‘You can’t judge a generation’s taste’: making Now Thats What I Call Music

This month sees the 100th edition of the famed (and still bestselling) album. How do you capture musical moments one Bieber track at a time?

Peter Duckworth, one of the directors of the Now Thats What I Call Music brand, is a bespectacled man in his 50s who has helped put together the famed pop compilations for about half his life. Thats since 1990, if you measure things by the regular calendar, or since 18, if you go by what Duckworth and his collaborators Steve Pritchard and Jenny Fisher call Now-time, in which recent history is marked out entirely by the release of the numbered, three-a-year disc sets. The trio, who work out of the Sony Music offices in London, are about to celebrate the release of Now Thats What I Call Music 100, and in the buildup to this landmark, I shadowed them in their work. I wanted to learn how Nows are made and try to understand why the anthologies, on the shelves since 1983 and still selling well, have had such staying power.

It is February when we first meet. Months to go until the July release of their 100th edition, and in fact the team still have the Easter-time Now 99 to compile and master. In a corner of the Sony office thats busy with coffee cups, branded mouse mats and a Guinness World Record naming Now the longest-running music album series, they set to work.

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Any new Now starts with Fisher the hoodied, soft-spoken fortysomething director of the brand and her clutchbag full of loose, clacking memory sticks. For weeks, Fisher has been collecting songs for possible inclusion, which are sent to her by email. It all used to be more glamorous, she admits, back in the analogue era, when labels sent over individual songs on massive DAT tapes by courier. But what can you do?

Across the office from Fisher, Pritchard, a 58-year-old motorcyclist who occasionally shows up for work in leathers, crunches commercial data, scowling at his iPad as it notes chart positions and streaming counts. At a facing desk, Duckworth, who is the savant to Pritchards metrics guy, immerses himself in pop culture in a more general way, trying to work out what tracks will be popular by the time their next Now comes out. Duckworth has a party trick that he demonstrates to me. What was the first Now you owned? he asks.

Now 23, I say. (A Christmas present in 1992, double-tape edition. Even the name of this record still gives me a little tickle of pleasure.)

So youre… 35 years old.

I blink. How did you do that?

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Duckworth shrugs. Everyone gets their first Now between nine and 10. I only hesitated because I couldnt remember if that one came out in 92 or 93. Meanwhile, Pritchard has found the old tracklist for Now 23 and asks if I can name the first song.

But its a silly question. Cant we all? Nows tend to land at a particular moment in your young listening life. Some time after the realisation that the pop playing on the radio and out of Chinese restaurant speakers isnt all indistinguishable mulch, but some time before you learn what albums really are and turn obsessive about track arrangement and liner notes, bearing choices of favourites like a coat of arms and self-defining by your dislikes as much as your likes. The Nows scooped up whatever was charting at the time so that Now 23 could run deliriously from Erasure to Abba to Billy Ray Cyrus to the song from the video game Tetris. I must have played it a thousand times. Of course I can remember track one, I tell Pritchard. Tasmin Archer, Sleeping Satellite.

The
Mix and match: the Now trio and engineer Alex Wharton reduce a list of 65 songs to 45 for Now 99. Photograph: Leonie Morse for the Guardian

He nods. Oh, they had high hopes for Archer, he recalls, but she was never included on another Now. So many acts have come and gone in this way that the trio admit blocks of Now-time are a bit of a blur. To refresh their memories, they refer to a book, published a couple of years ago, that lists all the tracks on all the compilations from the early 1980s onwards. Flicking through, they purr with delight at the memory of a recent high point, Now 85, which began with what they see as an unbeatable two-track punch, Get Lucky by Daft Punk, then Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke. Then Justin Timberlake! Taylor Swift! Jason Derulo! The gang sigh. It was one of their biggest sellers.


I ask how they come up with the running order and they invite me to the mixing day for Now 99. By 35-year tradition, the mixing takes place in a small upstairs room at Abbey Road Studios. Fisher brings her bag of memory sticks and printouts of a spreadsheet that lists about 65 songs for possible inclusion. Theres room on a double-disc comp for about 45. The cull starts at 10am, after the trio are joined in the studio by an engineer, Alex Wharton, who has been doing this since the late 70s or early 80s, in Now-time.

