Now That's What I Call John's Reviews! Now 3

Image is everything.

First impressions seem to count wherever we go. Job interview. First date. Meeting those in-laws. Come up with a memorable image and you'll go far. Image tells you a lot about the person or the thing in question.

Me? My mirror mirror on the wall says I ain't the fairest of them all, throwing up the image of an old fart who's seen better days. That hair could do with a cut. That gut's almost Homer Simpson-esque in its flabby 'glory'. More lines than a troublemaking bully in detention.

Now 3 on the other hand, provides a striking new image. In fact, it's two for the price of one, resulting in a combination that's saying “I'm growing in confidence”. Both of the image icons in question are still fondly remembered by 40-somethings to this day, although funnily enough, the first one I'll mention was hardly around.

I am of course oinking about the famous pig in shades. The original Now featured a picture of a pig peering over a wall and listening in delight to the warbling sounds of a cockerel. Or a rooster. Or some sort of bird noise. Anyway, Now 3 promotes the pig to the front cover where he's now decked out in super-funky shades next to the logo. The odd thing, however, is that this music-loving hog will only be around for two more front covers, and then that's it. But he's still well remembered by this Now fan, especially when popping into WH Smiths to snap up a copy of Now 5 and the front cover pig in all his gaudy glory.

The other memorable image of the front cover of Now 3 was to stick around a bit longer. The logo. Gone for now is the big block NOW lettering, and in its place is an eye-catching lightning bolt-slash-speech bubble which is bookended by four coloured billiard balls spelling out N-O-W and then the number of the album. There's something about that logo that sums up the Now albums more than the 3D-version of the block capital titles of the post-80s front covers. I guess it's because that logo takes me back to my youth, when I would furiously scour the pages of Smash Hits magazine for a glimpse of that familiar logo and the eagerly-anticipated next release. To me, it's more of an instant attention grabber – the colour and the simplicity of the design make it more visually interesting than the less imaginative blocky logo.

But let's not forget that what's inside is also what counts. And the vinyl or cassettes tucked away inside are none too shabby either. In keeping with the growing confidence of the Now series, the album collates some of the biggest and best chart hits from the late Spring and Summer of 1984. The album is generally programmed very well, gathering many of the big names of the year, and managing to secure three out of the four number ones from March to August. And even then the other number one would be included on the next album. That's another story...

Like the previous albums, Side One kicks off with the familiar faces of the era. Duran Duran instantly get the party started with The Reflex, one of their better numbers, with other big 1984 names such as Nik Kershaw and Howard Jones making their most of their time in the sun. Regrettably, the sun would shortly go down on them in the next couple of years, but for now, savour some classic '80s pop ditties.

Some of Side One throws back to past times, all the way back to the late '70s with Sister Sledge's Thinking Of You, which thanks to Black Mirror scribe Charlie Brooker, I now can't hear that without thinking of the line “Now I'm living in Exeter”. Just down the road from me an' all.

From the early '80s, Ultravox, OMD and Blancmange were still around, with varying degrees of approval. Dancing With Tears In My Eyes from the 'Vox doesn't quite hit the heights of Vienna, borrowing a little too liberally from the beat of All Stood Still, but it was still a sizeable hit. OMD's Locomotion and Blancmange's Don't Tell Me scream out 1980s with those period keyboards, but get by on their catchiness factor. Winding down on the slow dance for the side is Uncle Phil again, whose Against All Odds would be covered by countless X Factor/Voice/Whatever Singing Contest Is On That Week yodellers, who would turn a plaintive, melancholy ballad into Mariah-esque bombast, squeezing out a million syllables for the line “Take a look at me now”.

Side Two's programming is so nearly there. It's an unusual one in that it's what I call the political side. Six out of the seven songs deal with either conflict or a call to end the conflict, whether in the relationship, or the world.

The only dud choice is an easy mistake to make. The Style Council have contributed many a political message in their songs, but unless I'm missing something, You're The Best Thing is a simple love song – no more, no less. A shrewder move would have been to swap it with Side Three's Bananarama offering, Robert De Niro's Waiting. For all of its perky pop charms, according to Wikipedia, there's a darker core, since the song is said to be about date rape. Which would have tied in better with the serious themes underlying the tracks on Side Two.

