Now That's What I Call John's Reviews! Now 1

Can the Now That's What I Call Music series really be reaching the 100 milestone this Summer? The cover art is all good to go, judging by a quick look at Amazon – here's hoping that the track listing is something a bit special to mark the occasion.

Things are a lot different today from when the Now series began back in 1983. 35 years ago, folks would listen to music through their record players, cassette players, and if they were very very lucky, the compact disc (which had only been co-developed and released the year before). There were no iPods, no MP3 players, no Spotify... the list goes on. Kids today must wonder how older generations put up with such primitive listening conditions.

The compilation album has also changed a fair bit. Today, if you shop online, the music department is bursting at the seams with all kinds of compilations. A popular approach is to take 100 songs from a specific decade or genre and spread them across five CDs. Quite a few of these tend to shake up the respective 100 tracks and rearrange them in a different order. I can't tell you how many of these compilations I've seen that induce that feeling of deja vu.

For the ideal retrospective of the last few decades, the Now That's What I Call Music series is worth investing in. From the 1980s to the modern day, you get a detailed picture of each year – an average 12 months would be broken down into three quarters with each Now released at around Easter time, Summer time and just before Christmas time. So that's quite an in-depth picture of what was in the charts for those periods. Second hand copies can easily be found online, or at car boot sales or in charity shops, so it's not likely to be a massive bank-busting expense.

Right then! Time to pop into my TARDIS and setting the co-ordinates for 1983, let's look at what the state of play was with compilations back in the day. Actually, the compilation album of various artists was by no means a unique concept. Travelling further back to those days of hippy hair and cheesecloth shirts, compilations were around even in 1972. A common find in many a charity shop I've been to is the Arcade label's 20 Fantastic Hits, which includes classics such as Melanie's Brand New Key, Slade's Coz I Luv You and... uhm... Donny Osmond's Puppy Love.

As the 1970s progressed, Arcade and other labels would release a string of compilation albums. Notable record labels include Ronco, and arguably, the king of early compilation labels, K-tel (Chart Hits '81 remains a favourite!). Even one of the key label protagonists of the Nows, EMI, released compilations such as Don't Walk, Boogie and 20 With A Bullet. But back then, the trend would be to release these as single album compilation LPs, squeezing as many as 10 tracks on each side, which in some cases necessitated edits.

There was also very little example of a regular compilation series. The 20 Fantastic Hits series didn't last long, and throughout the 70s and early 80s, record labels would release compilations under various chosen titles. As the 70s reached twilight age and the 80s dawned, a common approach was to name the album after a movie. If we're to judge the future on what Ronco's Chart Wars predicted back in 1982, then it's frightwigged mullets and hideous tight leather trousers all the way. Ronco also took inspiration from another legendary movie franchise – Indiana Jones – as Raiders Of The Pop Charts featured a doesn't-look-much-like-Harrison-Ford chap in what seems to be a garden centre in the middle of a power cut.

It's not until Virgin and EMI join forces, that arguably, the first major compilation album brand begins in earnest. Now 1 itself is splendid, although it's an oddity in a number of ways. One of the reasons that it stands out is because it functions as an overview of a whole year, as opposed to a snapshot of a three or six month chart period. The album was released in late November 1983, but already at the start of the album we've gone back to January with the alarming prospect of three lots of Phil Collins crooning You Can't Hurry Love. There's quite a few tracks included that come from the early part of 1983, such as Too Shy by Kajagoogoo, Down Under by Men At Work and the manic melodrama of Total Eclipse Of The Heart by Bonnie Tyler.

I'd guess that this would have been more of a difficult album to assemble, since the compilers would have had more to choose from. The average Now these days pools resources from a time-span of around three or four months, but with Now 1, we're talking about a whole year. It's made a little easier by including a section of blurb on the middle section of the sleeve, saying which number one artists of 1983 didn't want to come to the party. So there's no True by Spandau Ballet, no Every Breath You Take by The Police, no Uptown Girl by Billy Joel, no Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, and no Let's Dance by David Bowie. Out of these five, only Jacko and Bowie would pop up on later Nows, although Sting would also croon about An Englishman In New York on Now 18.

