Street Use

Jazz on Bones: X-Ray Sound Recordings


In the USSR and Eastern Europe in the 1950s underground night spots would play music pirated from the west. The only media they had were recorders etched into discarded X-ray film. I’ve long sought some images. Researcher Camille Cloutier pointed me to these, collected and posted by József Hajdú. Here’s what he says about them:

During the late 1930s and early 1940s the prevalent sound recording apparatus was the wax disk cutter. As a consequence of the lack of materials in the war-time economy, some inventive sound hunters made their own experiments with new materials within their reach.

X-Ray1

I do not know the name of the inventor who first utilized discarded medical X-ray film as the base material for new record discs; however, the method became so widespread in Hungary that not only amateurs, but the Hungarian Radio made sound recordings on such recycled X-ray films.

X-Ray2

I felt that those X-ray record albums relate to our contemporary lives in many ways, especially when considering such terms as ‘multimedia’ or ‘recycling’. I copied the X-ray films with their engraved sound-grooves on photosensitive paper and made enlargements of certain details.

X-Ray3

I was quite lucky to find a considerable amount of similar sound records in private collections. These are also interesting from the visual aspect. By utilizing different photographic processes, I created from them pictures meant to be exhibited in galleries.

In an online paper called The Historical Political Development of Soviet Rock Music, Trey Drake, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, offers further historical perspective on this street use of technology:

Owing to the lack of recordings of Western music available in the USSR, people had to rely on records coming through Eastern Europe, where controls on records were less strict, or on the tiny influx of records from beyond the iron curtain. Such restrictions meant the number of recordings would remain small and precious. But enterprising young people with technical skills learned to duplicate records with a converted phonograph that would “press” a record using a very unusual material for the purpose; discarded x-ray plates. This material was both plentiful and cheap, and millions of duplications of Western and Soviet groups were made and distributed by an underground roentgenizdat, or x-ray press, which is akin to the samizdat that was the notorious tradition of self-publication among banned writers in the USSR. According to rock historian Troitsky, the one-sided x-ray disks costed about one to one and a half rubles each on the black market, and lasted only a few months, as opposed to around five rubles for a two-sided vinyl disk. By the late 50′s, the officials knew about the roentgenizdat, and made it illegal in 1958. Officials took action to break up the largest ring in 1959, sending the leaders to prison, beginning an orginization by the Komsomol of “music patrols” that later undertook to curtail illegal music activity all over the country.

From Artemy Troitsky’s Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia (1987, Omnibus Press):

The demand for pop and jazz recordings at the end of the fifties and beginning of the sixties was already enormous, while records and tape recorders were in catastrophically short supply. This led to the birth of a legendary phenomenon — the memorable records ‘on ribs.’ I myself saw several archive specimens.

These were actual X-ray plates — chest cavities, spinal cords, broken bones — rounded at the edges with scissors, with a small hole in the centre and grooves that were barely visible on the surface. Such an extravagant choice of raw material for these ‘flexidiscs’ is easily explained: X-ray plates were the cheapest and most readily available source of necessary plastic. People bought them by the hundreds from hospitals and clinics for kopeks, after which grooves were cut with the help of special machines (made, they say, from old phonographs by skilled conspiratorial hands).

The ‘ribs’ were marketed, naturally, under the table. The quality was awful, but the price was low — a rouble or rouble and a half. Often these records held surprises for the buyer. Let’s say, a few seconds of American rock’n'roll, then a mocking voice in Russian asking: “So, thought you’d take a listen to the latest sounds, eh?”, followed by a few choice epithets addressed to fans of stylish rhythms, then silence.

Both the shtatniki and beatnicki were few in number and their heyday was brief. The imitative, decorative style and American mannerisms they cultivated were way out of place in the early sixties, when Soviet youth was full of euphoric enthusiasm over the fliht of Yuri Gagarin, the Cuban revolution, and the programme proclaimed by Khruschev at the 22nd Party Congress wherein Communism would be achieved within the next two decades. Decadence and disaffection were completely out of style.

I’d love to find out more about this street use. Pointers welcomed.

Posted on August 28, 2006 at 7:29 pm | comments



Comments
  • sputnik

    I remember in the late 70′s, a record collector friend acquired a roentgenizdat of the band “Faust”, who (I believe) was a Soviet prog-rock band. So, the roentgenizdat scene was still going on into the 70′s at least.

  • Darth Cider

    There was an article in the Washington Post long ago, which is how I learned about x-ray film recordings in the USSR.

    Listening to such recordings was called, “listening to the bones.” Great phrase, isn’t it?

