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Bone Music: Soviet Forbidden Records

Bill Haley, Rock Around the Clock, 1950s, Lathe/hand-cut record on x-ray film. X-RAY AUDIO Collection

What would you do if tomorrow your government banned all your favourite songs, sent your country’s most popular singers to jail, and severely restricted access to foreign music? Whilst today this sounds like an impossible dystopia to many of us, it is what the population of the Soviet Union had to deal with between 1946 and 1964. To infringe on the state’s control over the recording industry, an underground market of censored songs came to life­ –out of old X-rays!– and music on the ribs, Roentgenizdat in Russian, was born.

The exhibition ‘Bone Music’ held at Garage, Moscow’s Museum of Contemporary Art, presents research by the X-Ray Audio project, based in London, on this unique episode of postwar Soviet history. Some inventive music lovers and bootleggers managed to recycle used x-ray film into clandestine, home-made records, creating these gloomy but fascinating crafts. Putting their freedom at risk, they cut them by hand to record the hits of the time for a wide Soviet audience. From Soviet stars like Vadim Kozin and Pyotr Leshchenko, the ‘King of Russian tango’, to Latin rhythms and Western jazz, twist and rock ‘n’ roll, x-ray records offered an alternative, dissident music to the Russian folk songs dominating the official market.

The Bootlegger’s room. Bone Music exhibition view, Moscw, 2017. Photo: Ivan Erofeev © Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

‘These records were made in a time when music mattered so much that people were prepared to go to prison for it,’ writes Stephen Coates, the composer and music producer behind the X-Ray Audio project, and co-curator of the display at Garage. This crave for freedom and popular music was heavily fought against by the authorities. The Soviet press, for example, satirised youths copying American fashion and dancing on Western music as stilyagi, or style hunters. Before punk or hipster, this label became a badge of honour for youths as the popularity of bone music and the stilyagi subculture grew.

Thanks to ephemera, original x-ray records, and testimonies from x-ray bootleggers and bone music fans, the exhibition also points at the aesthetics of disks on the ribs. Although artefacts born out of necessity, the disks’ framing does not seem entirely accidental: many display full body parts and turn them into spooky, badge-like snapshots. Not only was each record unique and its content readily recognisable from its bone cover, but the x-ray scans soon became the symbol of the whole underground music phenomenon - a synonym of freedom, street-culture, human ingenuity and clandestine music.

Bone music will shortly be on display in St-Petersburg and Tel Aviv, but for those based in Europe you can listen to bone music online or watch the award-winning film X-Ray Audio: The Documentary, produced by the X-Ray Audio project.

Extract from X-Ray Audio: The Documentary

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