When outsiders talk about cultural life in the Soviet Union, they often focus more on the repression from above — what was banned, the punishments meted out — than on the response from below: the myriad ways in which ordinary people circumvented the constraints placed on aesthetic enjoyment. That life was not in fact a monotonous grind is demonstrated with particular poignancy by the story of roentgenizdat, or X-ray music, which is coming to London’s Pushkin House next week ahead of a major new exhibition in Moscow.
Meaning simply “X-ray publishing” — in Russian the X-ray is named after its inventor, Wilhelm Röntgen — roentgenizdat refers to music recorded onto used X-ray film that could then be played like a gramophone record. This surreally inventive practice was the primary means of reproducing and distributing banned music in the Soviet Union from the late 1940s until the early 1960s. Musician Stephen Coates and photographer Paul Heartfield are the men behind the X-Ray Audio Project, a multimedia platform dedicated to roentgenizdat and its eccentric, entrepreneurial bootleggers. For Coates, who over the past three years has seen the Project expand into a book, documentary, live shows and a travelling exhibition, the essential message of roentgenizdat is a simple one: “It’s a story about how much music matters and how ingenious people can be.”
I ask him to explain the production process in layman’s terms. “They used machine which we would call recording lathes, like a gramophone in reverse for writing music onto a disc. You can write music onto various different surfaces and it just so happens that X-ray film is quite good at holding the grooves, and in the Soviet Union at that time it was very easy to get hold of. They didn’t have access to the usual means of production — and it was illegal, of course — so they had to improvise. They built their own recording machines, they worked at night or in out of the way places. Each one of these records was made one by one in real time. This was a labour of love, not mass production. They were distributed and sold pretty much like soft drugs, something like the street trade in weed. If you knew somebody they were passed hand to hand, or you could go and buy some on the street.”
Coates discovered “bone music” several years ago when he came across a strange disc at a St Petersburg flea market — it turned out to be an X-ray recording of Bill Haley’s 1955 hit Rock Around the Clock. This was in fact a pretty representative first find: in the 1950s, Western rock and roll and jazz were among the most popular genres for X-ray bootleggers. Of course, anything that was banned could make its way onto “the bones”, and Russian émigré music, prison songs and so-called “gypsy” folk tunes. The location of this initial discovery was also auspicious, as Petersburg – then Leningrad — was most likely the birthplace of the phenomenon.
Each one of these records was made one by one in real time. This was a labour of love, not mass production
As with any underground culture, of course, the historical details are hard to pin down. “We know that it almost certainly started in Leningrad,” Coates says. “It spread to Moscow and other big cities, and some other Soviet countries. There’s no way of knowing how many of these records were made — the records themselves were quite fragile and when they no longer played people would throw them away. There can’t have been that many for the simple reason that each one had to be made individually. I suspect less than a million, but it’s impossible to say.”
Roentgenizdat is about 70 years old now, and many of the early adopters are dead. In Coates’ and Heartfield’s film, though, we are introduced to some of the colourful figures who took to these strange, Western sounds in the 50s with such vigour: Rudy Fuchs, a Petersburg producer who went on to have an official record label in the 70s; Mikhail Varafanov, a Moscow bootlegger who left music behind to become an Olympic swimmer. For Coates, the motivation driving these “characters” was simple enough: “They were music lovers. For sure there was a little bit of business to be done, and a little bit of status attached to it. But they loved jazz and rock and roll and they wanted other people to hear it.”
Not that the scene was solely one of youthful innocence. “Towards the end, it got quite dangerous dealing records. Mikhail [Varafanov] told me that he got threatened and that he had to be quite careful of other rival dealers. It became something like a drugs trade. Rudy told me that he used to rent out his record collection to people: rather than sell stuff himself, he’d hire records out for a hour.”
The notion of pure musical pleasure, of people going to these remarkable lengths simply because the tunes were so addictive, also speaks to the way in which bone music disrupts simplistic, binary politicisations of “good” unofficial versus “bad” official cultures. “There was a blurred line between what was official and what was unofficial, and between what was unofficial and what was actively forbidden,” Coates concurs. “I’m not sure how much these bootleggers were politically motivated. Someone like Rudy passionately believed that you had the right to listen to the music you wanted to; he believed in “culture from the ground”, as he put it, he saw himself as a cultural trader. But he wasn’t trying to bring the system down or offering a critique of it. If they’d let him do it without hassling him he would have just done it.”
Bone music arose out of the intersection of technology, culture and ingenuity; perhaps fittingly, it disappeared as soon as the next innovation came around
This brings the conversation onto the relationship between roentgenizdat and the broader underground self-publishing movement in the Soviet Union, or samizdat. For decades, artists and activists used typewriters to copy illicit material — political pamphlets, banned fiction, religious texts, pornography — which was then distributed amongst confidantes. Samizdat has often been considered a fundamentally dissident phenomenon in a way that chafes with bone music’s dedication to aural pleasure. I ask Coates how he understands the link between the two.
“It’s linked in the sense that [bone music] was underground, illegal, anti-censor, an improvised production process,” he says. “You could say: what is there that’s anti-communist, subversive or even political about a record of Rock Around the Clock? The lyrics did have a message. ‘One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock rock’: the message in that song is, ‘fuck everything else, let’s dance.’ In some way, in the Soviet Union that was an ideological message.”
Bone music arose out of the intersection of technology, culture and ingenuity; perhaps fittingly, it disappeared as soon as the next innovation came around. From 1964, reel-to-reel cassette tape recorders became publicly available in the Soviet Union, and a new form of bootlegging was born: magnitizdat, or tape publishing. Now fans could copy music from cassette to cassette without the paraphernalia of recording lathes or X-ray film. Live recordings also became possible.
“Magnitizdat totally killed bone music for good,” Coates concludes. People would have automatically used the next, better technology. “Reel-to-reel tape machines are easier to use and the sound quality is much, much better. X-ray music is complicated and unpredictable I’m sure the bootleggers went straight over to tape.”
It’s the complication and unpredictability, though, that makes bone music so enduringly fascinating: a crackling, flawed analogue wave that cannot be quantified or rationalised. Elsewhere, Coates has described these perishable discs with their skeletal imprints as “images of pain and damage inscribed with the sound of forbidden pleasure; fragile photographs of the interiors of Soviet citizens layered with the ghostly music they secretly loved, they are skin-thin slivers of DIY punk protest.” No amount of technological progress can quite break that spell.
Stephen Coates and Paul Heartfield will be speaking about the X-Ray Audio Project at Pushkin House next Wednesday 26 July. Find out more here.
The exhibition Bone Music runs at Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art from 14 August – 5 October. Find out more here.