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bones slide 33

The secret history of the Soviet X-ray vinyl black market

The ‘music on ribs’ sold by dealers who bought X-rays from the back door of hospitals and pressed forbidden music onto them

“People tend to tell this story as one of Russian hipsters breaking the system by pirating Western music. Well, that's just not accurate at all.”

Stephen Coates is explaining the remarkable story behind his X-Ray Audio Project. Coates, a musician who’s been performing in Russia for ten years with his band The Real Tuesday Weld, four years ago stumbled across what he thought was a vinyl-type disc cut onto an x-ray in a St. Petersburg flea market.

After taking it back to London and establishing that it was, in fact, a record, he set to work uncovering the secret history behind these records cut onto intimate, illicitly procured X-rays. The narrative surrounding these bootlegged records with the macabre nicknames of “bones” or ”ribs” expose an outlandish tale of Russian bootleggers living during the early Cold War years. The records tell a story of how the Soviet state stole people’s culture and history and tried to feed it back to them, santitised and soulless. They tell the story of the ingenuity, imagination and tenacity of music lovers living under the iron rule of communism. And they show how, in the face of relative technological primitivism, ordinary people were determined to provide a continuity of their own culture.

The chronicle of Russia’s X-ray records continues to resonate and capture people’s attention today. So much so, in fact, that the X-ray Audio project has spawned a documentary, a TED talk, a book and will, in 2017, take part in an as yet unannounced exhibition at Garazh, Moscow’s Museum of Contemporary Art in Gorky Park. Not bad for an ancient bit of film paper picked up in a Petersburg market. With all this in mind, plus a sprinkling of classic cold war curiosity, we caught up with Coates to uncover the story of music on ribs.

Why did people start bootlegging records?

Stephen Coates: Post Second World War a huge amount of music became forbidden across the Soviet Union and in Russia. First, obviously, was Western music. Jazz, rock and roll and so on. During the war Russians had been listening to all that music. The Brits, the Americans and the Russians – we’d all been on the same team so young people were exposed to American music, mainly through films, and they got a bit of a taste for it. And then suddenly bang! The Iron Curtain comes down. You can't listen to that anymore.

But also, and this is really important and hasn’t been made apparent in other things that have been written about the story, most of the music on these X-Ray records is Russian music. Forbidden Russian music. And it was forbidden for various reasons. One of the main things was that the musicians who had made it had become forbidden themselves. There were Russian émigré singers who didn't come back to join the communist movement, they lived abroad in Western Europe – they became forbidden and so did their repertoires. Some of them had been absolutely huge stars, people like Pyotr Leshchenko, “The King of Russian Tango”.

Then of course as the terror progressed, whole rhythms started to become forbidden: tango, foxtrot, mambo. Also traditional folk music and gypsy music. The urban folk styles were very, very popular in the Gulag – they were coarse songs about criminal life and were regarded as counter-revolutionary – overly sensuous and ‘not helpful for young minds’. The third chunk of Russian music was the music that people wanted to make and write and record themselves. There was no possibility of being a singer-songwriter or a musician recording yourself in the Soviet Union. You had to be a member of the composers union, so unless you'd been officially approved there was no opportunity to record.

And how did it all start?

Stephen Coates: Well, as far as we can tell a guy turned up in St. Petersburg just after the war carrying a recording lathe – a device you can use to make records with, sort of a portable record writer. That's what seems to have kickstarted it. People copied that machine and made their own versions of it and the technique of X-ray recording started to spread. In terms of Soviet bootleg culture generally there were three phases: there was the X-ray phase, then the much, much bigger Magnitizdat phase, the bootlegging and sharing of music via reel-to-reel tapes, and then came cassette culture. The X-Ray bit was quite small compared with what came later. It started off as sort of a little cult of audiophiles and music lovers. By the time it ended round about 1964 it had become a black market thing and was fairly widespread across the big cities – St. Petersburg, Moscow, Rostov... It became so widespread that people were doing it in the garden shed!

“Songs about fighting and fucking, well they didn’t do that, so the authorities wanted to get rid of them. There was a huge subculture of native Russian music that was nearly wiped out” – Stephen Coates

Can you talk a little more about the émigré and traditional music?

