January 28, 2013 Pig’s Ear
Niall Anderson has listened to to all of the Now That’s What I Call Music Albums so you don’t have to
The saddest and most interesting place I’ve ever been in London is the Old Vinyl Factory in Hayes. In its 1950s salad days, when it was owned by HMV, it employed 10,000 people, producing and packaging the label’s roster of recording artists. When I visited the site in 2008, it was owned by EMI and employed just four people: two of them part-time. A 17-acre site occupied by a maximum of two people daily, all there to manage the EMI archive. With its empty concrete offices and effusively strewn barbed wire, it was like visiting a post-apocalyptic prison camp.
I asked one of the archivists what he spent his time doing. ‘We’re only really busy around Christmas when the compilation albums get made,’ he said, and with that took me around the archives. Master reels of Beatles albums, signed gold and platinum discs by The Beach Boys, Scott Walker’s hesitant signature on a two-album contract in 1981 (only one album appeared: 1982’s Climate Of Hunter). Gold-dust for the archivist and pop aficionado. I happen to be both.
So as a tribute to the discouraged archivists, I decided I’d listen to EMI’s own historical effort at canonising pop: the Now That’s What I Call Music series. All of it. Currently running to 83 volumes (or 10 days of continuous listening), it has valid claims to being the biggest selling compilation series of all time. The Top Of The Pops albums aren’t pop enough! The Motown Chartbusters comps didn’t bust enough charts! Even unimpeachable pop blockbusters like Thriller and ABBA Gold haven’t sold in the quantities that the Now! series has. We’re talking about a collection of songs popular enough and deep enough to be worth an extended trawl. Ladies and gentlemen, this is it. This is pop.
I decided to start at the beginning and end of the series and work my way into the middle volumes by a kind of pincer movement. I made this decision because the most obviously appealing strategy – to just start with the first volume and move chronologically from there – was also the one most likely to fail.
I knew that if I started at the beginning, I’d listen to the first few volumes (not coincidentally the songs of my childhood) and then flame out as soon as I got to a volume where I either didn’t like or didn’t know the bulk of the songs. So I decided to build unfamiliarity into the plan from the outset, by prioritising the era I knew least about: the last decade.
This was the deeper – or at any rate more personal – motivation for the experiment. Without meaning to, I’d more or less stopped listening to chart music around 2002. I was still buying music, and some of what I bought ended up in the charts, but I wasn’t really taking my cues from the charts any more. This wasn’t snobbishness – though, yes, there was a longish period when I listened to nothing but Steely Dan – it was more that having left school and entered the world of work, I was no longer in an environment where pop music had social power. I was no longer swapping records with friends or dreaming of forming a band. I was no longer arguing with people about when particular bands had lost it as though it was actually deeply important. The charts are this social aspect of pop music writ large – a constantly updated map of the territory – so when you leave an environment where pop music has social force, you’ll also tend to leave the charts behind.
Unless you make a big effort not to. But it struck me as I started my big effort that what I was doing was in some sense anti-pop. Pop isn’t supposed to be about a dogged trawl through the archives: it’s about the inescapable tune that grabs your attention in the moment whether you want it to or not, and which then lives with you as a concrete memory of a particular time in your life. I never went out and bought a copy of Supergrass’s ‘Alright’, for instance, but in a way it is the summer of 1995 for me. It was in the air all the time while I was doing other things and is now inextricable from them.
There’s also a sense in which the Now! albums are themselves anti-pop. Oh sure, they give you all the big hits of the day in an inexpensive package, but they’re essentially curatorial documents. They’re also very, very long. To put it this way: if Now! 80 had just consisted of songs by Adele and Rihanna, it would have still given you a fair representation of what the charts sounded like in 2011. But it wouldn’t have been a Now! album. Sheer length – the appearance of giddy excess – has always been at the core of the series’ remit, and that length has to come from somewhere. The result being that quite a lot of the volumes contain things that were hits in only the most glancing sense (maybe the band appeared on Daybreak), whose presence on a Now! album actually tends to obscure what was going on in a particular period in pop.
This would be okay – in fact, it would be a real joy – if it meant stumbling across a lot of good pop that, for whatever reason, didn’t set the skies alight when it was released. But the more time I spent with the Now! series, the more I came to understand that most of these one-hit-wonders and also-rans had a single thing in common: they were all signed to EMI or an affiliate label. There’s a reason Richard Marx’s ‘Now And Forever’ turns up in the middle of Now! 28, for example, and it’s not the single week it spent in the UK charts in January 1994.
The concentration on EMI artists is a bit wearisome, but it’s also a fairly frivolous example of the grand narrative that these compilations end up telling: that of a few massive corporate conglomerations slowly but surely chewing up pop. In the early 90s, the CD boom and the massive profits that resulted meant that the biggest labels in recorded music (EMI, Warner Brothers, Sony) began to buy up smaller labels at a phenomenal rate. Sometimes these labels were allowed to stay as their own imprint (Virgin or Island, for instance), but the concentration of industry power within just a few offices had an obvious homogenising effect.
It’s not that pop music “all started sounding the same”, it’s more that the scenes changed less quickly as a few major record companies all bid for the same type of band. The mid-90s Now! volumes are crammed with Britpop and bratty Eurotrance, as you might expect, but so are the late-90s volumes. There are still good songs in there, but in styles that were being artificially prolonged by the industry.
This also helps to explain the death of the novelty single. The early Now! albums are absolutely rammed with them: ‘Agadoo’, ‘The Chicken Song’, Jive Bunny. But by the advent of Scatman John in 1995 the ranks have thinned out alarmingly; and by the time Lou Bega raises a last, defiant counter-mambo in 1999, it’s like hearing a voice from beyond the grave. In the interim, the charts have been filled with something just as disposable, but with outward pretensions to taste: the Bontempi Balladry of TV stars like Robson & Jerome or Martine McCutcheon.
