The ‘70s and early ‘80s were a wonderful time for pop music fans. Unless you wanted to keep abreast of the latest hits in the UK at least.
There, compilations were the shonky domain of companies such as K-Tel and Ronco - providers of questionable home improvement products where an unauthorised Top Of the Pops compilation would be filled with terrible soundalikes, saving loads on publishing costs. Virgin hipster-turned corporate demigod Richard Branson’s idea for a compilation of hit singles by original artists was so simple, yet rarely done in the early ‘80s.
Taking its name from a poster for Danish bacon of a farmyard pig listening to a cockerel proclaiming “Now that’s what I call music!”, Branson’s execution in partnership with EMI launched a catchphrase and a franchise brand which would go on to sell over 250 million copies worldwide.
Australia would get our own half-arsed version in the noughties that replaced 100% Hits but it was a single disc affair with zero love for the artwork and fizzed out after 33 barely cared for volumes.
Aussie artists have regularly peppered the tracklists of the UK series. Men At Work’s seminal Down Under (a UK #1 in 1983) appeared on the very first Now. INXS’ Need You Tonight (Now 14) was the first of five appearances up to Baby Don’t Cry (Now 23). Madison Avenue’s two big hits straddled Now 45 and 47 while Josh Abrams (under the name Puretone) hit Now 51 with Addicted To Bass. 5 Seconds Of Summer have racked up eight songs since She Looks So Perfect joined Vance Joy’s UK #14 hit Riptide on Now 87.
Now 70 from July 2008 had four Aussie entries courtesy of Kylie, Sam Sparro, Pendulum (!) and Gabriella Cilmi all chucking shrimp on disc one’s barbie.
However, Now 104 marks just the fourth time an Australian artist has taken the holy grail of the first song on the 36-year-old compilation series:
Now 40 (1998): John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John - The Grease Megamix
It pains this writer to credit (the rather lovely) Olivia Newton-John as the first Aussie artist to lead a Now album on a technicality but fair’s fair, despite it being a concoction by Stock Aitken & Waterman’s PWL studio for the 20th anniversary of Grease. It hit #3 on the UK chart and has tortured wedding DJs worldwide since.
Now 50 (2001): Kylie Minogue - Can’t Get You Out Of My Head
It took the lead single from her eighth studio album Fever, which spent five weeks at the top of the UK’s chart, for Kylie to become the first Aussie artist to crown a Now on their own steam in its 18th year.
No stranger to Now, her UK debut single I Should Be So Lucky helped define Stock Aitken & Waterman’s signature bubblegum hit-factory sound, also spending five weeks at #1. It did notably land as the first track on the second record (or tape) of Now 11 in 1988, though.
With New York City on this year’s Now 103, Kylie has appeared a whopping 25 times, trailing Robbie Williams, Calvin Harris and Rihanna, who have had more. With 92 volumes between her first and most recent Nows, she is beaten only by U2 for the longest span of appearances by an active artist. They first appeared on Now 4 with Pride (In The Name Of Love) and most recently on Now 99 with You’re The Best Thing About Me.
Now 81 (2012): Gotye feat. Kimbra - Somebody That I Used To Know
Whilst Down Under Wally De Backer remains a cherished gem of a songwriter, in the UK Gotye remains a ‘one-hit-wonder’. Yet with 1.8 million sales in that territory alone, Now 81’s first song couldn’t have been anything else. Despite parent album Making Mirrors peaking at #4, no further hits or Now spots followed.
Gotye did share Now 81 with fellow Aussie Sia who made two guest appearances with David Guetta (Titanium) and Flo Rida (Wild Ones). However, she first cropped up on Now 49 (2001) with an uncredited vocal for Zero 7’s #30 hit Destiny.
TOP FIVE BEST NOW COVERS
Now 3 - Not many Now covers are so perfectly stylised to the time of release and this is so unequivocally 1984 with those dayglo swishes and the debut of an iconic logo, designed by John Aldred (whose tenure started here and ended with Now 4). Ghostbusters, It’s Raining Men, Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Time After Time… Now 3 is loaded with bonafide ‘80s classics and was re-released on CD earlier this year.
Production deadlines and rights complications meant photos and artist names on the front wouldn’t last long. The pig’s days would also be short, departing after Now 5 with negative public reaction to the adverts voiced by actor Brian Glover. A more upmarket ‘Feel The Quality’ phase featuring such yuppie staples as a designer jacket label (Now 6) and a filofax (Now 9) would follow.
Now 12 - After a handful of covers by The Design Clinic, who ran with the ‘Balls and Lightning’ logo, Now took on board Gary De Bique’s Quick On the Draw (later: Qd) from Now 8 to establish a more consistent brand identity.