Jenny
Jenny Fisher. Photograph: Leonie Morse for the Guardian

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Wharton uploads a couple of gigabytes of songs to a PC attached to a mixing board. He has to crawl in behind the computer tower and thunk in each memory stick. Beside Fisher on a sofa, Pritchard has an iPad, waiting for the midweek chart numbers to come in. Duckworth, on an office chair, twirls a Biro. Its 10.17am when they start to compile Now 99 and by 10.19am Fishers pitch for the first track on disc one These Days by Rudimental has been agreed to.

Easy. The songs ubiquitous. Its sales and streams are unarguable. We try to get that opening section to be familiar with as wide a section of the population as possible, Duckworth says. Tracks two and three dont take long either. Dua Lipa? Portugal. The Man? They do a lot of top-and-tailing, as Duckworth calls it, repeatedly listening to the first and last 15 seconds of each song to see how they segue into each other. The process will be familiar to anyone whos obsessed over the momentum of a homemade mixtape.

Soon, decisions about track ordering get harder, paths leading from paths. The trio confer nonstop. Can Justin go next to Marshmallow? Theres something attractive about the two of them together… Taylor next? Wheres Bruno in todays chart? Taylor to Bruno! Theyre made for each other… Sigrids sales have dropped a lot since Sunday. Craig David instead? The Craig David features Bastille. Two names for the price of one! Jax Jones? Try Derulo after Bruno We havent done Kylie yet. I ask the gang if, in the work they do, theyre essentially wedding DJs, fiddling around with the order of bankable hits. Or is there more to it?

Being a good wedding DJ is important, Duckworth says. You dont want to put a heavy metal track next to a Celine Dion ballad. But, yeah, theres more to it. Often, theyre trying to freeze a pop moment a little earlier than it wants to be frozen. They might be working against their own tastes, or prejudices. You have to leave your own feelings at the studio door, Pritchard says. You cant judge a generations tastes.


Phil Collins! Duran Duran! UB40! The guy from Kajagoogoo! And so it began disc one, side one, Now 1. It was 1983. A poster of a kitschy old ad for Danish bacon hung on the walls of the Virgin Records office in Notting Hill. It showed a singing chicken next to a frowning pig, with the pig thinking, Now. Thats what I call music. Virgin founder Richard Branson had brought in the poster on a whim, and when a team of his A&R chiefs, working with executives from EMI, were trying to drum up a name for a compilation of the two labels biggest pop acts, they decided to pinch the posters slogan.

Out on vinyl and tape a month before Christmas 1983, Now Thats What I Call Music was a hit, at the top of the album chart until the new year. Three more Nows were released through 1984 and a release pattern established new Nows before Christmas, Easter and the summer. Polygram and Universal were contributing tracks to Now, while other labels, including Sony, set up a rival compilation brand called Hits. Because Hits tended to get the exclusives on big American acts such as Michael Jackson and Madonna, Nows flavour was more domestic. Cosier. A bit twee.

Probably this helped create affection. Though the Nows featured European and American acts, what threaded through these anthologies was a relentless, grinning, slightly frayed Britishness. Now 2 and Now 6 began with a one-two of Queen and Nik Kershaw. Now 7 had a divine run of Bananarama-Bucks Fizz-A-ha-Simply Red back to Queen. After a decade, Now 1 veterans UB40 kicked off Now 26, only the Birmingham band were among eurodance and cheeky California rap, as well as mid-career Take That, early Jamiroquai, late Belinda Carlisle and… Radiohead?

Steve
Steve Pritchard. Photograph: Leonie Morse for the Guardian

Pritchard smiles when I ask how Radiohead wound up on a Now. People will do things, early on, that you dont remember later. Duckworth adds: And I know there are Now buyers for whom this became their lead-in to Radiohead. So, having these more interesting songs on there, even if they are tucked away, they sometimes lead people to musical discovery.

This pair used to handle the marketing of the Nows and theirs was the dynamite decision in the early 20s I remember this to give the records a 3D-rendered logo. As the Nows progressed (flush with Britpop through the 30s, lots of Robbie in the 40s and Black Eyed Peas in the 50s and 60s), Duckworth and Pritchard took on more responsibility for the brand. Tape and vinyl went. A foray into MiniDisc-formatted compilations did not last. The Now brand moved into the hands of Sony, in partnership with Universal. By the mid-70s, Pritchard and Duckworth, with Fisher, had pretty much full control.

