Wibbly wobbly walk

Music - Richard Cook on pop music before sex and drugs

The pop music of a different generation always seems like another country. But the first popular songs of all, the music of music hall, now seem so far away as to be prehistoric. As with aged relatives and their war stories, most of us can remember grandparents humming the choruses of tunes that were once part of a collective folk memory, such as "Daisy, Daisy", "Two Lovely Black Eyes" or "Henry the Eighth". When the BBC stopped running The Good Old Days 20 years ago, it was a tacit admission that there were very few left who could remember those days, good or bad.

Round The Town, a four-CD set just released by the German company Bear Family, and compiled by the leading British expert Tony Barker, is the definitive collection of music hall's surviving music. The major players of an era that was beginning to wane even as the gramophone began recording them have left a strange legacy to mull over. Marie Lloyd never sang "My Old Man Said Follow the Van" before a recording horn and instead set down forgotten pieces such as "Put On Your Slippers" or "The Coster Girl in Paris". Many of the greatest performers, such as George "Champagne Charlie" Leybourne, were dead before recording began. The first Royal Command Performance in 1912, seen as music hall's apogee, was really its swan song. As cinema and variety took over, the comic songs and chorus tunes, the working-class entertainment begun in tap-rooms and taverns, quickly faded from popularity.

Most of the remaining halls themselves have long since been demolished. It is an eerie experience standing in Wilton's in the East End of London, one of the last surviving Victorian halls: this small room with its ancient stage and rickety balconies seems as extinct as the original Globe. But the recordings, even though most of them were made when engineers were still trying to understand how to capture voices and instruments, retain something of what the performers had to have to satisfy a demanding audience. Dan Leno, the great tragicomic figure of the halls, made a string of records before madness and death overtook him in 1904. His contribution here, "The Grass Widower", is a surreal battery of remarks about a husband's glee at his wife's weekend away - "I had two cabs home and run between them, and I've had four breakfasts this morning!" - and his grotesque panache is astonishing. The chorus singers are exemplified by the statuesque Florrie Forde, the Australian singer who arrived in Britain in 1897. She belted out every tune as if determined to reach the back row of the circle, and her original "The Bull and Bush" is still some of the lustiest singing on record.

Much of what music hall was about, apart from the smell of the crowd, is hard for any set of records to evoke. The exceptionally handsome book that comes with the CD set shows the unwieldy palaces that the artists sometimes ran between every night. In 1905, Sam Mayo, "The Immobile One", did nine turns a night plus four matinees at different halls in just one week. The jugglers, magicians, "living statuary" and other speciality turns were rarely photographed, let alone caught on film or record. The most revealing thing about playing these discs is how much social history pop music has left behind. The songs are about taximeter cars, the pleasures of the seaside, a ubiquitous "Father" who did everything from laying the carpet on the stairs to papering the parlour, Lloyd George's latest outrage, and pubs with German bands or parks with lovers' walks. William Hargreaves's "Burlington Bertie", immortalised by Ella Shields, is a lyric about proud poverty that has never been bettered. If today's pop tells us little about anything other than drugs and casual sex, it is almost touching to be reminded of how barrow boys would once whistle tunes about boiled beef and carrots, or how they all walk the wibbly wobbly walk.

Round the Town (Bear Family BCD 16021) is available now