It is one of the most extraordinary and yet genuinely welcome re-releases of all time. Skilfully sidestepping the potential problem of being lost in the Christmas rush, this week sees the release on CD for the first time ever of the very first Now! That’s What I Call Music album, just a couple of months past the 25th anniversary of its original issue.
The story of how the famous compilation came about has been recounted in many places over the past few years, and most definitively in a podcast that was produced for the anniversary last year and which you can still easily find on the official Now site. Suffice it to say that the reason the series had such an impact and quickly became an essential part of any music fans collection was because it was the first compilation to treat the material with respect. No more half-hearted soundalike cover versions or brutal edits to the songs to fit them onto a single side of vinyl. These were the original hits, the original artists and all packaged in a form that made you believe – nay, actually hammered home to you – that they were the best on offer.
My complete collection of Now! That’s What I Call Music began with the purchase of the very first volume – comparatively late as it happens. I bought it with money I’d received for my 11th birthday in September 1984 whilst on a shopping trip with my parents. I wanted music to play on my first ever personal stereo (a blue AIWA model if I remember correctly, complete with FM and AM radio, with just the one servo motor to save money so there was no rewind button, only a play and fast forward and which was so heavy you wore it on a strap around your neck). In a longsighted decision for which I am eternally grateful, my father suggested that I buy the vinyl version and dub it onto cassette at home. To this day therefore I have the original double album, still eminently playable and with virtually every one of its 30 tracks bringing back some particular pre-teen memories.
Hence this musical retrospective with a difference. If you are contemplating buying the CD re-release of the historical compilation, or just wondering what the story is behind each track, then here is a song by song account of the 30 hits of 1983, all hurriedly compiled in a matter of weeks following an EMI planning meeting in early November that year. We’ll do these a side at a time, as originally presented on the LP, so let’s get cracking with Disc One, Side One:
1) Phil Collins – You Can’t Hurry Love
The only song from the collection to technically be a hit from 1982, Phil’s famous cover of the old Supremes classic having first hit the chart in November of that year. It was however the obligatory new year Number One, deposing Renee and Renato out of the way in mid-January to bring a much needed dose of credibility to the top of the chart. ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ is an all too rare example of a cover version of a classic that went on to become a classic itself, Phil Collins’ first ever Number One hit and a recording that introduced the Motown songbook to a whole new generation. A worthy first ever Now! Track.
2) Duran Duran – Is There Something I Should Know
Having seen their career go stratospheric in 1982 with their ‘Rio’ album and accompanying hit singles, the only thing missing from Duran Duran’s list of achievements was a UK Number One single. They broke that particular duck with their ninth chart hit, a single that crashed straight in at Number One in mid-March 1983. Possibly not their greatest ever lyrical moment (“You say your easy only you’re about as easy as a nuclear war”) the track still stands proud as one of their many classics. As the sleevenotes of Now! 1 noted, “at the present time, only available on this album”.
3) UB40 – Red Red Wine
Another chart-topper, this time from August. UB40’s reworking of the Neil Diamond song surely needs little introduction here. At the time of recording the song, the band were unaware of its origins, knowing it only thanks to a reggae rendition by Tony Tribe on which they based their version. A flop in the USA first time around, it was revived five years later and stormed to the top of the Hot 100 sounding just as fresh as ever. Note that the 1983 version was the original edit, missing the the toasted Coda by Astro which was a new addition for the 1988 American re-release.
4) Limahl – Only For Love
An odd choice and an odd placing in the tracklisting, as following three straight Number One hits, here was a track that was essentially included as a presumed future hit. Having been hired as lead singer after they originally formed and despite having had a smash hit Number One (which we will come to a bit later) earlier in the year, Kajagoogoo unceremoniously fired Christopher ‘Limahl’ Hamill in the summer of 1983. Leaving behind arguments about whether he left due to jealousy over his status as frontman (his view) or because he was a bit of a twat behind the scenes (the band’s view), Limahl quickly signed solo terms and raced his debut hit into the shops just in time for the end of the year. The sleevenotes of the Now! album carefully note that it was “Number 20 at the time of compilation” (dating it at the second week of November and a reflection of the amazingly short lead time between compilation and release) and indeed the single progressed little further, peaking at a lowly Number 16 a week later. Some you win.
