Having passed 100 editions in its chronicling of pop music, the Now That’s What I Call Music! series has outlasted more zeitgeist genres and artists than you’ll ever remember. Jamie Carragher catches up with a man who was there at the very beginning.
Stephen Navin greets me in a red and yellow fez. He leads me into his sleek Shepherd’s Bush semi, down to the kitchen, all creams and granite. On the wall there’s a framed photo of Sid Vicious, the only hint of Navin’s longstanding links to the music industry. But never mind the Sex Pistols, that’s not his claim to fame; I’m here to talk to Navin about his involvement in the most successful compilation series of all time: NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC!
Now… is the great survivor of pop. Reflecting the trends and outlasting technological advances, the series has reigned over the hit parade since 1983, with the 100th edition released this summer. Originally designed to bolster the profits of Virgin Records, Now became a cash cow and a golden calf, a cultural cornerstone recognised and replicated around the world.
Navin, head of licensing during Virgin’s 80s heyday, didn’t see it coming. “Jesus, hardly, no – it has become a social, cultural phenomenon. It wasn’t going to be a one-off, but I can’t claim to have had a helicopter view [of what was going to happen].” No longer in the game, Navin is unguarded and gregarious throughout the interview (“I can bullshit with the best of them”). You get the impression he’s always been that way.
Although Now is the definitive compilation album, it wasn’t the first. Navin regularly struck deals with the likes of Ronco and K-Tel, ragtag companies that wanted Virgin’s tracks for compilation albums such as the imaginatively named Raiders Of The Pop Charts.
“When we started to get hot, they [Ronco and K-Tel] were banging down our door. It became a turkey shoot because to get a Culture Club song or a Human League song, they would be prepared to take three other tracks as well. I remember licensing a track by one of our French artists, Julian Clerc, singing in English. We put his album out and of course it was a stiff. But I licensed one of his tracks to K-Tel and it just shows they’d take anything.”
Navin totted up the sums. By creating their own compilation album, bypassing Ronco and K-Tel, Virgin could make a killing. He took the idea to head of Virgin Records, Simon Draper, and together with General Manager Jon Webster, they quickly settled on the idea of a partnership with major label EMI. One question remained: what to call it?
Navin laughs, “This was arguably when my creative genius came into play.” As the three Virgin execs chatted in an office just off Portobello Road, Navin’s eye was drawn to a poster behind Draper’s desk, a quirky advert for Danish bacon which depicted a pig listening to a cockerel crow its morning song. The caption? ‘Now that’s what I call music’. “And I said, ‘Why don’t we call it that?’” With minimum fuss, a franchise was born.
Rushed out in 1983 for the “ferocious feeding frenzy of Christmas time”, Now’s rapid conception and rollout is emblematic of how Virgin Records worked. That ‘sell first, think later’ attitude that pervades every branch of the Branson behemoth. “It was very uncorporate. Richard [Branson] lived on his houseboat; all meetings you’d go round there, and it was all done in a very relaxed sort of way. None of this modern shit. Slightly autocratic.” Branson as Sun King holding court aboard the Duende, docked on the shimmering waters of Little Venice.
But it was Simon Draper who held the reins of the record company, having led Virgin from the esoteric indie that released Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells in 1972, to punk house of the Sex Pistols in the late 70s and major industry player with Phil Collins on the books at the dawn of the 80s. “People always talk as if it was Richard, Richard, Richard – Richard doesn’t know anything about music and he’d be the first to admit it. Simon was the genius. And what was wonderful about that type of world was that nobody did costings. You signed a band if you liked it and sometimes shit hits the fan and sometimes shit hits the wall. Either way, one of them’s good, one of them’s bad.”
Draper’s particular tastes dictated Virgin’s creative direction, especially early on. “I mean he’d throw up if you mentioned Chris De Burgh – I mean literally. I remember talking to him about it, he said, ‘I don’t even want to talk about it, Chris De Burgh is just shit.’ On the other hand, I was at university with Chris De Burgh so I felt rather hurt by it.” However, Now came at a time when Draper was willing to sideline his niche interests in pursuit of Virgin’s ascendant market share; The Lady In Red was track nine on Now 7; Virgin Records was eventually sold for a billion dollars.
Like any good compilation album, Now’s success is the sum of its parts: catchy tunes, consistent marketing and the unabashed desire to reflect what’s hot in the charts. Being popular has proved popular; Now 44, replete with bangers such as Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time, Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit Of…) and Shania Twain’s That Don’t Impress Me Much, remains the UK’s highest selling compilation with 2.3 million copies sold. This should impress you much: Now is still dominating the (admittedly dwindling) charts, occupying four of Apple Music’s Top Ten biggest selling albums of 2017.
Now’s success is testament to the lasting appeal of ephemeral pop. Apart from the diehards who buy every issue, each generation identifies with a flurry of Nows before moving on to define their own tastes. Now has inadvertently chronicled modern pop in distinct snapshot form. Each edition is a kaleidoscopic tapestry of the epic pop battles won and lost (Oasis vs Blur, Eamon vs Frankie, the S Club Civil Wars) with space for both the losers and winners alike; each a Blue Peter time capsule crystallising the merits and the sins of your musical upbringing.
The sins. Who can forget Fast Food Song (Now 55) or The Ketchup Song (Now 53) where status as a song had to be categorically stated in the title to remove all doubt? Not me, unfortunately. Catch the skip button a second too late and the ‘brringg-brringg’ of Crazy Frog (Now 61) would bring-bring on a state of travel sick anxiety. In reflecting the charts faithfully, Now lays bare the inherent problems of democracy.
But the alchemy of sequencing imprints strange nostalgia. Find yourself wandering the frozen aisle of ASDA when Maroon 5’s She Will Be Loved pipes through and you’ll be disappointed if it’s not followed by Natasha Bedingfield’s These Words, a song that’s both catchy and an ode to the rich history of English literature. And it must follow, as the night the day; 50 Cent’s In Da Club goes into Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River, Eric Prydz’ Call On Me into Girls Aloud’s Love Machine.
Now has proven adaptable. It’s outlived the cassette and MiniDisc, the Walkman and iPod. It’s a brand that can’t be sullied by selling out: the franchise has been wrung for all its worth, with spin-offs including Now That’s What I Call…Running, Chill, Mum, Christmas, Love, Fitness, Britain, Brit Hits, British, Love 2, Feel Good, the 90s, Slow Jams, Drive, Legends, Faith, Funk, Jazz, Arabia! etc. Navin sighs and utters a near universal, near existential malaise: “That Now Christmas Album, I must have had three or four copies… played it to death really.” Securing a permanent slot on Now That’s What I Call Christmas! is the modern equivalent of possessing a landed title or precious dowry – £££ forever.
Perhaps Now’s greatest appeal is physical. The act of picking up the CD from a shelf, of buying it for yourself or for a loved one, remains a treasured gesture: in Navin’s words, “the excitement of going into the record store and coming out with that gem, knowing that was all you needed.” Just as you would never send an e-card to someone you actually liked, deep down nobody wants to receive an iTunes voucher in the form of a birthday link.
But what happens when the high-street CD racks disappear for good and the CD slots go with them? (Woolworth’s, where art thou?) And what if Spotify stops accommodating Now as Navin did for Ronco and K-Tel?
Navin considers the prospects of the Now series and the future of the music industry more generally. Without the slightest hint of sentimentality he concludes, “My sense is that, there’s no going back to the golden age of money-making for the music industry.” It’s hard to bet against a beloved prize-fighter that’s gone so many rounds, but the reality is Now isn’t the future of music, it’s a vestige of the past miraculously thriving in the present.