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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 associate 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
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