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X-ray decks: the lost bone music of the Soviet Union

An extraordinary tale of Russia's troubled relationship with music censorship. 

The music flowing out of the record player sounds distant, muffled, surrounded by whispers. The singer’s voice alternates moments of clarity with crackly sputters – as if coming out of a wormhole from a windy day in the Fifties.

You can get the sense that what is being played is no ordinary vintage record: indeed, on the platter, instead of a vinyl, is the X-Ray of some guy’s skull, cut in the shape of a disc.

The medical image was transformed into an audio medium minutes ago, using a steampunk-style contraption to record the live performance of singer Marcella Puppini. A steel needle etched grooves on the X-ray, as a man spun a rod over the machine lathe, twirling any X-ray film debris out of the way.

When the recording stops playing, musician Stephen Coates turns to the small crowd gathered in Pushkin House, a Russian cultural centre in Bloomsbury. “Today, music is almost valueless. You just go on Spotify and get it,” he says. “But remember: there was a time, when the only way to get the music you loved was an X-ray.”

The story of how Coates came across “X-ray music” started in 2012. Coates – the lead singer in jazz band The Real Tuesday Weld – was strolling around a flea market in Saint Petersburg, when he spotted a curious, record-shaped X-ray film. Asking the shopkeeper what is was got no answer; Coates decided to buy it anyway.

Back in London, he tried it on his record player. “It was obviously an X-ray, but also a record. I played it and I found out it was a 78 RPM: it was 'Rock around the Clock',” Coates tells me. “I obviously decided to find out more about this.”


Photo: Paul Heartfield / X-ray Audio Project

Over the next few months, through travelling and interviews, Coates managed to piece together a forgotten chapter in the history of the Soviet Union’s troubled relationship with censorship.

From 1946 to 1964, he found, people in Soviet Russia had been using X-rays as makeshift records to listen to the music they loved. The reason for that was that most of that music was forbidden.

“Stalin didn't like anything that made people dance,” Coates explains. “The only music that was allowed were classic composers, or simple folk tunes, whose words were all about how great socialism was.”

Any other vinyl recording was prohibited on the grounds that it was bourgeois, western, or otherwise dangerous stuff. Jazz and US-made rock ’n’ roll obviously faced the ban, but so did the work of many popular Russian émigré singers, or Soviet musicians who had fallen out with the regime – such as Vadim Kozin, a popular tenor who was sent to a concentration camp for refusing to sing about Stalin. 

Young Russians immediately set about finding ways to overcome the ban.

In Leningrad (today’s Saint Petersburg), young music lover Ruslan Bogoslowsky managed to build a transcription lathe – a 3-kilogram “portable” device able to record live sounds on waxed or acetate discs, then mainly used by radio journalists.

When it came to choosing the recording material, Coates says, discarded X-rays were an obvious choice. “ X-ray film is soft enough to be recorded on, but strong enough to hold the groove,” he explains. “It was also very easy to find: Russian hospitals had to get rid of their X-rays within one year because they were flammable, back then.”

Bogoslowsky teamed up with some friends to create the “Golden Dog Gang”: a bootlegger outfit able to get hold of smuggled vinyls and churn out tens of copies of “bone” records.

It was a laborious process yielding mediocre results: a lathe had to be positioned next to the gramophone playing the vinyl original, and it could only make one record at a time – one song at a time, in fact, as its maximum length was three minutes.


Photo Credit: Paul Heartfield / X-Ray Audio Project

Sound quality wasn’t great either – some of the bootleggers Coates spoke with said X-ray music “sounded like sand” – and the records tended to wear off over time. Still, they were the only thing around, and they cost a few rubles. (The trade wasn’t particularly lucrative.)

Quickly, Bogoslowsky’s technique spread across Russia, as peddlers of X-ray records mushroomed at every corner of every major city. Coates compares the trade to small-time marijuana dealing: “Some people grow it in their gardens, others in the shed, others in their houses: these people would have  a workshop, some sort of small factory, a secret place, maybe in the countryside…”

The records acquired the nickname of “ryobra”— Russian for “ribs”: a consequence of the Soviet Union’s tuberculosis epidemic, which resulted in a glut of chest X-ray recordings.

Although “ribs”’ underground vibe could suggest parallels with the subculture of samizdat – the clandestine literature circulated in Soviet countries – Coates thinks they were not particularly political. “They weren't trying to bring the government down,” he says. “They were mainly music lovers, so they were dissident in a sense. But they weren’t activists.”

For some, ribs were simply the only way to make a name for themselves as songwriters and singers. Arkady Severny, a musician who hadn’t been accepted in the official composer union, became an underground star by recording criminal ballads (Blatnyak) on X-rays. “He eventually became famous and performed for Brezhnev years later,” says Coates.

That didn’t prevent the government from jailing rib-makers – including Bogoslowsky, who was arrested multiple times – and labelling them as “soul-thieves”.

What put an end to the X-ray age, though, was not government repression, but progress: in 1964, the party allowed citizens to own tape-recorders. This essentially made the cloak-and-dagger X-ray trade obsolete within months.

Ribs traders went on to get more ordinary jobs, with some of them – including Rudolph Fuchs, one of the veteran bootleggers Coates has interviewed – remaining in the music industry as producers.

The rib subculture was swiftly erased from the collective memory, until Coates dug it up half a century later – eventually creating a website, a book, a documentary and a TED Talk focused on his discoveries. In just over two weeks, Coates and photographer Paul Heartfield will be inaugurating an exhibition on X-ray music at Garage, Moscow’s museum of contemporary art. 

“Russian people wanted wanted to forget about this: it's the grim past, they want to think about the present and the future,” Coates says.” It's finally changing now. It feels like the project has come full circle, to Russia.” 

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear