifically for the ’88 Christmas chart, and another which was in the running. One of these was a genuine contender for the Christmas number one, Bros’ Cat Among the Pigeons. It’s traditional for the biggest act of the year to make a play for the festive top spot, and they rarely achieve it, often being humiliated by a kids TV character or some cloying novelty song championed by a DJ who sees it as his duty to “inject some fun into Christmas”. Bros’ single (a double A-side with an unlistenable version of Silent Night) had been released just a week before The Hits Album, so surely some kids who would have bought the single thought, sod that, I’ll get Hits 9 instead and get that other pant-wetting teenage tune of ’88, Angry Anderson’s Suddenly, the soundtrack to Kylie and Jason’s wedding in Neighbours, which was also vying for the Christmas number one!

Another Christmas casualty included on the album was Chris Rea. Driving Home for Christmas is now, rightly, regarded as a Christmas classic. But back then it failed to even make the top 40. With all these festive tunes gathered on one album, it’s no wonder everyone went out and bought Mistletoe and Wine instead. Yes, Hits 9, or whatever you want to call yourself, I blame YOU for Cliff’s Christmas onslaught.

As a final indignity, Hits 9 never came close to even threatening NOW 13, only reaching a dismal number 5 (all previous Hits had reached at least number two). It would also be the last to compete in the ‘proper’ album charts, as from January 1989, compilation albums were siphoned off into their own chart.

The_Hits_Album_10June 1989 would see the swansong of the series in this form, with the release of Hits 10. The spectrum design from Hits 6 was regenerated, cleverly re-worked into a record design which also doubled as a 10. It’s great, and shows the possibilities there could have been had there been more faith in the original idea. The collection is a typically hit and miss affair with some absolutely huge hits (Eternal Flame, Sweet Child of Mine), massive flops (Luther Vandross’ Come Back, anyone?) and some forgotten gems (Robert Howard and Kim Mazelle’s Wait, Alyson Williams’ Sleep Talk). The reliance on current hits again results a generally dreary collection over all with the likes of Mike and the Mechanics’ The Living Years and 1927’s That’s When I Think of You prompting the fast forward button. It does however, feature The The and Pop Will Eat Itself back-to-back, so it’s not a total bust.

What was a bust though, was the series. Hits 10 managed an impressive six weeks at the top of the compilation chart, going platinum, much better than its predecessor, and not too shabby considering its release two months before the school summer holidays. Despite this, another re-vamp was in the offing. It would appear NOW was just too big, and too trusted a brand to be taken on in this manner. Hits had been number two pretty much since day one (but for the brief moment of glory with the first release) and for these boys number two just wasn’t good enough. Getting to number one would, however, remain out of their reach, though it wouldn’t stop them trying.

For Christmas 1989, they would take a leaf from NOW’s book and adopt a cool animal as their ambassador. A new direction was needed to take them forward into the new decade, and quickly… make it snappy.









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