There have been strange decisions, this trio will admit. Does anybody remember Mattafix? Duckworth asks. I do! Fisher says. I think! But it is the ephemeral stuff that makes old Nows so special these bizarre time capsules of a cultural moment, for instance the spring of 2003, when t.A.T.u. could sit next to Timberlake, next to Nelly, next to Liberty X on Now 54.


There are said to be about 2,000 Now superfans around the world, who have made themselves known as owners of all the editions released to date. These are smrgsbords of popular music! says Patrick Kelly, a 61-year-old Canadian bank employee. These treasure troves! I was in from the beginning, as soon as I found Now 2 in an import shop. Later, I found Now 1 on tape in a remainder bin, and I nearly cried.

Claudia Lucatelli-Cutter, who works in a school in the north-east of England, is chasing the full set: The early ones are so difficult. Apparently theres a thriving underground market in the single-digit Nows. And Pritchard tells me about a strange week when Now 48 shot up in resale value from 50p to 50, after its appearance in the Peter Kay sitcom Car Share.

In terms of tangible purchases, I bowed out of the Now scene in the mid-30s. It was Now 30 that put me on to Oasis, and after that it was only a matter of time before I was too much of a snob to buy a compilation. When I find out that in this modern era of boundless, costless music to stream the Now CDs are selling well, I admit my amazement to the trio. Nows were the biggest-selling CDs every year from 2010 through to 2017, beaten only by Adele in 2015. How come?

Duckworth gives his honest take. Its the car the last bastion of the CD. People like to listen in their car. Plus, the CDs are gift-y. At Easter, when people dont want to give more chocolate, they give a Now. Pritchard says that, for customers in their 30s and above, the Nows are a relatively unstressful way of keeping up with the churn of global pop. Need to catch up on how it sounds when Iggy Azalea features on an Ariana Grande song, and when Charli XCX features on an Iggy? Get thee to disc one of Now 88. Curious about the difference between a track credited to Mabel & Not3s, and another to Not3s x Mabel? Thatll be Now 99.

In the mastering suite, theyre on to disc two, traditionally a place for the more niche hits of the day. In the Now 20s, this meant leather-clad Europeans who made frisky techno, and in the mid-40s it meant the trance crossing over out of Ibiza. In the latter Nows, disc two has tended to mean rap. A track by Stormzy goes first on disc two, followed by the American rapper Post Malone and then 10 more tracks that would categorise roughly as grime or hip-hop.

Peter
Peter Duckworth. Photograph: Leonie Morse for the Guardian

I wonder if the compilers arent ring-fencing a genre that might be ready to grow even larger if it werent kept in check by industry decision-makers in this way. But the Now compilers insist its all about flow what sounds good with what, that wedding-DJ instinct not to create a sound-collision between tracks and I take them at their word. From my observation of them in the studio, theres more pernickety fanboy care put into ordering and reordering the rappers on disc two than into arranging the cheesy boy balladeers at the end of disc one.

There are minor crises to be overcome, Fisher fretting about missing .wav files (Ill call and see if Radio 1 can help us), and Duckworth about swearing. We imagine kids in the back of a car, singing along The biggest dramas are over whether songs have been cleared for inclusion with their owners. A song by Hailee Steinfeld goes close to the wire. Ed Sheerans people have said no this time. There have always been the non-clearers, Pritchard says in the voice of somebody recalling old, lost loves. Rihannas people never say yes, which Duckworth puts down to the mindset of the US music industry. They think that if people buy the Now albums, they might not buy their artists album, too. In fact, the trio point out, inclusion on these compilations patently favours the artists, who get royalties and a big bump to their overall streaming numbers via Nows popular Spotify page.

And so to the last track of disc two, which according to Now custom will attempt to pack a little emotional punch. Charity singles go here, or a major artist who has died since the last instalment. Well try to pay tribute, Pritchard says. (Thats why Freddie Mercury was last on my old Now 23, I learn: Christmas 1992 was the first anniversary of his death.) To acknowledge the anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombing, Oasis conclude Now 99. One last play of the package, tracks one through 45, and the trio are done. Nice, isnt it? Duckworth says. They finish their coffees and head back to the office.

