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1 August 2017

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

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

By Gian Maria Volpicelli

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.

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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

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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.”