To date, only a handful of covers - all between volumes 6 - 16 - were created with actual photoshoots, but 12 was poster-worthy with its number stuck to the bottom of a swimming pool (weighed down by house bricks), beach balls and plank-standing-in-for-a-diving board which all collaborated lovingly to kiss the familiar logo. A perfect summery cover that simply had to include Sabrina’s Boys.
Now 77 - After a lengthy period of interesting yet artistically uninspiring covers (including 36 - 73 which seemed to consistently deliver images that lacked sharpness), in the mid-’70s, Qd seemed to up the game finally. 77 was clearly a winter album, but it was crisply defined and had new energy. Those snowboards were the most fun we’d had on a cover since 69’s biplanes.
Inside, we’d see Cee Lo Green with the very radio friendly Forget You which as far as naughty songs go pails against the double whammy of Eamon’s F**k It (I Don’t Want You Back) and Frankee’s retort F.U.R.B (F U Right Back) which went back-to-back on Now 58 with not one swear word to be heard. Somehow, Technohead were able to close out Now 33 singing, “I want to be a hippy and I want to get stoned on mari-marijuana,” completely uncensored.
Now 90 - You’ve gotta feel for the Qd designers and the pressure to create new, exciting environments. They’re like Bond movie producers to whom it must sometimes seem like every backdrop has already been used. So with 90 they simply went with an explosion of paints in glorious, vivid colours, the logo sitting boldly and proudly amongst the splashes. Now 96 would try it again with similarly vibrant smoke puffs. Both were utterly gorgeous!
Now 100 - As a Now fan watching the decline of the CD earlier this decade, I actually started to wonder if we would be denied the centenary. But in 2018 we got there and Now really partied with a logo that gave the series the standing ovation it deserved. It rewarded long term fans with the blimp carrying the much loved old logo and tipped the sunshades to the pig to which so much is owed.
There’s also the new bevelling on the centre bar, cueing changes to the look which would usher us into the three-figure era. One Kiss by Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa leads the charge on disc one with disc two acting as a ‘best of Now’ celebration with UB40, Spice Girls, S Club 7, Cher and James Blunt all bringing their biggest hits to the party. Now 100 was everything Now 50 denied us as a celebration (more of which later).
TOP FIVE WORST NOW COVERS
Now 19 - In the teens, Qd showed some spirit and adventure with their covers. They picked up some ‘regular' album work for The Shamen and Sunscreem (similar elements appeared on Boss Drum and O3 if you look closely). They also had Aled Jones. But like a teenager, they wanted to rebel and with Now 18 the iconic logo was ditched for something defiantly different, slightly ravey but completely lost, the number scattered like a nightclub aggressor light in the background. Now 19 was even more bland, verging on the anonymous. This was the album for which the TV advert pimped Oleta Adams, Chris Rea and Stevie B. Even long term series compiler Ashley Abrams had gone to sleep.
Now 29 - The first slimline case! New Order! Blur! Oasis! Kylie’s all-time sexiest song (convince me I’m wrong!). Even the Crash Test Dummies and Shampoo! This is one of the strongest Nows ever! So why does the scarcely legible logo look like it’s barely survived an explosion from a golden syrup factory in the Ukraine?
Now 42 - From one of the best entries to one of the worst all round. When I was a kid, my art teacher told me, “Green just SCREAMS when put with most colours.” When partnered with yellow, overly chunky lettering and the kind of stars that were rejected from a satanic sacrifice for being “too shit”, green doesn’t so much scream as gurgles bloodily for the agony to end.
To make things worse, Now 42 suggests that by Easter 2000, the Y2K bug had killed British people’s taste in music. WTF was that charity tweeny-ABBA bullshit cover (Thank Abba For the Music) or Boyzone doing Billy Ocean about? Here we also find the #52 smash Popped by Fool Boona, a Euro-rave reworking of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger that nobody has ever requested.
Now 50 - Speaking of agony, who else was getting excited for a massive half-centennial celebration? Nobody at Qd, apparently. Not only was Now 50 an utter non-event, the ‘Green Scream' returns with a vengeance, thanks to a toxic dance floor motif that would eat through any handbags placed on it, ushering in arguably the worst run of ten-in-a-row Now album covers ever. The 50s were all terrible, but this milestone was the peak of offensiveness. Still, at least Kylie’s immortal Can’t Get You Out Of My Head opened the album, making way for The Dandy Warhols, D-12 and Daft Punk. And Bob the Builder doing Mambo No 5. Fuck.
Now 70 - Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa went in cahoots with Monty Burns to save the environment and Li'l Lisa's Patented Animal Slurry was the unfortunate resultant product? The cover of Now 70 was clearly dredged up to be slapped on the side of one of those barrels. Life hint: If hungover, never look at this one. It’s guaranteed to make you feel so much worse.
Now That’s What I Call Music 104 is released in the UK on November 8, the same day as a 35th anniversary CD re-release of Now 4.