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1950s Soviet melomaniacs made bootleg records out of used X-rays

A collective of British artists have created a project to honour the Soviet citizens who risked their lives copying prohibited music onto bootleg discs made from x-rays to keep the party alive in the restrictive 1950s.

In a time where the Russian government exercised tight control on the music industry of the country, rabid music fans built homemade recording machines to copy banned gramophone records on used x-rays clandestinely obtained from hospitals.

In this day and age, it’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario where your tastes in entertainment could get you into legal trouble. But that was the state of things only a few generations ago.

Before the Second World War, Russian and American culture went back and forth through the Atlantic constantly influencing one another. Iconic composers like Anton Rubinstein and Sergei Rachmaninoff lived, worked and performed in the US, leaving a deep cultural mark, while jazz and mainstream pop were beloved by Russian audiences. This organic exchange of cultural goods pretty much ended after the fall of Berlin in WWII and the start of the Cold War.

Both superpowers closed their borders to the influence of the other, and governments began a fanatical witch hunt in the attempt to control the entertainment and information their citizens consumed.

During the “McCarthy era”, roughly from 1949 to 1956, the U.S government severely persecuted anything that they considered could endanger the “American way”. Particularly notorious is the way the American government scrutinised comic books and movies.

A stringent and incredibly ludicrous set of guidelines was established in 1954 by the Comics Code Authority – which surprisingly was in place until 2011, albeit with a much weaker influence – to ensure that comic books didn’t pervert kids into the the “immoralities” of communism.

Rules such as, “In every instance good shall triumph over evil …” or “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited” proved to be a creative hindrance to publishers that ultimately ended the golden era of comics and almost killed the whole industry.

Similar regulations were imposed on Hollywood through the long-defunct Hays code, and it is well documented how the infamous House of Un-American Activities Committee thwarted the career and personal lives of many of the brightest artists working in film industry of the time.

Similar actions were taken in Russia to prevent Soviet society from being infected by the “perversions” of American culture. Genres like rock & roll, jazz, Tango and the foxtrot were banned altogether.

Every artistic expression of the time had to align with Russian realism or face harsh persecution. Artists that didn’t agree with the Politburo’s point of view were often sent to concentration camps.

The 1950s saw many successful Russian artists flee the country in fear for their lives, while others like the famous tenor Vadim Kozin were imprisoned and tortured.

British artist Stephen Coates was touring in Russia with his band The Real Tuesday Weld when he discovered these particularly bizarre x-ray recordings at a flea market.

He found out that these strange vinyl type discs called ‘Bones’ or ‘Ribs’ were the reminders of an era of repression, a time where digging the wrong kind of music could cost one’s life.

The X-Ray Audio Project was created to tell this amazing story of cold war culture, human endeavour and resistance. It consists of an online archive, a book, a documentary, live events and a traveling exhibition.

In Stephen’s own words, “I came across this story in my travels to Russia to perform over the last few years.  As a musician and a lover of all things vinyl and cold war, I knew I had to tell it.  As well as the story of strange, ghostly flexi discs, it is a story of how much music can matter.”

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros