Music is a vital part of our everyday life and it was no different for the people of the past. Even in the USSR, in the times of censorship, when many foreign tunes were banned in the country, music lovers found a way to bring it back to the people. They did it using x-ray film, thus creating a fascinating phenomena of “bone music” in Soviet Union.
Since western artists were for the most part illegal on the territory of USSR, people had to copy music in secret, using the technology available. The machines that they used were a sort of recording lathes that could write sound on a suitable surface. Surprisingly, the old x-rays appeared to be a great replacement of the usual records. X-ray film did hold the sound well enough and, what is probably the most important, they were relatively easy to acquire at the time. This is how the so called “roentgenizdat” began it’s history.
Roentgenizdat means simply “Röntgen publishing”, in honour of the inventor of the X-ray technology. This unusual practice was thriving in music bootleg circles from late 1940s until the early 1960s. Since the activity was prohibited by the government, people had to improvise: they built their own recording machines, worked in the quiet of the night in order not to be noticed. The records were produced one at a time, each of them taking a lot of time and effort. The x-rays, however convenient they were for recording illegal music, still had some disadvantages. For example their durability – unfortunately, they were fragile and were often thrown away as soon as they stopped producing the sound. Still, the devotion with which this relics of the time were created, proves that it was very much a labour of love, love for freedom and for the music that moved the hearts of people.
Later, when the records were ready, the dealers would go to the city markets and with an experienced eye they would find a group of young people to whom they whispered: “Hey, guys, I’ve got something for you”. Then, in the closest narrow alley, the sacred act of exchanging money on the desired x-ray would happen.
The records had small pencil signatures that identified the artists, but many melomanes simply referred to the records in their collection by the body parts on their surface. They fondly talked about their Gershwin recorded on the image of a pelvic bone or Duke Ellington on a hand with the crooked fingers.
The most beloved genres of music for the roentgenizdat were probably Western Rock and Roll and Jazz. But you could also easily find some Russian émigré music, prison songs and so-called “gypsy” folk tunes.
Towards the end of it’s era it became dangerous to deal illegal music on x-rays. Partially because of the persecution that one would face from the government officials, partially because of the rival bootleggers. The whole atmosphere surrounding the bone music began to resemble the atmosphere around the drugs trade and it’s cruel rules.
The culture of roentgenizdat reached it’s waning stage around 1964, when a new method of recording music was invented. Reel-to-reel cassette tape recorders became a widespread phenomena and many people were able to get ahold of them. This new equipment made music bootleg easier and marked the beginning of magnitizdat – tape publishing. They simplified the process, made possible live recordings, tapes were smaller and more convenient, and the quality of sound was much better. This new invention became the death of the music recorded on people’s bones.
But there is no denying that even though the age of x-ray records is long gone, there is something very romantic and almost mystifying about the whole idea. Nowadays many antiques enthusiasts fall under the charm of the records and hunt this beautiful pieces for their collections. Even though it is not easy to find them, especially the ones that can still play music, many say that they worth all the trouble. Their unusual and captivating look and the somewhat flawed sound still have a certain appeal and carry the unique atmosphere of the time period.