Roentgenizdat: the bizarre history of “bone music”
Elvis’ pelvis was changing the world, but post World War II Russians were out of luck, because General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin
banned the possession of Western music. State censorship made listening to an American rock and roll song almost impossible.
When fans want to hear music, they find a way. And in the 1950s, they used X-rays.
Smuggling of vinyl albums was dangerous, and even finding materials to copy records was expensive and risky.
According to a story on National Public Radio, Stephen Coates, the leader of a British band called The Real Tuesday Weld, happened on this secret history during a tour stop in St. Petersburg. He was browsing items in a flea market when a strange thing caught his eye.
“I thought, ‘Is that a record? Or is it an X-ray?’ I picked it up, and it seemed to be both,” he recounted. So he bought it. Turns out it was an example of what is nicknamed “bone music,” “bones ‘n’ ribs” or simply “ribs”: improvised LPs etched into used X-rays, playable on a turntable, and providing an appropriate disguise for their forbidden fillings.
According to Coates’ book “X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story Of Soviet Music On The Bone,” a 19 year-old Leningrad sound engineer named Ruslan Bogoslowski created a device to bootleg Western albums so he could distribute them across Russia. But with petroleum products scarce after the war, he couldn’t find material to bootleg his pressings onto.
Teens and music are mad
e for each other though, and when Bogoslowski found a pile of discarded X-rays one day, his mind automatically turned to music.
At the time, Russian law mandated that all X-rays had to be destroyed after a year of storage because they were flammable. The ambitious teen dug through trash bins and paid off orderlies for X-rays. Over 20 years he handmade about a million bootlegs onto X-rays, everything from classical to the Beach Boys.
“Bone music” was the only way Russian music lovers could hear Western music, and they played it at underground parties in their kitchens, away from the KGB threats. Each “rib” was handmade, and one of a kind.
The records were grooved for 78 rpm, hand cut, single-sided, of very low quality and could only
hold three to five minutes of music, which usually meant one song. Mythology has it that the spindle hole was often burned by a cigarette. And of course, each featured its own unique image of suffering.
Bogoslowski eventually spent five years imprisoned in Siberia for this rebellion. His dedication has been called “a testament to the underground courage to subvert authority, rebellion, and the love of music.” If that isn’t the spirit of rock n roll, nothing is. You can still find “ribs” for sale on eBay.