Reaction Weekend

Now That’s What I Call Music! isn’t what it used to be

BY John McKie   /  6 July 2018

The titans of music retail would give politicians and estate agents a bad – OK, worse – name when it comes to candour. How else to explain Sony music going into business with one half of Crocket and Tubbs from Miami Vice and releasing product entitled “The Essential Don Johnson”?

A constant source of comfort for the past 35 years has been the Now That’s What I Call Music! set of albums.

It is a sound concept, made all the sounder for being first dreamt up on Richard Branson’s boat (and not his trains, balloons or spacecraft.)  The greatest hits of the past few weeks served up on double vinyl, cassette or CD.  Now 1 started as it meant to go on with Phil Collins and Genesis, Men Without Hats and Men at Work, Limahl and Kajagoogoo. Quality and diversity.

By Now 99, the R’nB collaboration was in full flow. As well as mainstays like U2 and Kylie Minogue, the most recent Now! Album featured 13 tracks “featuring” in its credits, the most collaborative being Let Me Go by Hailee Steinfeld (an actress) & Alesso (a DJ) featuring Florida Georgia Line (a country and western act) and watt (no idea).

This in some respects is as it should be. The Now That’s What I Call Music!  (long since shortened to “Now!”) albums reflected the charts of the day no matter how ludicrous so if they were dominated by sullen indie bands, anonymous Mediterranean DJs or Bob The Builder in the day, that was reflected in its tracklisting. No matter. The albums were always an option for the aunts and uncles loitering in record shops or supermarkets bereft of gift inspiration or musical nous.

It is my sad duty to report that for their centenary, the Now! Operation have laid waste to their own brand. Now! 100 does not deserve its own card from Her Majesty.

The first disc is so far, so Now!, kicking off with Calvin Harris featuring Dua Lipa and George Ezra and featuring the inevitable “featurings” – you can relax if you’re a ‘Tiësto & Dzeko featuring Preme & Post Malone’ completist.

It is the second disc where the wheels really come off the jalopy. Compilers of Now! 100 have dropped a huge ricket. (Not Adam Rickitt, whose “I Breathe Again” surfaced on Now 43.)

In its infinite wisdom, Sony and Universal Music, who now have their hand on the Now! tiller have packed Disc 2 with a greatest hits of Now!’s era with Angels, Love Is All Around and James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful. Tracks we’ve spent the best part of the past 35 years avoiding. To add insult to injury, the last track on Disc 1 before the golden oldies on Disc 2 is by “Good Morning Britain Competition Winners.” (No, not  the co-presenters on Piers Morgan’s lieu days). A cover of a Phil Collins’ cover version. Who could ask for anything less?

This stretches beyond continents, where the Now! Albums have been successful from New Zealand to North and South America. This is an inter-continental scandal way beyond any current trifling issues we might have around any customs union.

Ever since Live Aid, the music industry has got hooked on heritage – the reissued classic deluxe edition, reunion tour, old-album-in-full tour, repackaged Greatest Hits, documentaries, tenuous anniversaries and umpteen ways to reinvigorate the hoary. Old has been gold.

At the big events, like the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, the Glastonbury Saturday headlining slot and the huge charity gatherings, it has been a real faux pas for the big acts not to roll out the hits. The most awkward part of any Carpool Karaoke is when James Corden pretends to know the words to the newie, contractually obliged before his passenger will put on his or her seatbelt.

The singer of any band drawling “we’re going to do a new one” is a breach of an article of accepted faith. It’s the equivalent of using the wrong cutlery at one of Peter Yorke’s dinner parties, while wearing a shellsuit.

Now That’s What I Call Music! operated above all that. The albums were a beacon of welcome sanity (or if you prefer, welcome insanity) throughout this period. While Woolworths closed, downloads and streaming came in, the charts baffled for Britain. Now! Albums were the best reflection of what was, if you’ll forgive the adjective, Now.

If you wanted to know who was currently doing well in the charts, pick up a recent Now! album.

Their 100th birthday was the wrong time for Now! to focus so much on Then.