Serious messages are delivered in many fashions and many guises. The anti-drugs warning of White Lines by Grandmaster Flash. The literal Love Wars by Womack And Womack. The prejudice experienced in Bronski Beat's Small Town Boy. The plea to free Nelson Mandela by The Special AKA. Anti-war is explored in two notably different ways. The number one Two Tribes sees Frankie Goes To Hollywood thrash out the differences with thundering, pounding drums, twanging guitars and snarling vocals from Holly Johnson. Bob Marley's reissued One Love/People Get Ready changes the pace into a gentle, lilting plea for universal love.

Which works best? I'll leave that up to you.

Side Three wheels out more of the big players, including Queen (in their second of many Now appearances with I Want To Break Free), Tina Turner (riding high on a crest of a 1984 wave of success with What's Love Got To Do With It) and the aforementioned Bananarama track.

Following up their previous Now 2 showings, Cyndi Lauper and The Flying Pickets return, arguably with better tracks. Time After Time knocks spots off that shrieking hen party anthem, a moody, laid-back track that was popular enough to be poached for the rival Hits series the next year. The Flying Pickets' When You're Young And In Love actually displays some pretty cool harmony work, even with their novelty value – although that's the last we'll hear from them as they click their way into dumpersville.

The remainder of Side Three takes more of a chance, with lesser known acts. Alison Moyet was just starting her solo career, and at the time of compiling, Love Resurrection wasn't a particularly big hit. With her timeless vocals, the gamble worked though, as the song winged its way to the Top 10, kicking off a string of hits for the former Yazoo singer. The Bluebells were also relatively new to the charts, but the follow up to I'm Falling, the country-tinged Young At Heart, became another Top 10 smash. Interestingly, it's the fourth number one of the album – although no one knew it at the time, since upon its re-release in the 1990s, it would surpass its previous chart position by racing to the top. Maybe there were lots of Stratford Johns fans out there.

Propaganda's Dr Mabuse is another intriguing curio, and another example of those lost classics that you don't really find on those modern day 100 Hits Of The 80s CDs. It's unusual in both lyrical and musical structure, with eccentric spoken voices and sound effects filling out that bouncy boing-boing-boing beat. It's marvels like this that make investing in the 1980s Nows all the more worthwhile.

Side Four is patchier. While it starts and ends reasonably well, the middle tracks I can take or leave. Well, leave.

It's Raining Men conjures up those hideous days of disco hour at the local nightclub, and is still as irksome. A certain unmentionable ex-leader of the gang is bizarrely included too, with its lowly Number 27 position saying it all. Dance Me Up is a clumsy attempt at updating that 1972-1973 sound with a touch of disco, but it's a lost cause with a tune that goes nowhere and an ill-advised lyrical refrain that only adds to its creep factor. The Art Company's Susanna isn't much better, a dirgey singalong that sounds like it was recorded in some smokey old variety club, with an audience clunkily chiming in with several Woooooohs and Aaaaaaaaahhhhhs. If you've never heard it, it's as terrifying as that description sounds.

With that in mind, the fourth side is like eating a sandwich that features very tasty bread but yucky filling. Call it egg. The bookending tracks are better. Wham's Wake Me Up Before You Go Go just about stays on the right side of annoying, with a catchy chorus and some solid trumpet work. The Thompson Twins' You Take Me Up tries a different tack to previous offerings: a bluesy, gospelly number with some ace harmonica – although really, Doctor Doctor should have made the album in its place, oddly being saved for the next Now LP.

The closing tracks are interesting. Madness' One Better Day wasn't a big hit, but it again proved (like Michael Caine) that there was still life in the Nutty Boys yet. A wistfully melancholy ballad about two homeless people falling in love. Some lovely orchestration is capped off by a blistering saxophone solo from Lee Thompson, but there's that sense that the ending was near for the original run for this great band.

The last track's one of my favourites – the off-kilter Red Guitar by David Sylvian. The lead singer of Japan struck out on his own with this moody closer, featuring some lovely, jazzy piano work and an equally brilliant trumpet solo. The last tracks of the Now albums so far have all effectively ended on a downbeat note, but this one is the best so far, with its unusual chord structures, distinctive Sylvian vocals and that last piano hum that slowly fades into the read-out groove. Sublime.

Now 3 sees the series at a peak of success. The album not only debuted straight in at Number One, it remained there for eight solid weeks, providing a summery soundtrack for August and September of 1984. But the series was about to undergo its biggest challenge yet, as that year's Winter saw a rival come on to the scene for a bit of healthy competition...