In a break from our usual programming, amazinglyfewdiscothequesprovidejukeboxes invites fellow music blogger Paul English of legendary compilation review site apopfansdream to shoot the breeze on all things pop; the ’80s, reissues, deluxe editions, and of course his specialist subject….Now That’s What I Call Music!
afdpj vs nlgbbbblth. Could be a very unpromising set of Scrabble tiles. Could be the greatest tete a tete since Frost / Nixon, or Pacino and DeNiro in Heat. Or perhaps since Alas Smith & Jones…
afdpj: Paul, I have to ask….why compilations? is it because, critically-speaking, they have always been generally ignored and good compilations aren’t given their dues? Did you want to set the record straight?
nlgbbbblth: Essentially it comes down to two points:
1/ I like a challenge
2/ Very few people focus on them
Trying to write about pop compilations is very difficult because unlike regular studio albums, there’s very little back story out there. I had to dig deep and focus on the science behind them (sequencing & inclusions) and also tie in my own experiences & memories of not only the actual compilation but also the component parts (the songs). Once I established a rhythm and writing pattern, it got easier. The ones from the vinyl era can be distilled down to the individual sides and themes therein whereas the CD releases are more sprawling and harder to pin down.
Yes, I wondered if there was an element of choosing to do something that not many people bother with – which is a good reason in itself!
Trying something that hadn’t really been done before has always attracted me.
Looking back, in the world before playlists and streaming and supermarkets selling dozens of similar-themed titles, compilations were a less generic proposition and a lot of those 80s titles (and in some cases, whole series) were forgotten about and dismissed as unimportant cash-grabs.
Exactly. From a critical perspective, compilations – particularly pop and dance ones – are ignored in most instances. Some people will reminisce about them in a generally fuzzy-nostalgic way but tend to gloss over the content. I agree that the generic compilation market has really sprung up in recent years. Five CDs for around £6.99 but many of these recycle the same tracks and are usually umbrella themes so not too focused. But even amongst this glut, there’s gold like the Buried Treasure series and the Greatest Ever (Decade) ones which do offer some tracks outside the perimeter, particularly the 90s ones.
For many people of varying age groups, the Now series are totally tied to nostalgia. They represent the building blocks of a record collection. But in most instances, they’re treated like “childish things” and seen as disposable when the more serious music came their way.
I was a little guilty of this, growing up, I have to confess! I knew every NOW from the start, but mainly through other people’s copies…friends…kids in school. The reveal of a new NOW in the pop magazines was always a thrill, but somehow I didn’t feel motivated to actually own them. Apart from NOW 2, for some reason. I suppose it had Relax and a lot of other hits that were around when I got fully obsessed with chart music.
The world before NOW! – K-Tel’s Chart Hits 81, Vol. 1 & 2: the most popular article on apopfansdream in 2021.
If you go back to the canon UK series which I consider is made up of: Now, Hits, Smash Hits, Telstar’s Greatest Hits & Brit Awards, there’s a clear effort to snapshot a time and place – with the added bonus of photos and some brief notes. Smash Hits ’92 is a fine example and is easily my favourite of that era. Perfectly selected pop that really captures the year.
Capturing a point in time is probably the most important aspect to me these days, rather than how many hits and how many big hits are included, but it’s easy for me to say that as I have built up a collection covering most of the tracks around in any given year of the 1980s; the teenage me would have been working out how many of the inclusions were ones I wanted and weighing up the value-for-money it represented.
I think that Now Yearbook series (and in particular its Extra strand) has widened the focus and is getting very close to capturing the era it’s trying to document. They’re not perfect but I am getting a nostalgic rush when playing them. Plus they look good on the shelf and there is a genuine sense of excitement to see what they will include on the next volume.
Yes, I am often vocal in my criticism of the NOW brand, and the decisions they take, but the Yearbooks have been an excellent, and unexpected, development. Of course, music licensing niggles prevent them from being as definitive as they could be (no Bowie, no Phil Collins, and so on), which is probably an issue none of us had bargained for. We had assumed the CD (re)issues of the early NOWs would be faithful replications of the originals (even allowing for modern mastering tastes and the odd different edit/mix) but entire acts are disappearing from the tracklistings.
In 1986, NOW 7 had ” 32 Top Chart Hits” (plus the Queen single added on at the 11th hour). In 2020, the CD edition had only 30. I think it’s called progress…
Do you think attitudes have changed towards compilations in general?
In more recent times, well-chosen genre compilations get positive press but in a lot of instances, this is due to:
1/ Shining a light on a relatively lightly-trodden path so a lot of the tracks are ripe for discovery
2/ The power of cherry-picking and applying a retrospective lens so that an all-killer vibe is the order of the day.
So in that sense, some of them are given their dues. But the purpose of my site was to avoid retrospective compilations and instead focus on ones took a musical snapshot of a recent time period. These deserved to be highlighted and assessed as they were hugely important to me at the time and in a lot of cases, were the catalyst for exploring further tracks from the featured artists. They also are invaluable in contextualising the pop culture of any given period – this cannot be replicated to the same degree with a retrospective compilation – so I felt that it was necessary to highlight this.