It’s hard to mourn the passing of the novelty single without sounding at least a bit like a chump, but one of the defining characteristics of novelty singles was that they tended to come out on indie labels – indeed, labels created entirely for the purpose of issuing this one song. In the late 80s and 90s in particular, with the arrival of affordable sampling equipment and the first portable digital audio workstations, they also became the preserve of determined loners with a single ingratiating tune in their heads. OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’ (1996) was the bedroom brainchild of two unemployed brothers from Auckland. Released on the Fuemana brothers’ own huh! label, it sold a million copies around the world – the pop equivalent of winning the lottery. You might want to chop your head off rather than hear the song again, but we should still mourn the passing of this sort of unlikely story, because the growing stranglehold of the major labels has more or less ensured that it doesn’t really happen any more.
The Now! series’ ambivalent relationship with indie labels also means that its approach to dance music tends towards the unhistorical and, as a result, the unlistenable. It doesn’t do much harm that Now! wasn’t really on top of, say, Detroit techno in the 80s – because, be honest, who was? It doesn’t even really matter that Now! compilers prefer the radio edit even when the twelve-inch version was what people were mad for at the time: you still have a pretty accurate record of what the majority were listening to. But as soon as dance music takes a turn towards the anti-commercial – as it did with acid house and rave – the Now! series is up the creek. How do you package a style of music that is both wildly popular and completely divorced from mainstream commercial concerns? Well, you wait for the copycats. As a result the late 80s and early 90s volumes of Now! were some of the most dispiriting listens I’ve ever had.
Now! only really got a handle on dance music in the early 2000s, but again there was an element of corporate convergence involved. Having missed the rise of the Superstar DJ, Now! was in like a limpet on the Superstar Producer – otherwise known as “the guy who will give you a hit by making you sound exactly like that other hit he produced”. Welcome to the world of Pharrell Williams and Timbaland: gold-plated pop geniuses whose fondness for the big payday caused them to mislay the talent that had brought them to attention in the first place. Welcome to the world of Xenomania: a Kent-based songwriting factory whose fondness for big colourful hooks meant that they just strung all the hooks together and forgot about the songs. Welcome, latterly, to the world of David Guetta and Calvin Harris: novelty artists in all but name, with a few preset trance arpeggios on their keyboards, who have somehow spun a narrow talent into multimillion dollar careers.
You feel, when you listen to this stuff, as though pop has no reason to exist any more. Guetta and Harris are like gaping black holes of melodic obviousness, like Stock, Aitken & Waterman in their heyday, only without the immediate indie backlash. You feel – listening to Now! 82 and 83 in particular – like the backlash just has to come. But the Now! series is, among other things, an accurate record of how pop actually evolves. There are actually very few successful backlashes. Even punk didn’t succeed. What punk did was give mainstream pop a new palette of sounds to use until mainstream pop got bored and moved onto the next thing. So it goes. The great undying hope of pop music is still – and will always be – the kid with an idea at the right time. No amount of industry machinating can anticipate someone like that. But whoever he or she is, one thing is certain, they’ll turn up on a Now! album. Viva pop! Viva Now!
A Now! Top Ten
Songs you may not have heard or will only vaguely remember. The only criterion for entry was that they had to stick out a mile on their respective albums.
Wishful Thinking – China Crisis (Now! 2)
Amid all the bubblegum, this strange, echoey and almost perversely uncharismatic ballad. Features perhaps the only prominent oboe part in the entire Now! canon.
Womack & Womack – Love Wars (Now! 3)
A lot of mid-eighties pop was about the clash between soul stylings and synthesizers. Most bands took the Bowie route: a rigid Anglophile melody given soul inflections by the backing track. This comes at it the other way round: a classically mournful gospel melody made machine-like by programmed drum and synths.
Why? – Bronski Beat (Now! 4)
A dramatic Northern Soul song given an obsessive edge by clanking synth bass.
Amazulu – Too Good To Be Forgotten (Now! 7)
An ingratiating ska melody that threatens to be altogether too eager to please. You’re just about to turn it off when it changes, and then it changes again, and by the time the refrain comes back you can’t get the damn thing out of your head.
Jane Wiedlin – Rush Hour (Now! 13)
A great power-pop song in the mode of Wiedlin’s former bandmate Belinda Carlisle. The video features Wiedlin attempting to look calm and happy while seemingly being assaulted by dolphins.
Aqua – Turn Back Time (Now! 41)
One of the surprises the Now! series springs is just how many hits Aqua managed to have. I only remembered ‘Barbie Girl’ and this one: which – given a bit more oomph in the chorus – is basically the Great Lost Bond Theme.
Aaliyah – Try Again (Now! 46)
Just a great song.
Rachel Stevens – Some Girls (Now! 48)
A bizarrely near-the-knuckle song about what a woman in pop has to do to succeed, and the inevitability of her failure. The “Glitter Band under the sea” production style would be hammered to death over the following years by Richard X and Xenomania, but it still feels fresh here.
Jem – They (Now! 61)
Almost a novelty song, this, but what a novelty: narcotised dance pop based around a vocal performance of Bach’s Prelude in F Minor.
Björk – Possibly Maybe (Now! 35)
Included because it’s the single strangest song ever to turn up on a Now! album. A gently extended wibble about Björk’s boyfriend’s penis (“your eruptions and disasters. I keep calm – admiring your lava”) it doesn’t even seem to have a home key. Not strange for a Björk song, maybe, but plenty strange for Now!