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Ribs and Bones: Digging Stacks of X-ray Wax from out Behind the Iron Curtain

By Matt Skoufalos

On tour in Russia with his band, The Real Tuesday Weld, in 2012, English musician Stephen Coates was killing time in a St. Petersburg flea market when his eyes landed on a curiosity. Coates wasn’t quite sure what it was he was looking at. The youngsters escorting him through the city couldn’t recall having seen its like, either.

It was a disc, about the same dimensions as a typical vinyl record, but far flimsier. There were no markings to offer any clue either, save an X-ray image of two arthritic, skeletal hands that dominated its surface. They were ghastly enough to draw the eye, but communicated no identifying information.

“The guy whose store it was wasn’t interested at all,” Coates said. “He regarded it as a piece of rubbish in his stall. I bought it for the equivalent of a pound, and brought it back to London and tried to play it.”

When Coates slipped the disc onto his record player at home, the speaker proclaimed, “Rock Around the Clock,” at 78 RPM. One mystery was solved, but several more presented themselves. Who made this record? Why did they do it, and how?

Thus, Coates’ seven-year journey into the mystery of the musical X-ray film led him into a historical study of the musical bootleggers who cut these peculiar recordings behind the Iron Curtain during the heights of Stalinism.

During the Cold War, the supremacy of the Soviet state was reinforced by a cultural clampdown. Any artistic expression that was perceived to undercut its authority – be it jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, or tango – was banned. Russian émigrés who fled the country in the aftermath of World War I were regarded as defectors and traitors, and the art that they created was condemned as a creeping poison from the decadent West. Meanwhile, those native Russians who sang in the style known as Gypsy Romance, didn’t need to flee the country to find themselves on the wrong side of the government.

“The flamboyance of [Gypsy Romance], the passion of it, was regarded as unhelpful for young Soviets; as conducive to the wrong sort of emotions, the wrong sort of feelings,” Coates said. “Within the Soviet Union, there was also a whole genre, blatanaya pesnya, of which the nearest equivalent would be perhaps early blues – I call it ‘Soviet Soul’ music – songs that were written about real life in the Soviet Union. That was all forbidden, totally.”

Artists who fell out of favor with the state could see their work blacklisted, or find themselves sentenced to hard labor in Gulag. Others who weren’t admitted into the state-controlled music unions that oversaw access to the recording infrastructure within Russia simply never had the opportunity to produce their works.

“Everything you produced had to be approved, had to be on-message,” Coates said.

Analogous to the black market for illicit drugs, simply possessing forbidden works of art or music wasn’t as great a crime as producing or dealing in it, he said. But simply listening to a forbidden recording in the early 1940s in Russia was a risky enough proposition. Any who gathered to play it would have to keep the volume low enough not to draw the attention of the neighbors. By the late 1950s, the mood had shifted enough that provocateurs could balance a portable record player on a balcony window and blast Bill Haley and His Comets to disturb the neighbors without necessarily drawing the ire of the government.

“By then it became more of an antisocial issue, a punk issue, rather than being an ideological sympathizer with the capitalist aggressor,” Coates said. “After Stalin’s death, it got easier.”

As for how these bootlegs were created in the first place, Coates’ research led him to believe that the process was invented or discovered in Budapest, Hungary. There, amateur engineers who, he describes as “the sort of people who might like CB radio, or love tinkering with electronics in garages,” were experimenting with devices called recording lathes.

Recording lathes transfer the signal from an audio source to a secondary, physical material in real-time by vibrating a cutting needle; like a record playback in reverse. As compared with the mass-production technique by which vinyl records are stamped from a metal master, the recording lathe is much slower and more prone to variable results depending upon the media it is fed. In 1930s Eastern Europe, blank records were in short supply, but the Hungarian hobbyists upon whose ingenuity the Soviet bootleg empire was built had plenty of X-ray film.

“It was difficult to come by commercial materials, and you’ve got a lot of ingenious people just trying stuff out,” Coates said. “There was a plentiful supply of old X-ray films because everybody was scanned for tuberculosis, and the radiography technicians had to get rid of it because silver nitrate film is flammable; a dangerous thing to keep around.”

“When the bootleggers figured out you could record on it, they would show up at the hospital with a few rubles or some vodka,” he said. “It was a natural trade.”

These records have been referred to as “bone music,” “bones,” or “ribs,” because so many of the recordings were pressed onto chest X-rays in the age of diagnostic screening for tuberculosis.

Coates has collected these stories in a book called “X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone.” His research has also yielded a long-form BBC documentary, “Roentgenizdat” (note the cognate “roentgen,” the legacy unit of measurement of ionizing radiation, such as is found in an X-ray), a touring exhibition, and the upcoming book, “BONE MUSIC,” a revised and expanded edition of his earlier work.

Coates also has also recorded live musical performances to X-ray film to demonstrate the process, featuring prominent artists like Sonic Youth and Massive Attack as well as the philosopher Noam Chomsky.

When he exhibits these works, Coates said he’s often approached by medical professionals keen to tell him which parts of the body appear on the X-ray films, or to offer diagnoses of their ailments.

“I think there is a poignancy when you discover the story of these records,” he said. “There’s something very intimate about these images of the interior of somebody; they’re often images of pain.”

“The combination of that with music which was deeply loved, but forbidden, and secretly enjoyed; there’s something about these things coming together that is quite poignant and poetic,” Coates said.

Much has changed since the days when X-ray records were the only way to hear American rock ‘n’ roll in Russia – Coates has since been invited to exhibit the X-Ray Audio Project at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow – and yet hardly anyone younger than 40 or 50 knew of their existence, or of the black market that supported it.

“It was unofficial, so there’s not much written record about it,” Coates said. “For all the people who do vaguely remember these, young people didn’t know about it at all. They’ve had a very big blind spot about their Soviet past, because it was seen as shameful, and that’s changing.”

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