Bones, Thugs, Harmony

X-ray records in the Soviet Union

Artistic offerings in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union were highly regulated, to put it lightly. Literature was redacted, radio frequencies were blocked and Stalin himself was appointed chief film censor. As German Marxist theorist and activist Clara Zetkin recalled, Lenin had pioneered this approach some years before: ‘Every artist’, he said, ‘has the right to create freely […] But then, we are Communists, and ought not to stand idly by and give chaos free rein.’

When it came to music, rein was anything but free. Blue-pencilled forms included: music referencing violence; music referencing religion; folk music; jazz; the saxophone; the music of émigrés; the music of former criminals; the tango; the foxtrot – which, apparently, too closely resembled sex – and, especially, music from the West.

Thankfully, that didn’t curb the chaos. In the late 1940s, bootleg records began to appear on the black markets of Leningrad, courtesy of jazz enthusiasts and self-taught sound technicians Ruslan Bugaslovsky and Boris Taigin (‘The Golden Dog Gang’). They possessed outlawed master discs, from which they ripped gritty bootlegs, and built a recording lathe from salvaged parts. But due to a ban on vinyl, the duo was forced to work with unorthodox discs: used X-rays, purchased at the backdoors of hospitals.

With their edges roughly cut and the holes at their centres burnt with cigarettes, these X-ray records – which became known as ‘bones’ – caught on quickly. Soon, the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Vadim Kozin, Pyotr Leshchenko and The Beatles were being pushed like noisy narcotics on street corners from Moscow to Kiev and Odessa. So synonymous did ghostly radiographics become with censored music that certain artists came to be associated with the particular ailment within which their music was concealed. Elvis was a lung. Duke Ellington was a brain tumour.

When the authorities caught on in the late 1950s, it wasn’t enough to raid markets or banish those involved to gulags. Instead, Soviet officials flooded the market with their own bespoke ‘bones’, some of which would ruin gramophone needles. Others were spliced with pro-USSR content: ‘Fuck you, anti-Soviet slime!’ While ingenious, these tactics were not the downfall of the X-ray record. Underwhelmingly, that came in 1966 with the emergence of the reel-to-reel cassette tape.

To play us out, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates: ‘Shakes in the kneebone / I got the tremors in the thighbone / Shakin’ all over / Well, you make me shake and I like it’

Main image: Bill Haley & The Comets, ‘Rock Around the Clock’, 1955, X-Ray disc, c.1957.  Courtesy: X-Ray Audio Project

Harry Thorne is assistant editor of frieze and a contributing editor of The White Review. He is based in Berlin, Germany.

Issue 188

First published in Issue 188

June - August 2017

Most Read

In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018