5) Heaven 17 – Temptation
This is a little more like it. The biggest ever hit single for Martyn Ware et al, ‘Temptation’ shot (that is to say, climbed steadily) to Number 2 in May 1983. An acknowledged classic ever since, the song returned to the Top 10 nine years later in slightly remixed form to promote a retrospective hits compilation. A guaranteed floor filler at any 80s club night you care to attend. Back in the early 80s, the schism in the original lineup of the Human League was one of the biggest stories in music, and although it was Phil Oakey who hit subsequent commercial paydirt first, it was this single that proved his erstwhile bandmates were not so far behind. They will pop up again in another form later.
6) KC & The Sunshine Band – Give It Up
Another Number One, this time from the long hot summer and an unusually pop-themed swansong from one of the all time legendary disco groups. The reason for the dramatic change in style was because ‘Give It Up’ was effectively the first solo single from Harry Casey and indeed in many territories the single was credited solely to “KC”. Perhaps for ease of marketing or perhaps for strange contractual reasons, on these shores his old group retained their usual credit. Just imagine you are 11 years old and hear the “na-na-na-na-na-na-na-now” chorus for the first time. It will forever engrave itself on your brain as the way a pop record is supposed to sound.
7) Malcolm McLaren – Double Dutch
Having seen his charges the Sex Pistols disintegrate spectacularly and never quite managing to make the same impact with subsequent signings such as Bow Wow Wow and Jimmy The Hoover, Malcolm McLaren decided that the best act he could promote was himself. For his recording debut he spent time in the USA, noting the rise of hip-hop street culture and scratching. This, along with several African influences helped to make his solo release Duck Rock the first ever World Music album, bringing sounds from a diverse series of backgrounds to mainstream British attention for the first time ever. ‘Buffalo Girls’ was a Top 10 hit in 1982 but second single ‘Soweto’ was more difficult and struggled to make an impact. To counter this the label released the happy go lucky tale of high school cheerleaders and their skipping ropes, all set to an infectious South African rhythm (lifted wholesale from an old track by Mahlathini & The Mahotellas) and were rewarded with a Top 3 smash hit, a chart peak that McLaren would never scale again despite another decade of continual musical innovation. Incidentally the Double Dutch is the enormously complicated manoeuvre involving two ropes being spun in opposite directions, the challenge being to jump over both without being garotted in the process. If you are wondering just what skipping ropes have to do with hip-hop, watch the footwork of the jumpers in the video…
8) Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse Of The Heart
What a way to end the side. I talked a little about this record last year when writing a piece of hero worship about its composer and producer Jim Steinman, but it is worth looking at the impact of the track from the perspective of the lady who was privileged to sing it. Bonnie Tyler’s chart career had been in the doldrums for a number of years, her only hit single since the international smash ‘It’s A Heartache’ having been the soundtrack hit ‘Married Men’ which limped to Number 35 in 1979. After ditching her management and signing a new deal, Tyler was asked to suggest a list of producers she would like to work with. Although the list included Alan Tarney, Jeff Lynne and even Phil Collins, top of the list was Steinman who after some initial reluctance finally agreed to the project. The rest is pretty much history. It is hard to picture the impact ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ must have had when it was first aired in February 1983, the lavish rock epic loaded with heavenly choirs, strings and musical explosions and all overlaid with Tyler’s own trademark husky vocals must surely have hit people like an emotional sledgehammer. As I wrote last year, to this day the song still has the power to take your breath away and sweep you away on a tide of emotion. Nobody could have played the part of a woman at the end of her emotional tether any better than Bonnie Tyler does here, and nobody could have made the record sound like the last song she would ever sing in quite the way Jim Steinman did. Sadly the version on the original Now! album was the four and a half minute single edit that features slightly less Rory Dodd and maybe gets to the point just a little too quickly to have a proper impact, or maybe I’m just spoiled after a lifetime of loving the full seven minute album version. No matter, its presence here meant I was introduced to one of my favourite songs of all time, placed in such a way that really nothing could follow it, save for the process of pressing fast forward on the tape and spooling through to a Side 2 that was rammed with even more classic hits.