What were Bone Records?
Bone records, or roentgenizdat, were music recordings on an unlikely medium: discarded x-ray plates. During the Second World War in Eastern Europe, vinyl became an extremely expensive way of producing records. Therefore, during the 1930s and 40s, the lack of available materials caused both labels and individual music enthusiasts to search for new ways of production. Music became available on all types of wax and film, but most notably photographic film and x-ray plates. The plates were favored because of their thicker density.
Demand only grew in the USSR in the 1950s when records and tape recorders were in increasingly short supply and music was growing as a necessary escape from political tension. Young people in Eastern Europe realized that they could duplicate records using a converted phonograph and create an imprint of a record on discarded x-ray plates. Used x-ray plates could be purchased for next to nothing from hospitals and medical facilities once they were no longer needed. Then they could easily be cut into discs with scissors. Altered phonograph machines using wax disc cutters and machines like the voice-o-graph could produce grooves in the film that were nearly undetectable. Soviet society promoted science and technology and search of knowledge. It was often students who were studying engineering who would be the ones creating these records.
Termed “rock on bones” (rok na kostiakh) or “rock on ribs” (rok na rebrakh), the records became a visual symbol for underground Soviet resistance and rebellion. The quality of these bone records was not very good at all, but the price was right. They were rather flimsy and would warm and break easily, but they would only cost a ruble or two.
In 1950s Russia, women usually controlled the family budget. On a day’s lunch or drink allowance, one could purchase an underground pressing. Better quality recordings would require a week or two’s worth of allowance.
Music Censorship in the Soviet Union
In the years after World War Two, Stalin tried to get rid of any American influence on Soviet civilization. His first target in the 1950s was American jazz music. Artists like John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk were never to be heard by Soviet ears.
Jazz music turned to rock-and-roll and Bill Haley’s 1954 “Rock Around the Clock” was deemed a “threat to civilization.” The x-ray press system was discovered by the Soviet government in 1958 and was promptly made illegal. The same was true for the samizdat, which was the self-publishing means for writers.
In 1962, a Soviet paper in Lithuania said of the Beatles and Elvis’s music: “These ‘pearls’ of Western culture are part of an imperialist state policy corrupting the masses, promoting low animal instincts, and dulling the mind.” Similarly, in 1961, an East German newspaper said that Chubby Checker’s “Twist” was being used by imperialists in West Germany to rally the young people for war.
It wasn’t only the records that were censored by the Soviet government – rockbands were disbanded and rock concerts were raided. A task force of “music patrols” was started by the government in 1959 to control illegal music activity and the largest ring of roentgenizdat production was broken up the same year.
Melodiya, the only official record label of the USSR, was founded in 1964. Melodiya produced mainly classical music and recordings of famous actors, as well as records with fairy tales for children. Melodiya had firm policies against “protest rock.” They later produced records of many of the pop and rock artists of the 60s and 70s, but not until years after they were originally released, and at an extremely high mark-up. Melodiya was state-owned until the fall of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.
The Soviet government attempted to flood the market of bone records by creating unplayable records in an effort to kill the demand. They would either make records that would physically mess with players, or the would include vocal recordings in the middle of the music saying things like, “You like rock and roll? F**k you, anti-Soviet slime!” There were about 10 individuals who were suspected of distributing bone records who were sent to the gulags (the Soviet labor camps).
The most popular productions were Western artists – from early jazz to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie. Soviet rock artists such as Yuri Shevchuk ran into problems with the KGB. Melodiya produced an official record by the band Aquarium that was only approved by the label as a reaction to Western concerns in USSR censorship.
The two main factors in the disappearance of bone records were the government reconciliation and the replacement technologies. As reel-to-reel tape recorders gained in prevalence in the 1970s, they were able to successfully replace the system of x-ray recordings. The x-ray records had an extremely poor sound quality and were produced by select individuals. Tape recorders provided a better quality with easier and neater production. One source called tape recorders the Bit Torrent of the 1970s. At the end of the Cold War, during the perestroika era of restructuring in the USSR, censorship of music lightened up and the need for underground production of music died.
“X-ray records were metaphors par excellence of imaginary elsewheres – the ingenious experimental cultures that were both internal and external to the body of the Soviet state” – Alexei Yurchak, Everything was forever, until it was no more: the last Soviet generation
http://www.kk.org/streetuse/archives/2006/08/jazz_on_bones_xray_sound_recor_1.php http://www.fff.org/freedom/1190d.asp http://www.planetaquarium.com/eng/pub/doc_bf1.html http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/Science-Fiction-News.asp?NewsNum=727 http://www.digibodies.org/hajdu.html http://www.weirdvibrations.com/2009/10/12/roentgenizdat-sentimental-songs-on-x-ray/ http://bujhm.livejournal.com/381660.html Yurchak, Alexei. Everything Was Forever, until It Was No More: the Last Soviet Generation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2006.