NOW That’s What I Call Music aka NOW 1: Culture Club – Karma Chameleon

George O’Dowd was a kid of Irish descent who liked music and clothes. The Eighties were made for Boy George, as he called himself. Speaking to the Mail on Sunday to promote his 2018 UK tour with Culture Club, who split in the 80s and reformed in the 90s, he said: ‘I was put into a fluffy pink box with a ribbon round it – a user-friendly gay. But I always had an edge, I just wasn’t supposed to show it.’

Jon Moss, the band’s drummer, was George’s boyfriend, and a lot of CC songs were about that relationship, ‘about not having love, being the victim, cutting off my ear and feeling the pain.’

It’s easy to forget, what with the makeup and the dresses, what a great soul voice George had, which makes him a perfect judge on The Voice. He starred on the UK version in 2016 before decamping to Australia, where he is currently filming the 2018 series, his second. He is very active on Twitter, promoting his TV appearances and engaging with people who want birthday shoutouts. If you want to see George in the flesh (less ample than previous incarnations), he and CC play America in July through October, then play 11 dates in the UK including one at Wembley Arena on November 14, supported by Tom Bailey from Thompson Twins and Belinda Carlisle.

Of the acts who featured on the first Now That’s What I Call Music compilation from Christmas 1983, UB40 have split into two warring factions; Mike Oldfield sometimes pops up to play Tubular Bells, but otherwise lives on an island in the Bahamas; Paul Young and Howard Jones are on the nostalgia circuit, and Paul’s old piano is about twenty feet from where I write this sentence (in our living room – we inherited it from the previous occupant); The Cure are headlining Hyde Park in London to celebrate their ruby anniversary; Simple Minds and Madness are touring the hits while releasing new material every few years; and Tracey Ullman has returned to TV with a well-received sketch show where she plays various political figures and Dame Judi Dench (‘I’m a national treasure,’ Dame Judi says of Tracey…)

35 years is a long time in music. People in their twenties, earning enormous amounts of money in 1983, are topping up their pensions in 2018. Rod Stewart has been knighted and Bonnie Tyler remains the queen of karaoke thanks to Total Eclipse of the Heart, which is on the compilation’s first disc. Evergreen songs include Down Under (Men at Work), Red Red Wine (UB40) and Is There Something I Should Know, a huge number one for the One Direction of their day, Duran Duran, featuring Bushey (Hertfordshire) boy Simon Le Bon.

Side one track one of tape one of NOW 1 (obviously only given the number after NOW 2 came out) was a Motown song. You Can’t Hurry Love was bleached white by Phil Collins, who appears with Genesis on tape two on a better song (I mean, better than his version of the supreme Supremes song), That’s All. That is followed by The Love Cats by The Cure, then Simple Minds (Waterfront), Madness (The Sun and the Rain) and Culture Club (Victims).

Like Culture Club and Phil Collins, Limahl appears once as a solo artist (Only for Love) and once with his band Kajagoogoo (Big Apple). Tape two kicks off with the voice of a young Bobby Brown on Candy Girl, the New Edition song which is almost a note-for-note rip-off of three Jackson Five songs. More original are Moonlight Shadow, the elegiac pop song by Mike Oldfield, and the UK number one from KC and the Sunshine Band called Give It Up, still sung on football terraces to this day (my favourite being ‘Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Ebanks-Blake: SYLVAN EBANKS-BLAKE!!’).

I have chosen Karma Chamaleon as the NOW Playlist track, but I could also have gone with Double Dutch, the Malcolm McLaren song that drew inspiration from African chanting. One still hears it on BBC 6Music, a lot more than one hears (Hey You) The Rock Steady Crew or New Song by Howard Jones. Tina Turner’s ace cover of the Al Green classic Let’s Stay Together is present on tape two, while Temptation by Heaven 17 still sounds amazing as a slice of Sheffield pop-soul.

Still raising a smile thanks to verses about ‘a vegemite sandwich’ is Down Under, the song which was enormous for Men At Work, an Australian band fronted by the great Colin Hay. An American chart-topper thanks to a fun video that was rotated on Music Television (MTV), eventually they lost a lot of money from the song because they had sampled the nursery rhyme Kookaburra (‘sits in the old gum tree’) which was not in the public domain as they had thought. I still love the song, and would love to see Colin Hay live. His popularity grew when he appeared in a couple of episodes of the hit TV show Scrubs.

Now That’s What I Call Music emerged in 1983 to promote acts on Richard Branson’s Virgin label (which became part of EMI, which handed around its catalogue to Sony, Universal and Warner when it went bust ten years ago, despite owning Coldplay and others). It is no surprise that there are some duplicates, but Sir Richard’s forethought meant that we still have thrice annual collections of hundred-plus popular songs, with caveats, every spring, summer and Christmas.

I will explore those tracks and caveats in this series, and I encourage debate and discussion. What is your favourite song on any given compilation? Who has been omitted? @jonnybrick


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