It’s a good point. Too many of today’s compilations are created through a lazy nostalgia-heavy filter of received knowledge which also tends to distort “how things actually were back then”. These days, you can get an intern to select and license a bunch of 1984 tracks off the internet, but you won’t necessarily get a true reflection of what that particular time was like when living through it. Of course, experiences are all subjective and I’m digressing again…
I’ve mentioned this before but the apopfansdream blog is also a reaction against music snobbery which – as I grow older – I have less and less tolerance for. I bought Sonic Youth’s EVOL and Now 7 at the same time in the summer of 1986 and will never forget the record shop guy’s look of approval followed by disgust and contempt. Over the years, you hear disparaging comments from the more “serious” music fans about compilations. Rubbish like “Now albums are for people who don’t like music”; so it’s always satisfying to correct that misguided assumption.
Hear, hear! I was up against that kind of record-store snobbery right from the start. My purchase of the Purple Rain LP in July 1984 (when it had only been on release for a fortnight) was openly laughed at in Our Price. It didn’t bother me, I had a feeling the album was going to blow my mind and I was newly in thrall to the whole Prince aesthetic for that era), but I never forgot it either…
I remember a conversation in my local shop in December 1984. A customer was trying to decide between NOW 4 and The Hits Album. The assistant said “I’d go for Now 4. The Hits Album has Prince but I hate him.” – so you weren’t alone 🙂 I bought Purple Rain late enough in 1984 but was obsessed with it for months.
Prince – widely mocked and disliked in record stores all across the UK in 1984…
Was there a particular moment when you thought, I want to write about music? Did you read the pop mags first and then move onto the inkies/Q etc, or just absorb it all from the start?
Yes – probably around 1984 when I was absorbing everything related to Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Back then I was buying Number One and Smash Hits regularly and was also starting to read the NME although a lot of acts they covered were still passing me by at that point. English was my favourite subject at school and I was an avid reader of both fiction and biographies. Writing for Smash Hits was something that I often dreamt about.
I eventually caught the same bug, but weirdly I had no interest in writing or reading much as a kid. In fact, I used to dread English lessons when there were stories and poems involved. I didn’t like reading novels at all…it was Shoot! magazine and Tintin cartoons. Guess my interest was more visual. My art teacher suggested I should think about being a graphic artist, and this was when I was 11 or 12. Yet something changed very quickly and dramatically. By the summer of 1984 I was typing out my own Singles Review pages, inspired by the Smash Hits scribes like Dave Rimmer and Ian Cranna.
Shoot! was a favourite for me as well – I bought it from 1982 to 1984. Loved the League Ladders. I was useless at Art. Always loved the Smash Hits singles reviews – often barbed but not in a nasty way (mostly). So when I put together the Now That’s What I Call Music feature for Classic Pop in 2017, it was like – Look! I got there in the end!
In the 1990s I produced two separate fanzines, the second of which lasted over two years and 44 issues. They were focused on primarily indie & electronica; the pop stuff was kept in the background.
A fanzine would probably have been the direction I’d gone in too, had I not been through all the health nightmares of the late 80s and (most of the) 90s. 44 issues is pretty good going, one of my failings is I tend to lose focus/interest in something after a while, and get restless for a new idea/challenge. Which is why I’m amazed (scuse the pun) this blog is still going after 5 years.
It was generally coming out every fortnight. At the start, there were five of us contributing but over time, these gradually dropped off so by the end it was just me. It was becoming a drudge, having to spend Saturday morning photocopying A4 sheets down to A5 and then folding them in Trinity College before dropping them off at the record shops.
What I like about your blog is that it has varied content – a mix of your own compilations, special editions and write ups of key singles and albums. I imagine that helps keeping the focus.
The key for me is definitely avoiding that drudgery you mentioned. I’ve had websites and projects before, and had written countless reviews for various outlets, but in the end you find that no matter how many you do, there is always going to need to be another, or else deadlines will not be met and there won’t be anything new to publish.
So, with afdpj, I wanted to avoid all of that. Take the time-sensitive aspect out of the equation. Don’t limit it to just review after review. Fortunately I found a structure that gives me enough variety, without putting myself under pressure, and also – with the series of personal Top 40 chart-toppers – I know I have at least 600 of those to fall back on if inspiration for other features isn’t so high for a while.
Did you make lists, and do your own charts as a kid?
Going back to the 1980s, I regularly compiled my own charts – a top 20 – and updated it every week. I based on whatever singles were around at the time along with others I happened to pick up at the time. I sometimes made fantasy discographies for bands that didn’t exist – so would create song titles and put together 7” and 12” releases, with a particular emphasis on formatting and remixes.
Wow. That’s very creative. I never even thought of that! By late 1985, early 1986 I was starting to put very primitive songs together, with a Casio keyboard that had a built-in drum machine, and I would come up with all sorts of titles, band names and lyrics. There would be album tracklistings, hand-drawn (cassette) sleeves, all of that. I couldn’t sing for toffee (still can’t!) but once some school mates of mine came on board – and one could actually sing – that brought a few of those songs into being. Albeit briefly.