The next morning, Fisher writes the liner notes and finalises the album artwork: psychedelic multicolour bubbles swirling around the famous 3D logo. (Now 1 pictured individual artists, including a flat-capped Phil Collins, but due to the spectre of last-minute non-clearers, the compilers dont dare do that any more.) A days more fiddling and then Now 99 is gone, away for pressing and printing. They wont see it again for about 10 days, until its a shrink-wrapped product.

One day in May, I sit with the trio in the office, surrounded by the plastic glitter of Now 99s. We catch up on their progress on the 100th instalment. Because production happens so close to release, by the time you read this they wont have mastered it; when we meet, theyre in the clacking-memory-stick phase. Its looking like Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa for the opening track, they say. Meanwhile, theyve decided to break their own conventions and make a special disc two that is ring-fenced for nostalgia. Itll be a greatest hits, a meta-Now, with one artist plucked from every decade in Now time.

I ask, hopefully, if Tasmin Archer has made the cut. Pritchard checks his list and says, sadly no. Its Wet Wet Wet. Im sorry.

Theyll master Now 100 in early July, they say, before a late-July release. And then what, I ask.

101, Fisher says. 101, Duckworth says. How long do they think the brand can survive? Surely even car drivers will leave CDs behind eventually?

Even in an age of streams, Duckworth says, people need a curator. Its a vast forest of songs out there.

And weve got an app, Pritchard says (this is like a Now-only Spotify).

And weve got an app, Duckworth agrees. But I take your point. Reaching 100, its a good moment for reflection. He says they see themselves only as custodians of Now. Maybe theres value in keeping it as unchanged as they can for as long as they can.

And I see what he means. All these curiosities that bob by on pops current, the good and the mediocre and the deeply regrettable. We need somewhere to put this stuff and keep it pristine, if only to remember how brilliantly ridiculous we were, those few months around Now 23, when we could like Enya and East 17, Roy Orbison and the plinky song from Tetris, all at once.

Now thats what I call nostalgia – fans look back

Jay-Z
Jay-Z and Beyonc. Photograph: Getty

Clara Amfo, Radio 1 DJ and presenter Whoever had the Now in my class would be the most popular person of the day. My stand-out one is album 54. It had Jay-Z and Beyonces 03 Bonnie & Clyde on disc one, and Camrons Hey Ma on disc two: two of my favourite music videos at the time.

It reminds me of the corny hip-hop and R&B club nights I used to go to, as well as fun times staying in with my girlfriends, whose parents kept up with the collection. The albums made you think you were getting the very best of the chart at the time, even though now, looking back, they all missed out key songs (Im sure due to pesky record label politics). I can empathise: making mixtapes was basically my job at school. I made a really good girlband one that I wish I still had.

Alexis Petridis, music critic I never bought a Now compilation when I was a kid. Ive no idea why I was 12 in 1983, the ideal age. Then, a few years ago, I was researching a feature about compilations, and ended up listening to Now 5. Somewhere between Simple Minds Dont You Forget About Me and The Commentators N-n-nineteen Not Out, I found myself fully transported back to 1985. It happened because the albums were, and are, compiled without discrimination: if its a hit, its in, regardless of whether its good or bad, built to last for ever or destined to be forgotten in a flash. It offered pops past not seen through the distorting lens of nostalgia, but as it really was: a perfect time capsule.

Dan Smith, lead singer, Bastille The CDs are these markers of time. Often a quite mad and eclectic jumble of songs whose only common link was that they were massive (until you reached the later end of each disc) that would live on and be replayed in car CD players for what felt like way too long. From novelty songs about being horny or literally being the colour blue, to world music trends that would temporarily invade chart pop music, theyre a collection of tunes that dont belong together on an actual album elsewhere. Stumbling upon an old issue can be the most surreal time warp back to school rides and family trips.

Commenting on this piece? If you would like your comment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazines letters page in print, please email weekend@theguardian.com, including your name and address (not for publication).

Original Article : HERE ; This post was curated & posted using : RealSpecific

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