But while some of my personal favourites of 1983 are missing (wot no Just Got Lucky by JoBoxers or First Picture Of You by Lotus Eaters?), and some of the other big names of the year are also absent (Wham or The Style Council, for example), Now 1 does a superb job in capturing the essence of the year's pop charts. It includes an impressive 11 Number One singles, which also include Culture Club's Karma Chameleon, UB40's Red Red Wine, and squeaky old Candy Girl by New Edition (which is frequently punctuated with sloppily farting keyboards).

Some of these Numero Uno tracks mark the sole appearance of artists such as Rod Stewart (on a roll again with Baby Jane – beats the horror of Sailing any day of the week) and the welcome inclusion of the summery Give It Up by KC and the Sunshine Band.

Going back to the alarming thought of multiple Phil Collinses (Collinsi?), Now 1 also throws up another unique approach to the compilation series in that there's quite a few artists popping up more than once. Uncle Phil not only goes solo with You Can't Hurry Love, he also sings and plays drums with his old muckers, Genesis, on That's All. Culture Club don't score the second bolt of Now lightning (after Karma Chameleon) with Victims. Having been tipped by the sleeve note writers to be “Almost certain Number 1 by the time you have this LP” it didn't, only reaching the Number 3 slot (the song is surely one of the most downbeat conclusions to any Now album to date). As well as this, you've got two UB40 tracks (the mellow Please Don't Make Me Cry is the second Labour Of Love track to be included), and nabbing the prize for most represented artist – Kajagoogoo.

Kajagoogoo effectively divided into two camps after Too Shy and its follow-up Ooh To Be Aah (crazy lyrics, not so crazy tune). Limahl would pursue a solo career, and the first of these results, Only For Love, can be found on Side One. A pleasant enough but forgettable piece of pop fluff, it didn't get much higher than the Number 20 position it had reached at the time of compilation. Meanwhile, the remainder of Kajagoogoo carried on, with Nick Beggs taking on vocal duties for the glitzy (and dare I say it, rather good) Big Apple. So that's a 10th of the album devoted to all things Kajagoogoo! Not that this would ever happen again, since – Never Ending Story aside – the members wouldn't really trouble the charts again.

Another curious aspect of Now 1 is the way in which it arranges its haul of Number One goodies. Rather than scatter them evenly throughout the four sides, the album largely goes for instant impact with 10 Number Ones on the first two sides, leaving only Candy Girl to kick off Side Three. It's a curious decision, and I wonder whether more casual pop fans would have pressed ahead with some of the lesser selling singles on Sides Three and Four?

Which would be a shame if they didn't, since the latter run of the album includes some great, underrated pop singles. Human League's Fascination is one of their catchiest tunes (despite the accompaniment of a cheapo promo video which was shot in some dingy old cramped bedroom which you couldn't swing a mouse in). Madness return to form after a patchy 1983 with The Sun And The Rain. Tina Turner begins a hugely successful 1980s revival with the slick cover version of Al Green's Let's Stay Together. There's also my favourite song by The Cure, the wonderfully, wonderfully, wonderfully wonderfully witty Love Cats (killer double bass, twangy guitar and infectious brass only add to the marvel of this), and also the wacky brilliance of Kissing With Confidence by Will Powers (the alias of celebrity photographer, Lynn Goldsmith). Boasting one of the most eclectic line-ups on the album, in only one track, you've got the combined mights of Carly Simon, Ellen Foley, Todd Rundgren, Steve Winwood and Nile Rodgers on vocal, playing and writing duties. Now that's one supergroup!

There's very little to complain about with Now 1. The more picky listener will wonder why the fader's come in too early on Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home) by Paul Young and the brilliant Temptation by Heaven 17 (another highlight of the album). Apparently, the version of Waterfront by Simple Minds is different to the original, but then the only version I've heard is the one on Side Four.

Apart from these minor quibbles for more fussy listeners, it's the perfect album to bung on at any 1980s-themed party, since so many of the big names and songs of the era are here. I wonder if the Now team realised quite how big the project would be? It raced to the top of the album charts in December 1983, and remained there for five whole weeks.

With such a hit on its hands, the Now peoples must have realised that they had discovered compilation album alchemy. What else could they do but carry on producing more of the same? And here we are, 35 years and nearly 99 Nows later, looking back on the pioneer of this great compilation series.

Coming soon... The long-awaited sequel of Now 2! Well, three and a bit months, anyway. Read the review in hopefully less than three and a bit months.