  • maksim2042

    My father used to have a pretty good collection of these. Among the records were: Beatles, Elvis, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, etc.

    The machine for making these recordings was originally designed for making “sound postcards” where you could record a voice message to your relatives on a flexible record; it was commonly found in photography salons. The same salons produced records on x-ray film after hours.

    The cost of the record is special too – it’s about the same price as a 250ml, “individual-sized” bottle of vodka, and similar to the “lunch money” given to husbands by their thrifty wives (in Russia, women usually controlled the family budget). So the record could be bought by skipping lunch or not getting a drink one day – as opposed to saving money for a few days to buy an official pressing for 5 rubles. I remember my mom berating my dad for buying yet another record while she’s running out of food money…

    Occasionally, you could buy a record on the “tolkuchka” market, play it, and after the first few bars the music would stop, and a voice said “You want rock-n-roll? F*ck you, anti-soviet slime” followed by a few minutes of elaborate and flowering russian cursing.

    These records were produced by the government in the attempt to flood the market with unplayable records and kill the demand.

    What killed the “record on the bones” was not government action, but availability of the reel-to-reel tape recorders. Very soon, people were trading tapes and making copies at home, without risk of going to the market.

    So, a vulnerable semi-centralized production system was replaced by a wholly de-centralized, free-for-all. The tape recorders became the BitTorrent of the 70s.

  • Lizzy

    I remember this was reported in one of the last few episodes of the famous BBC 2 documentary series The World at War – it was made in 1974, though re-aired in full more recently in Britain. Jeremy Isaacs being the main man behind it all.

  • Dylan Thuras

    I am the editor on a doc all about the roots of Russian Rock and Roll. Much of it can be traced back to a few people, namely “Pete “Pits” Anderson, and Valery Saifudinov, two Latvian teenagers who started the first Russian Rock band. Also of importance was a Russian bootlegger by the name of Juris Lapinskis.

  • http://www.myrecordcollection.org MD

    I want… no… I NEED one of these!!!!! Anybody have a clue where I can get my hands on one of them? Doesn’t what kind of music is on there, any would do! Let me know!

  • http://www.rockinthekremlin.com Doug Yeager

    Kevin,
    I’m producing a documentary film, now in development, “Rockin’ The Kremlin,” which explores the story (now even taught as a course in Russian universities) of the significant contribution Rock & Roll coming from the West had in causing the downfall of communist control of society and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. It entered the country (in Riga, Latvia) like a virus with no known vaccine in 1955, over illegal short wave radio sets, soon followed by a few records smuggled in by Swedish and Finnish saiors coming to ports of Riga and Leningrad. Bone Records were invented as you described, and 3,000,000 of these highly illegal records were distributed underground in the USSR in 1958 (with no artist name or song title on the record, just a scratched in number) before the KGB realized what they were. The young men in Leningrad who were arrested for making them, were sent to the Gulag for seven years. One must understand that rock music was considered a great threat to the KGB. Rock music was banned in the USSR, the Russian work `Rok’ was banned from all media and press until 1986, singing in English was against the law, radios were jammed, and electric guitars could not be found in the USSR, until they were illegally invented/gerryrigged from a smuggled in photo of a Fender guitar, crudely manufactured undergrown and distributed. It took months for the teenage inventors (led by Valery Saifudinov, now owner of Flight 19 Recording Studios in San Deigo)to empiraclly discover that the wires and magnets in the municipal pay phones could work as electric pick-ups for the guitar strings. By 1969, no pay phones in the capital of Moscow were functioning because all the innards had been removed to make underground guitars. Good luck on your book. All the best, Doug Yeager

  • rosko

    FYI “Sputnik”: the band “Faust” was not a Soviet band, they were West German (mostly), and although their first LP used an x-ray as the cover art, it was not in fact made from x-ray film.

  • robin

    thanks, i’ve LONG wanted to see pictures of these, too, since i read about them probably 20 years ago. fantastic!

  • j.henry.chunko

    keep an eye out for eduardo cadava’s new book! the entire thing is about ‘music on bones.’ he’s sopken on it too, incredible!!! –oh, &also thanks for the great pics–

  • http://www.pitsandersons.lv Pete

    As a teenager in the late 50′s I was witnessing those times in Riga, Latvia! As much as I recollect now – the “Bones” heroes at those times were Little Richard, Bill Haley & His Comets (most often), Wanda Jackson, later Chubby Checker and sometimes even more rare and obscure and unknown to the wide audiences artists like Freddie Cannon (my first rock’n'roll bone record ever was “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy”!), Big Joe Turner, Carl Perkins, Johnny & The Hurricanes and even Tommy Steele. The black market guys were hungry to copy everything they could get, so it’s hard to speak about the musical style purity in this case!
    Long live rock’n'roll!!!

