Rubric History & Culture

The weird and wonderful world of Soviet Bone Music

A restored TAMA Soviet recording lathe dating from the early 1960s. Machines like this were used by bootleggers to cut records in the Soviet Union.  

It starts with a hiss and a faint crackle. There’s a weird distortion when the bass kicks in, distorting the tempo slightly, accompanied by a constant faint clicking noise, like an old reel-to-reel tape recorder playing in an endless loop. But there’s no mistake: this is ‘Farewell, So Long, Goodbye’ performed by the early American rock band Bill Haley and The Comets — and the slight audio flaws somehow do not diminish the song.

Imagine if the boundless music at your fingertips was outlawed. That the songs that carry memories, both beautiful and banal, were banned because of a change in political sensibilities: and that the only way to listen to those songs was to buy clandestine bootleg recordings at street corners, always aware that you may be jailed for it.

For citizens of the Soviet Union during the 40s and 50s, this was not hypothetical. The tenets of socialist realism espoused by intellectuals like Maxim Gorky had been used by Stalin to ban any music, art and literature that did not suit the ideals of the USSR — and did not serve his cult of personality.

Popular music, especially that of the West, which Russians returning from WWII had grown a taste for, was banned for being mystic and decadent. An underground subculture, the stilyagi (literally ‘style-hunters’), that emerged from the 40s to the 60s, consisted of servicemen returning from the front and young Russians eager for rock n’ roll and jazz, who chafed at the ‘official style of Soviet Culture’.

Flea market find

From them sprang the phenomenon of roentgenizdat — ‘bone music,’ which were bootleg recordings of banned music made on discarded X-ray scans and sold on street-corners to stilyagi and like-minded Soviet citizens.

“When I first came across a bone music record, I didn’t know what it was,” explains Stephen Coates, frontman for the London band, The Real Tuesday Weld, and founder of the X-Ray Audio Project, which documents bone music and the people who created it. “I had just finished a gig in St. Petersburg in 2012, and found this weird record in a flea market. None of my Russian friends knew what it was, and the guy who sold it wasn’t particularly interested in it.”

A Soviet Bone Music Record. Used x-ray film became the preferred material for bootleggers because it was easy to acquire.

A Soviet Bone Music Record. Used x-ray film became the preferred material for bootleggers because it was easy to acquire.   | Photo Credit: X-Ray Audio project

When Coates played it back home, he discovered that it was not a conventional record. “It was recorded on one side at 78 rpm. The tune on it was ‘Rock Around The Clock’ by Bill Haley, but the strangest thing about it was that it was made using an old X-ray film. I was so intrigued by it that I thought I’ve got to find out who made it, why they made it, and how they made it.”

These three questions eventually led Stephen to one of the original rib bootleggers, Rudy Fuchs.

Although initially distrustful, Fuchs soon bonded with Coates over their shared love of music, and started telling him stories about the bootleggers, the risks they took, and the passion that underpinned all they did.

Forbidden music

“There were three types of music that were forbidden by Stalin,” Coates says. “Western music — jazz and rock n’ roll, which was the pop music of the day; certain Russian music by emigres living in the West, like Pyotr Leshchenko or Konstantin Sokolsky, people deemed traitors; and then the big folk traditions of Russian music, which talked about the dark, criminal underbelly of life in the USSR.”

All of these were wildly popular but impossible to get. That changed in 1946 when a young soldier, Stanislav Philo, returned home to Leningrad with a record duplication machine.

Think of a gramophone, or a vinyl-record player, but in reverse — where the needle, instead of reading grooves cut into the record, cuts into a blank surface. That’s what these portable machines were — and, oddly enough, the ownership and use of them was permitted by the Soviet authorities. While intended to record literal voicemails, these machines became the only way of copying music in USSR.

Philo set up a legitimate shop, but he also began secretly recording bootleg dubs of jazz and boogie woogie and selling them.

