In the decade after World War II, the communist Soviet Union officially banned rock, jazz, and blues music. But people made bootleg versions of that music — recorded onto thin sheets of X-ray film. Picture a black and white, translucent image of a rib cage or a skull, cut into a circle, and inscribed with the forbidden sounds of rock and roll. These records were secretly sold in dark alleys throughout the Soviet Union. This history is detailed in the new book called “Bone Music.”
Author Stephen Coates says for the last 15 years, he traveled to Russia with his band to perform, and afterward, went to flea markets. One day in St. Petersburg, he came across an album that was made onto an X-ray.
“When I held it up to the light, you [could] see two skeletal hands. … It was like being hit by some sort of epiphany. I had to find out who made it, why they made it, and how they made it. It was those three questions that propelled me over the next seven or eight years to discover this bone music story.”
These albums were made through recording lathes, which looked like a big, clunky version of a record player.
“They work … like a record player in reverse. So instead of dropping a needle on which reads the groove of a disc, you feed an audio signal into the arm, and it cuts a groove onto the surface of a blank disc. Now, it just so happens that X-ray film is strong enough to take the groove and to hold it and play it back.”
Bootleggers used the film because they didn’t have access to commercial materials.
“There were an awful lot of X-rays hanging around hospitals. And for a few roubles, for a bottle of vodka, a deal can be made at night. And the bootleggers would get themselves a stack of blank media.”
Coates says these records were first produced in 1946 and were initially played on gramophones. The machine’s steel needles broke down the film and played only a handful of times. Listeners could get 30 to 40 plays out of the film records once electronic record players were invented.
“But they weren't ephemeral. These were things which you bought on the street. They were street trash in a way. You played them for the music that was on them and you wore them out. And then generally speaking, you would throw them away, and try and get another one.”
He adds, “Maybe you knew somebody. Maybe you could go to somebody's apartment who was making or dealing these records. But if you didn't, you'd have to go and seek dealers out on the street, and they would be hiding out in alleyways, in flea markets, in dark corners. … They would take out from under their shirt, this wad of flexible records, and they would sell you one. You would go home scurry home, hoping that you'd actually got what you asked for.”
He points out that Western music was banned in the Soviet Union because there were concerns that it would pollute minds. But at the same time, the Americans and British were actively broadcasting jazz and rock and roll. Records were also smuggled in. The children of high-level diplomats had access to music and rented out records to eager bootleggers.
“It wasn't just jazz. And it wasn't just rock and roll. It wasn't just Western music. They were forbidding their own music, huge amounts of Russian music was forbidden for various reasons. And in some ways, this is the real tragedy of the story, because it was the Cold War. We didn't like their stuff, right? They didn't like our stuff, but they were a culture that was becoming cut off from itself. Dearly loved, beloved songs of the Russian people that [they] were no longer allowed to listen to.”
Getting caught with bone music meant being punished, Coates says. The worst consequence was prison time. Others faced public shaming or impacts on their career or education prospects.
Coates says the bone records represent a chapter in Soviet protest.
“Even though these X-ray records only contributed slightly, possibly, to the Perestroika and Glasnost at the end of the Soviet Union, they were a little bit like a seed, which grew into a plant, which grew into a tree. That tree itself became part of a forest of protest, which did make a difference. And I think the story itself is testament to the indominate ability of the human spirit, particularly when it comes to culture. We will see it through in some way. And so I think that's a hopeful message in these strange dusty records that change can come about, even if it seems impossible.”