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Bone Records: Soviet-Era Bootlegged Music on X-Rays

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During the Cold War, Soviet Russia was a very restrictive place. The media was heavily censored, foreign radio and television station waves were jammed, books that criticized the Soviet regime were banned, and playing western music that was deemed morally and culturally depraved was prohibited. At the same time, dissident activity was rife. Banned literature and underground publications were reproduced by hand and the documents passed from reader to reader. Even music was bootlegged.

In those days, music was available only on vinyl records, and to reproduce those records one needed an equipment known as a recording lathe and blank vinyl discs where the recording could be etched. These things were expensive and not easily available. Despite the lack of necessary equipment and materials, many Soviet teenagers with a liking for jazz, rock-n-roll and pop, engineered makeshift recording lathes from converted phonographs and duplicated many albums from western artists such as Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys.

X-Ray films were collected from dumpsters or bought from hospitals, and the music was pressed onto them using a modified record player. The results looked like flexi-discs that Western pop magazines used to distribute with their issues, but with the ghastly images of broken ribs and dislocated joints imprinted on the plastic. Fans called these albums variously as “bone music”, or “rib recordings”, or “music on ribs”, or “jazz on bones”, and the like.

The X-Ray discs, which carried music only on one side, often sounded terrible and the records itself could be played only a few dozen times before they became unplayable. But they were cheap, costing only about one to one and a half rubles each on the black market. Because the films were thin, the grooves were also shallow and the music it produced sounded feeble. Some were virtually unlistenable. But it didn’t matter— “even the tiniest thread of melody, of this forbidden sound, was so exciting”, says Stephen Coates, who discovered some of these contrabands and now has written a book on the subject.

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“A recording lathe is a little like a gramophone / record player in reverse,” reads the X-Ray Audio Project. “Instead of a needle that ‘reads’ the groove of a record through vibrations which are transformed and amplified  into sound, a vibrating cutting head scratches a groove into a blank spinning surface when an audio signal is fed into it. “

“When it comes to using x-ray film as the media rather then commercially available acetates, the process is a bit like cooking and somewhat unpredictable even if you have the recipe.  There are lots of variables that make a difference: the age of the cutting needle, the angle of the cut, the temperature, the surface quality, the type of music, the skill of the recordist, the quality of the original source etc.. Each record is cut in real time, so each sounds different than all the others.”

Coates says some of the earlier bootlegs sounded amazing, and couldn’t be told apart from the original records. But as the practice spread and the opportunity to make money from bone business grew, many unskilled bootleggers got into involved and the quality dropped.

By the late 50’s, the officials got a whiff of this underground subculture and tried to bust one of the largest ring in operation in 1959, by sending the leaders to prison. A organization called “music patrols” was established to keep an eye out for such illegal music activities. But pressing music into X-Ray films continued under the table for a few more years, until cassette tape became popular. The ease with which magnetic tapes could be duplicated with little loss in quality eventually made bone records obsolete.

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