Retrotechtacular: Examining Music in 1950’s Russia

If you had told 12-year-old me that one day I would be able to listen to pretty much any song I wanted to on demand and also pull up the lyrics as fast as I could type the artist’s name and part of the title into a text box, I would have a) really hoped you weren’t kidding and b) would have wanted to grow up even faster than I already did.

The availability of music today, especially in any place with first world Internet access is really kind of astounding. While the technology to make this possible has come about only recently, the freedom of music listening has been fairly wide open in the US. The closest we’ve come to governmental censorship is the parental advisory sticker, and those are just warnings. The only thing that really stands between kids’ ears and the music they want to listen to is parental awareness and/or consent.

However, the landscape of musical freedom and discovery has been quite different in other corners of the world, especially during the early years of rock ‘n roll. While American teens roller skated and sock-hopped to the new and feverish sounds of Little Richard and Elvis Presley, the kids in Soviet Russia were stuck in a kind of sonic isolation. Stalin’s government had a choke hold on the influx of culture and greatly restricted the music that went out over the airwaves. They viewed Western and other music as a threat, and considered the musicians to be enemies of the USSR.

But the draw of music tends to upstage politics. In the late 1940s, a Polish man came into Leningrad and started a small operation to cut amateur recordings on a recording lathe that he salvaged from the war. He ran a side business after hours on the same equipment and used it to bootleg records smuggled in from Eastern Europe. Other people began to build homemade versions of his lathe and soon, every kind of forbidden music that people had a taste for—American boogie woogie, jazz, and rock ‘n roll to Russian émigré and gypsy music—was available on the streets in a new kind of black market.

roentgenizdatSomeone soon figured out that x-ray film was a good medium for making records. It held up to the initial groove cutting as well as playback, making it ideal for producing large quantities of bootlegs. It just so happened that medical x-ray films were discarded en masse by hospitals and so they were liberated from trash bins by opportunistic bootleggers. The recordings cut into these x-ray films were gritty, crackling reproductions of the originals, but they were nonetheless highly sought after. A large market opened up for these flexible records. They were easily stowed up the sleeves and under the coat flaps of the street dealers who sold them for a few rubles each or a bottle of vodka.

These bootlegs were fittingly referred to as “bones” or “ribs” by those in the know. In Russian, they are called roentgenizdat, loosely translated as ‘x-ray pressed’. The practice of record bootlegging became widespread. Eventually, the Russian government cracked down on the distribution rings and sent the leaders to jail. The practice continued until about 1966, when the black market was taken over by reel-to-reel tapes.

Soon afterward, the government approved reel-to-reel use by the citizens and the market shrank. Today some roentgenizdat can be bought for for a wide range of prices depending on the rarity and novelty of the record. Fortunately, someone has digitized a handful of the recordings for your listening pleasure.

In January of this year, NPR interviewed Stephen Coates, a British musician who unearthed one of these x-ray records while touring in Russia. His discovery led him down a rabbit hole of research that ultimately led to the X-Ray Audio Project, which includes a book on the subject and the short documentary that’s embedded after the break. Another video features several snippets from these “bone records”, which are chilling in their rawness and the history they represent.

Thanks to @motherslug for making me aware of this particular piece of music history.

34 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Examining Music in 1950’s Russia

  1. As always, it is a pleasure to read an article covering life of a long-gone country of my birth :D (ok, I was made just a year before it collapsed, nevertheless). BTW, if you want to dip into that atmosphere, there’s quite a number of Russian movies covering that slice of history (i.e. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0962764/combined).
    A small correction: rentgenizdat = rentgen + izdatel’stvo = x-ray + publishing, same as samizdat = self publishing.

  2. While not the same, the portability factor (bendable) reminds me of the records that were placed in children books and comics in the 1970s. I still remember how excited I would get getting a book from my school book fair with a record in it and playing it in my room.

  3. today with hipaa rules and modern xrays you probably cant do that anymore.

    1. hipaa rules hospitals are not allowed to throw medical data out including the used xray films (if they still use that technology any more)

    2. modern xrays record directly to computer so the doctor can be emailed an xray.

    though i am not sure about the ultrasound machine used by obgyn and heart clinics i think they are high tech too

      1. Woah… that came out much harsher than I intended.

        To soften that a bit. There are violations that occur despite hipaa because the mechanisms that ensure compliance aren’t always there or fail outright. Call centers outside of the U.S. are a prime example of a failure point.

        1. That, and hipaa doesn’t say the xrays can’t be disposed of; just that private information can’t be made public. No private information on the xray, no way to know who it belonged to.

          The problem of nurses and staff taking photos of xrays in ERs is that some information leaks: time when patient was there, locality of injury, etc. In a mass waste bin, that information is lost so guessing who the patient is is much harder.

          1. Wouldn’t the X-rays have the patient’s name on them? Especially back then, before records were computerised. Of course the correct solution is to stop people nicking X-ray film out your bin. But then you wouldn’t have such a nice music collection.

      2. I have an Sun Ultra 10 that did have a hard drive full of digital xrays that was discarded by a hospital… so yes it happens still and no one does anything about it. I’m not the person that origninally “dumpster dived” the machine…. but that is where it was found.

        I’m pretty sure these digital xrays still had personal info on them.. but I never got to see them. And I don’t have the xray viewing software that would have been interesting to poke around on…

  4. This is an amazing chunk of history, thanks for making me aware of it!
    It’s amazing how difficult it is to suppress the human urge for freedom of expression. Makes me wonder what kind of underground culture there is in North Korea right now.

    1. I have read articles on how they smuggle flash drives and bootleg DVD’s across the border with China. Of course, if your caught, three generations go to prison camp, because that’s how the roll over there.

      1. I’d have to wonder how much of the North Korean population owns the computers necessary to make use of portable storage media. I’d be surprised to learn that a high percentage could listen to shortwave broadcasting.

  5. I’ve heard of this before and always thought it was amazing, goes to show you people will always be free no matter what their “masters” want. I would also love to see someone build a record cutter on HAD.

  6. This thing continued for a long time in the form of “Samizdat” mini flexi discs of Western music printed on plastic cutoffs or even postcards. I’ve got several rare Soviet-era bootleg 45’s in my collection.

  7. Music has outlasted every oppressive government in history.
    We can only hope the US ЯIAA will be no different…

    The bootlegger’s Tutti Frutti imitation was surprisingly good.
    =)

  8. Getting these outside of Russia is not exactly an easy process. If you were to just ship them out, you’d most likely get in trouble, as the bone records are still considered contraband. See this, near the end, for how most get here.

  9. There’s a movie called “Red Hot” with Carla gugino that explores this. it’s not a amazing film but I was able to know about these hack long time ago

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