Same here. No singing ability. But my son is now playing keyboard and electric guitar – is self-taught and very dedicated. Hopefully he will carry it on!
It seems 1984 was a key year for both of us. It’s sort of my Year Zero, though obviously I have ventured further back since then. My first copy of Smash Hits was the Xmas/New Year issue with Howard Jones on the cover, and about a week or two later I got the No.1 issue with…yup…HoJo on the cover. I sense a pattern!
Yes, 1984 was a turning point for me too. School-wise, I finished primary in June and started secondary in September. So me and my friends went from being the oldest in the school to being the youngest in the new one. That’s a significant change – the day is longer, the homework much more challenging with all the new subjects. But you’re exposed to more tastes – older guys in the school passing on albums, or taping stuff so it did influence me in looking outside the top 40. Hence the NME and occasionally Melody Maker becoming more relevant to me over the remainder of the decade.
This magazine changed lives. FACT!
NME – or any of the “inkies” – didn’t really appeal to me; think my Dad or maybe one of my friend’s older brothers gave me a copy of the NME or Melody Maker with REM on the cover (around the time Rockville was out), but it wasn’t my thing at all. By 1989, I’d get the occasional issue. Q seemed to be the game-changer for me, in conjunction with Richard Skinner/Johnnie Walker on those marathon Saturday slots.
As my musical tastes evolved and as I got seriously into indie records, my pop tastes took a back seat. I still bought the NOWs and other compilations but was less vocal about them. When you’re younger, peer pressure can influence what image you want to portray. Thankfully, I am long since past caring what people think.
The first UK Top 40 rundown I taped would have been October 1983, the week Howard Jones’ New Song climbed to #5. We had a silver Phillips portable radio/cassette player in the kitchen, which Mum would have tuned to Radio London most mornings and early afternoons (this explains my penchant for 80s soul and funk). Then after school I’d get to have R1 on while I did homework, and then again after dinner I might listen to Janice Long for a while.
I’d wear out the stop/start buttons on the machine, waiting to pounce when the songs I liked were due to be played on the Sunday Top 40 broadcast (I eventually discovered the new charts were revealed on a Tuesday, so Gary Davies’ lunchtime show became essential listening on those days).
It was a real rush to hit record in those days. Once a track started dropping down the charts, it wasn’t played so for bands like The Smiths (who’d generally chart and go up the following week before sales would tail off), you’d have fewer chances to nab their tunes. I did tune into BBC Radio for the Tuesday reveal but the quality was very fuzzy so nothing could be recorded. With the advent of cable television c.1990, that all changed and all the BBC Radio stations became available here on FM.
I assume you were a compulsive mix-tape creator?
Yes! In terms of mix-tapes, my first ones were selections of singles recorded from Larry Gogan’s Irish Top 30 show which was broadcast on Sunday afternoons. From around late 1984 – once I started secondary school – I started to put together my own compilations which were sourced from stuff in my collection. Over the years, I made over a thousand and kept mix-tapes going until I finally bought a CD burner (standalone) in 2001.
I was still making mix-tapes in 2003 or so, by then they were C90s of my favourite singles from each year (one year per side). CD-Rs came along after that for me; I remember 2004 being the earliest year I would start putting some of my CD-single purchases onto discs for an easier listening experience.
I did my own top 50s from 1986 to 2007. Pre-recorded them onto three tapes (CDRs since 2001). Invite a load of mates over in mid-December and played them from 50 down to 1.
1986: The Smiths – There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
1987: M/A/R/R/S – Pump Up The Volume
1988: My Bloody Valentine – You Made Me Realise
1989: Wedding Present – Kennedy
1990: The Fall – Bill Is Dead
1991: A House – Endless Art
1992: The Fall – Free Range
1993: Sebadoh – Soul And Fire
1994: Inspiral Carpets featuring Mark E. Smith – I Want You
1995: Pulp – Common People
1996: Aphex Twin – Girl/Boy Song
1997: Quickspace – Precious Mountain
1998: Pulp – This Is Hardcore
1999: Cuban Boys – Cognoscenti vs Intelligentsia
2000: The Fall – Two Librans
2001: Cinerama – Health And Efficiency
2002: Flaming Lips – Do You Realise?
2003: The Fall – Theme From Sparta FC
2004: Bearsuit – Chargr
2005: Cuban Boys – The Nation Needs You
2006: Glasvegas – Go Square Go
2007: Von Südenfed – The Rhinohead
It’s a much more alternative-leaning list than mine would be! Although three of those tracks did top my personal chart (but it could be some time before those are revealed on this blog).
Something we won’t have to wait very long for is the second installment of this interview. Part Two coming very soon!
Paul’s blog apopfansdream features “compilations from the distant past”. He can be found on Twitter, Spotify and all those new-fangled things with hashtags and apps. Remember, physical formats rule!