  • goatchowder

    What *were* they though? What bands were popular in X-ray format? I’d love to know what acts were getting big play in the USSR black market at that time.

  • Jenny Lucas

    I found this really interesting and, judging by the amount of web coverage, it doesn’t appear to be widely reported.

    Does anyone know the exact process that was used to copy the records onto x-ray film?

  • jack kilby

    Any one who wants a x ray record can have one with any recording they like if they supply me with a cutting stylus, the wav file and some x rays. I will cut the record for free. I have been cutting records for 8 years on different mediums like cds, place mats, acrylic. It often damages the needle and the sound quality cannot be guaranteed. let me know if you are interested.
    vinyl_retentive (at) hotmail (dot) com

  • http://ominousmoo.com Clint

    Great read. Incredibly interesting.

    Make it spin!

  • http://www.technovelgy.com Bill Christensen

    I found this nugget:

    “In the years after World War II, Stalin attempted to extirpate every aspect of American culture from Soviet life. Jazz, which had been played publicly in the USSR as recently as the war years, was now officially regarded as decadent capitalist filth; to even speak of jazz during this period was a criminal act…

    Jazz survived in the Soviet Union in some astonishing circumstances. As jazz historian S. Frederick Starr has recounted, many of the country’s best musicians were actually in Siberian prison camps, but these camps were in many cases ruled by commanders who liked jazz and who organized the musicians to play for their often-lavish parties. Prison camp commanders would even exchange these jazz groups, allowing them to “tour,” as it were, camps where countless prisoners were being worked, starved, and frozen to death. Other bands were exiled to remote cities, such as Kazan in the Tartar region, where they were supposed to undergo “rehabilitation.” Instead, these groups, many of which had learned jazz in pre-Mao Shanghai, took advantage of the local officials’ musical ignorance, and played jazz anyway. In Kazan, the courageous bands even performed on Tartar State Radio. That’s how the early stilyagi kept up with the music: by monitoring Tartar broadcasts to hear exiled musicians outsmarting their cultural keepers.

    But the stilyagi managed not only to hear jazz, but to assemble collections of recordings too. How? They had turntables, but they certainly couldn’t buy jazz records in record stores (there weren’t any). They couldn’t tape what they heard on the radio. Even assuming they could get access to a reel-to-reel recorder, where were they going to get enough blank tape? The solution was a piece of genius. A jazz-loving medical student realized that he could inscribe sound grooves on the surface of a medium that was actually plentiful in the Soviet Union: old X-ray plates. He rigged a contraption that allowed him to produce “recordings” that, while obviously of low quality, at least contained the precious music and allowed its admirers to listen to it at will. He and his imitators were to make a lot of well-earned money on the black market…”

    In Praise of Vulgarity: How commercial culture liberates Islam — and the West by Charles Paul Freund

  • Kevin Kelly

    Thanks for the great stuff, readers. Doug and Dylan, sounds like you two should get together. Since I run a site for great documentary films, please notify me when your films are ready for an audience.

    Maksim, that’s fantastic reporting. The deliberate disruption of the bone records is very similar to the attempts by the RIAA to flood the file sharing venues with junky and broken music files in order to discourage free swapping.

  • Luke

    If anyone knows where I can get one of these please forward the link. A friend of my is a big record collector and this would be a crazy birthday present.

  • Josh Malin

    I find this information infinitely interesting, well, in my case distracting since i should be working on college essays. It feels so good, as a musician, to know that through perseverance and creativity freedom can reign, and that music can be and is such a huge influence on that. as an advocate for bittorrent, and freedom of knowledge and experience, i am inspired.

    bittorent is simply a convenient mode of experiencing as much as i can, artistically and musically, before i die. besides, i still have no choice but to buy vinyl and very indie cds.

  • Aussie0zborn

    These were more than likely “direct cuts” on a disc recording system, as described in another comment. But to cut 3,000,000 records one-by-one would take a lifetime. If mass produced, these might actually be “flexi-discs” like those you used to get for free in music magazines up until the ’80s.

    Flexi-discs were manufactured by using a regular record tamper in a hydraulic press. The material is heated witha heating element to soften it and then it is cold pressed, impregnating the grooves in the material – in this case, X-ays.

    If these are flexi discs they will have sinlge or double ring measuing an inch or more in diameter around the centre hole, just like a vinyl record. Can anyone confirm if this ring exists on the X-Ray records?