He soon gained a reputation among the stilyagi, and a small fan-base began to emerge — including the two figures key to this story, Ruslan Bogoslovsky and his friend Boris Taigin.

A picture of Ruslan Bogoslovsky, one of the key figures in the story of bone music.

A picture of Ruslan Bogoslovsky, one of the key figures in the story of bone music.   | Photo Credit: X-Ray Audio project

“Bogoslovsky was an ingenious person,” Coates says. “He was a talented and skilled engineer, a music lover, and very anti-establishment — not politically, like Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn, but just independent.”

He studied Philo’s machine, which he believed he could duplicate and improve upon. One day, at his family dacha, he showed Taigin his sketches, and the duo began selling bootleg records under the moniker The Golden Dog Gang, an homage to the British record store, His Master’s Voice.

X-ray music

Bogoslovsky had also discovered that X-ray scans were ideal to cut records from for several reasons. First, that old silver nitrate film was soft enough to cut a pattern, but strong enough to hold a shape. The second, and more practical reason, was that local hospitals were required to dispose of old fluorography sheets because of their highly flammable nature — meaning that the duo could steal and buy the film from them.

Jazz played from a grinning skull. A shattered tibia strained with Ella Fitzgerald’s voice.

The king of Russian tango, Leshchenko, danced forth from a broken ribcage. Cut into a circle with the centre burnt out with a cigarette stub, the macabre facade of the clandestine dubs led to a variety of nicknames; “ribs”, “bone music”, “my grandma’s skeleton,” and the more formal roentgenizdat.

“The quality varies a lot, but amazingly some of them sound really good,” says Coates. “It was all very lo-fi, but people like Rudy and The Golden Dog Gang made the records because it was about listening to music they loved, not what they were told to listen to.”

The Golden Dogs became popular especially with Soviet hipsters, eager for sounds that were not state-prescribed. Some, such as Fuchs, went to the extent of donating blood to have money to buy the records — blood for bones. But that fame also reached the ears of the authorities — and in 1950, the gang was busted and both men sent to prison. Stalin’s death in 1953 ostensibly meant a relaxation of these laws, and Bogoslovsky returned home with new techniques he had devised during his incarceration to help improve his records’ quality.

Bootlegging boogie

He and Taigin would be arrested again a few years later, only to return to bootlegging. When Bogoslovsky was released, he came up with the foolproof plan of pressing his own vinyl records by copying over the cheap, patriotic vinyl records of Lenin’s and Stalin’s speeches available in state-run shops.

His mass purchase of them, however, raised suspicions: no one ever bought the speeches, and certainly not in such large quantities. And so he went back to jail, determined to continue bootlegging after he got out. When he did get out, in the early 60s, things had changed. It was the era of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, and the start of a huge boom in Soviet bootlegging where anyone could copy music onto tapes in the privacy of their home.

That initial curiosity that had spurred Coates when he found something in a Russian flea-market led to the X-Ray Audio Project, as well as a book and a film about the bootleggers, and a travelling exhibition about this forgotten period of resistance and popular culture in one of the most perplexing and interesting moments in history.

“These guys were accused of trying to pollute young people’s minds,” says Coates. “Fuchs was described in the newspapers as a ‘Stealer of Souls’ — and all of them went to prison for what they did, and yet they continued when they got out. Why?”

“These were not people who would be told what to do,” says Coates. This defiance, centred on music they were passionate about, was a kind of resistance, a revolt against an infringement on their personal freedoms.

That this revolt culminated in a series of very significant objects — intimate portrayals of the very insides of Soviet citizens that carried the music they loved — has a symbolic meaning that resonates with modern audiences.

Ultimately, their story shows that music really matters, and poses a valuable question that is not hypothetical for many people in today’s world: if somebody took away all your music, what would you do to get it back?

The writer is a London-based journalist who writes on politics, art, and culture.


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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 6:06:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-weird-and-wonderful-world-of-soviet-bone-music/article23851801.ece

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