30 YEARS TO COMPILE

Now That’s What I Call Music arrives, 28th November 1983

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When EMI and the relative newcomer Virgin got into bed together at the tail-end of 1983 with the idea of releasing a singles round-up LP, the music industry was shaken  to it’s very foundations. Pundits may cite the subsequent decline of the singles chart, sparked off by this seminal release, but hey, let’s celebrate the brand for it’s own worth. There’s so much to enjoy.

Until the early 80s, pop fans had to make do with the now iconic, but frankly vile, Top Of The Pop collections. Charity-shop fixtures to this day, these imposters would rob you of your pocket money with note-for-note recreations of the hits du jour- “Bohemian Rhapsody” proving a particular challenge for the anonymous session players.

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The TOTP records as a series finally bit the dust around ’81 (although it limped on with two final editions in ’84 and ’85. But by  that time the public wanted the real thing). Pre-Now, labels such K-Tel Ronco and Telstar had cornered the market in cheap compilation albums, using original artists (albeit edited down to fit ten tracks per side). Your local RSPCA shop is now home for these naffly-titled selections – Raiders Of The Pop Charts, Close Encounters Of The Chart Kind and so on.

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This was the environment into which Now That’s What I Call Music arrived on 28th November 1983, proclaiming “30 Great Tracks including 11 Number Ones!” A double LP, it’s gatefold sleeve exuded quality from the word go and it’s maximum of eight tracks per side meant better sound quality (the vinyl still sounds great to this day). It’s slightly odd moniker came from a slogan on a 1920s poster advertising Danish Bacon, hung on the wall of Simon Draper’s office at Virgin Records.

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That same Beatific pig later donned the Raybans and defined the brand for up until Now 5…..

However, the Northern porker didn’t prove too popular amongst the ranks at Virgin EMI, and perhaps conscious of straying back into the tacky aesthetics of Ronco et al, the sleeve for Now 6 declared “Feel The Quality”, with silk inner lining mock-up.

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Hereon in, up until Now 16, the gatefold artwork was really something quite special. Completely photographic, in the days before computer generated manipulation, the familiar four-ball/lightening flash logo took on many forms with increasingly imaginative scenarios- a neon  hotel sign, submerged under water, skyscraper reflections, spaceship, fireworks and an ominous “15” shaped shadow spoiling an otherwise perfect Summer 1989 day on the beach. That was all spoiled though by the time of Now 20 when a generic, computer generated three dimensional logo arrived and the design department went on holiday forever, each release looking indistinguishable from  the one preceding it.

The series also emerged blinking into the video age. An 80-minute title called, not surprisingly, Now That’s What I Call Music Video was available on VHS and Betamax. The accompanying video series lasted until Now 20. 1985 and ’86 saw the brand expand into various offshoots with The Christmas Album, The Summer Album and the successful Now Dance series.

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Other record companies quickly caught on and in late 1984, CBS and WEA/Warners followed with their Hits album series. This equally successful venture wrestled chart dominance with Now for a few years, even preventing Now 4 from reaching the top slot.

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As a snapshot the times, there is no finer document than these perfect audio time-capsules. It’s the sound of Now. By which I mean the sound of then.

 

VIDEO GA GA

The Chart Show premieres on Channel 4

If, like me, you were a child of the 80s and devoured the pop music of the time with a rapacious  appetite, then it probably wasn’t Whistle Test (self-consciously no longer Old and Grey) that gave you your weekly TV fix, as was the case a decade before. That was for grown ups. And it probably wasn’t even The Tube as that seemed a little bit on the scary side; leave that for older, harder siblings. Top Of The Pops in the mid-80s was in it’s imperial phase ‘balloons and party atmosphere’ pomp of course and that was all well and good, but again belonged to an older generation. In April 1986 something appeared at Friday teatime on Channel 4 that seemed, well, shiny and new as Madonna would have put it.

Wow, it’s got titles that look like that Dire Straits video, you know the one about MTV. Cool. Hang on, what’s happening here, looks like the video’s on the blink, it’s rewinding. Do Channel 4 know? Where are the presenters? And the what the flip is an Indie Chart anyway?! To my 11 year old mind I thought it was something to do with a subcontinent.

Initially designed as a seasonal stop-gap in between series of The Tube, it ran for a total of 12 years, switching to mornings on ITV in January ’89. But it’s the 86-88 years on the alternative channel that hold a special place for me. For such a simple concept it really was revolutionary at the time. Before satellite dishes started popping up all over the place and bringing MTV into UK homes, we hadn’t seen anything like this. By ’86 the art of the music video had reached it’s zenith, and this was the perfect platform for those 4-minute marvels. This is where I first saw the stop-motion grotesque spectacle that was Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”. But it wasn’t all about big-budgets, for another area that became part of the show’s character were the specialist charts. The Indie, Heavy Metal, Dance and Reggae charts were where very strange, slightly unnerving pieces that looked like they were produced on a budget of 50 quid also aired. Before they raided TopShop with a pure pop makeover and a truncated moniker here’s  We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It… OK maybe 50 quid was too generous.

In the early days we also had the Network Album chart and Compact Disc chart! Features like End To End, showcasing a video in it’s entirety (a must for the condensed-feature-film mood of the time, where most musicians proved to be terrible actors), Vintage Video, Rough Cut (an exciting pre-production preview of an upcoming release). It’s gimmicky trademark though was the combination of fast-forward/rewind mock video control and on-screen information courtesy of an cutting edge-at-the-time Amiga computer. The first few months featured a less aesthetically pleasing “H.U.D.” green graphical interface, to be replaced by the more familiar mouse/pointer/windows layout.

It was in the Indie Chart section that bands such as The Wedding Present, Pop Will Eat Itself, Sugarcubes, The Mission, Gaye Bikers On Acid, Danielle Dax, Fields of the Nephilim (causing pronunciation problems for one Peter Powell on Top Of The Pops I recall) and countless others that spawned from the NME C86 movement were given a chance of primetime exposure. Pre-Madchester, listening back to those “Indie Top 20” compilations that define that era, you realise that it is before the term “Indie” became homogenised and uniform into the 90s- the only criteria being that it was released on an independent label (ah, that’s what it means! – 11 year old self). So that’s why on those early Chart Shows you would have Erasure and , gasp, Kylie and Jason at the top of the Indie rundown. Yes, Stock, Aitken and Waterman really were a truly non-corporate venture, whatever you think of the output of PWL Records. But if that is pushing the boundaries too far for you, there was still your fair share of shoe-gazers and noise merchants too. Baggy beats and baggier jeans were just around the corner though when in late ’89 the indie landscape got funky. An edition of Top Of The Pops from November of that year had both The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays in the studio and soon you couldn’t move for Indie-Dance crossovers with the obligatory ‘Funky Drummer’ sample.

This clip is before the Indie kids got their groove on though (although No.1 New Order of course bridge the gap very neatly from gloomy introspection to dancefloor euphoria that was to come). Laibach doing a take on the 1985 Opus hit “Live is Life” there. Again, where the hell else would have broadcast that at the time?! God Bless you Chart Show.