A four-CD collection dedicated to the golden age of English music hall, Round the Town collects together 106 performances, dating between 1901 and 1930, largely culled from original Edison cylinders and, subsequently, 78s. What this means on the most immediate level is that the sound quality is frequently appalling -- perhaps half of each disc is of little more than academic value, as every sonic flaw to which the original format was heir is reproduced with stunning digital clarity, while the actual performance crackles away in the distance someplace. At the same time, however, much of this material is of such unutterable rarity that simply being able to hear it at all is a godsend. As always with Bear Family releases, the packaging is superlative. Round the Town comes complete with a 12 X 12 hardbound book written and annotated by Tony Barker, editor of the British Music Hall magazine. Full color throughout (even when that simply means sepia tones), it features brief biographies of each of the performers featured, together with song lyrics, discographical information, and photographs -- mountains of photos, including original records, sheet music, playbills, and more. Taken alone, it is perhaps the most lavish and informative overview of its subject ever published. Accompanied by four CDs, it will thrill all but the most morose enthusiast.
An astonishing number of the songs herein remain a part of the modern musical language, in the U.K. if not elsewhere. The blurb on the back of the box points out that music hall was a major influence on the work of such rock and pop icons as Ian Dury, Squeeze, Morrissey, and Ray Davies. But even if such a recommendation could prompt you to rush out and buy a copy now, even that is small potatoes when compared to the staying power of the music itself. Many of the featured artists barely rank as footnotes in modern musical history. Chas McDevitt speaks glowingly of George Formby in his authoritative history of the British skiffle movement, Skiffle, imbibing the ukulele-playing urchin's 1930s recordings with the same passionate rebellion as later generations might bestow upon Elvis Presley or the Sex Pistols. Closer inspection, however, reveals the George Formby featured here to be the father of the iconoclast -- which does not minimize the joy of his recordings, but does rather prove that earlier point. How many people even knew that George Formby had a performing parent? Songs like "Daisy Bell," "Two Lovely Black Eyes," "Has Anybody Seen Our Cat?," "All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor," "Popsy Wopsy," and "Yes, We Have No Bananas," on the other hand, have survived close to a century without losing any of their appeal or their familiarity -- wistfully, one wonders whether any of today's music will prove just as evocative 100 years from now. Or whether elements of it will be incorporated into the pop hits of the future with as much élan. Queen lifted a chorus of Mark Sheridan's 1909 hit, "I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside," for its "Seven Seas of Rhye"; Harry Champion's "Henry the Eighth" topped the U.S. chart in 1965 (courtesy of Herman's Hermits, a full 54 years after it was originally cut). Charles Penrose's maniacally infectious "The Laughing Policeman" was still a British radio favorite into the 1970s, and Jack Pleasants' "21 Today" remains in common birthday currency even now. And so on for some four hours of music -- some timeless, some terribly dated, and some an indistinct whistling beneath the crackle and hiss. For even seasoned fans and collectors of music hall, Round the Town is a journey of discovery, paved with gold and littered with junk, but rarely dull and never uninteresting. An awful lot has changed in the last 100 years. But laughter, love, lust, and lewdness, the principle themes of much of this collection, have barely altered one iota. The spirit of music hall has always been with us. Round the Town allows us to sample its flesh as well.