Stephen Coates: When you're living in the utopia, or dystopia, of the socialist realist system, every bit of culture is meant to contribute to the values of that system. Songs about fighting and fucking, well they didn’t do that, so the authorities wanted to get rid of them. There was a huge subculture of native Russian music that was nearly wiped out: it had no voice. So the X-Ray records were a way people could listen to these songs. Songs like “Murka”, (a classic Russian example of blatnyak music) is a song about a female criminal gang member who turned informer and ended up getting shot... tales of the underworld! They were incredibly popular in the Gulag system. Camps were like mini-cities with their own cultures. When people came out of them, they wanted to sing the songs that they’d learned. While American music connected Russians to the Western world, traditional music rooted them in their own history. It was pre-revolutionary music or music made post-revolution but not to do with it – just to do with life.

Why did the bootleggers use X-Rays to record the music?

Stephen Coates: There are two reasons, really. Firstly, X-rays themselves are photographic film. You can record onto many plastic type materials but X-rays that at that time just happened to be pretty good at holding the groove of recorded music. That was just technical chance. The second reason they used X-rays was because they were readily available. The Soviet authorities had issued an order that hospitals had to get rid of X-rays after a year because they were highly flammable. So you had a situation where hospitals needed to get rid of X-rays and the bootleggers wanted them. It was a natural match! They would literally go to the back door of the hospital, tap on the door and an illicit trade would take place, a swap for a bottle of vodka or a few roubles.

What would happen to people caught with the records?

Stephen Coates: If you were a punter then they'd be confiscated. You might get a slap on the wrist and a dressing down. If you were a repeat offender it'd go on your record and it might affect your future prospects. If you were a dealer you ran the risk of a prison sentence. And if you were somebody who was making them? Yeah, you faced prison. I met a bootlegger who spent two years in prison during the 60s. And there were others who spent a lot longer. There were others who got sent to prison, came out, carried on and got sent back. So it was definitely a dangerous thing to do.

Why did people keep offending?

Stephen Coates: In Russia you could be a music lover and an idealist and want to share music while also wanting to make some money out of it on the black market. They weren't mutually exclusive. But in the early bootleggers' cases I think they were really motivated by the music. One of the guys I spoke to called himself a ‘culture trader’. He felt like he had a mission, a mission he said came from God to actually spread culture. His motivation came from that. But did he enjoy making money from it and being the cool dude selling records? For sure. 

“You'd be listening to Ella Fitzgerald or whatever and then suddenly the music would cut and a voice would come in saying ‘so you thought you'd listen to some jazz did you, fucker’”

How important was having this music and these spaces to fostering a subculture?

Stephen Coates: You assume that people would build up a collection of records, don't you? But the thing to remember about these records is that they were disposable. They didn't last that long, particularly in the early days when they were played on old-fashioned gramophones with steel needles, they'd get torn to pieces. So it was a transient collection. Most people I spoke to just loved music. Imagine you'd been massively digging a record and someone suddenly ‘you can't listen to that anymore’. Or the song you first danced to with your partner to? People wanted to listen to that stuff. They wanted to go round to their friends’ houses and play it. Kids, that's what they want to do, isn't it? They want to sit with their mates and go ‘have you heard this? It's cool.’ Maybe they want to have a dance?

There was a subculture – the most famous Soviet youth culture, the only Soviet youth culture there ever was really – called the Stilyagi. A bunch of young people in St. Petersburg and Moscow in the late 1940s and early 50s, I guess we would call them hipsters. They dressed in the way they thought American and British kids dressed, but a distorted version of that... something they'd glimpsed in a magazine. They used American slang and they hung out together and listened to American records on X-ray. The Stilyagi were a specific stylistic culture, but I think generally speaking young people just wanted to listen to their records.

What's the strangest thing you've heard during your research?

Stephen Coates: There’s a story I've heard many times now from different people. I'm starting to think it's either true or a very convincing urban legend. Apparently there were certain records you'd put on and you'd be listening to Ella Fitzgerald or whatever and then suddenly the music would cut and a voice would come in saying ‘so you thought you'd listen to some jazz did you, fucker’? And the different versions of this story were that the authorities had actually recorded these records to freak people out, or that the bootleggers had done it as a sort of prank. It would have been absolutely terrifying.

For the X-Ray Audio Project’s site and to get a copy of the book click here.