How we made … Now That’s What I Call Music

Jon Webster, co-creator: ‘Queen and Paul McCartney were vying to be the first track. Pipes of Peace lost’

Jon Webster, co-creator

Before the first NOW came out in 1983, compilation albums were cheap and nasty things with black and yellow sleeves. They were mostly 20 Top Hits! or collections of as-seen-on-TV music from companies like K-tel. Supermarkets sold loads of them.

I was working in marketing at Virgin back then. We had hits coming out of our ears: we were the top-selling singles label in the country. One day, my colleague Steven Navin showed me all the telexes – it was before even fax – that arrived every day from companies wanting to buy tracks for compilations. We thought: “Can’t we just do this ourselves?” We did a back-of-a-fag-packet computation and realised we could make an absolute fortune. But we needed more hits. So we went to see EMI, because they had loads of big bands, too, including Duran Duran and Kajagoogoo (we all laughed at them). Virgin was this upstart operating out of a warehouse. EMI were the old establishment. But they said yes.

Simon Draper, our boss, had this 1930s poster for Danish bacon in his office, showing a pig listening to a hen singing, with the caption: “Now that’s what I call music.” Richard Branson had bought it for Simon’s birthday from an antique shop on Portobello Road – he’d go there because he fancied the owner, Joan, who later became his wife. We were discussing a name when someone just pointed at the poster. And that was it. The pig even made it to the back sleeve of the first album, and the front of later ones in an attempt to develop the brand, but some people really hated it, and it eventually went.

We went to the big HMV on Oxford Street the day it was released. It was madness. The album sold 1m copies in four weeks in the runup to Christmas. Suddenly everyone wanted to have a track on the next NOW, because that meant it was a hit – and they wanted to be side one track one, too. So we ended up with Paul McCartney and Queen vying for the top slot on NOW 2.We left it to EMI to convince McCartney that, as a ballad, Pipes of Peace was an obvious album-closer.

NOW albums have stayed successful for many reasons. At the time, they were a cheap way to get lots of great tracks. But they’re also a snapshot of people’s lives. You buy them when you’re young. Then you get to 15 and wouldn’t be seen dead with them because you’re into individual acts. Then you get married, have kids, have a party and you need some music, so you go and buy a NOW. There’s a nostalgia to them. The music tells you what was happening at the time.

I remember we had a real struggle to get that first one out before Christmas. We just hadn’t thought about the logistics. We called in our production manager and said excitedly: “We’ve had this idea, we’re going to rush-release this record and we need 200,000 copies in three weeks.” He said: “Can’t be done.” But Richard, like a three-year-old, just kept going: “Why? Why? Why?” Eventually, he called the manufacturers and persuaded them. That’s Richard. He never takes no for an answer. A year later, he said: “Ooh, maybe we could start an airline.”

Stephen Navin, co-creator

The 1930s poster that inspired Now That’s What I Call Music
The 1930s poster that inspired Now That’s What I Call Music Photograph: PR

By the 1980s, Virgin was becoming a real force. The Human League had had a monster hit with Dare, their third album, and Phil Collins was huge, as were Culture Club and Mike Oldfield. The company was firing on all cylinders, nudging up against the majors, and the setting up of NOW was the apotheosis of this rise. It made 1983 our Annus Mirabilis.

For a lot of people, the full title, Now That’s What I Call Music, is a bit of a mouthful. But having the word NOW – those three big capital letters shouting out from the album sleeve – is a pretty arresting image. And it’s gone into history as the most successful and longest-lasting compilation series ever. Would it have been so big under another name? My guess is yes – Virgin was so hot, and EMI was a massive force. It raised the bar in terms of what a compilation album was, and of course that first one made an ideal Christmas present.


Interviews by Jenny Stevens

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