Soviets Bootlegged Western Pop Music on Discarded X‑Rays: Hear Original Audio Samples


A catchy trib­ute to mid-cen­tu­ry Sovi­et hip­sters popped up a few years back in a song called “Stilya­gi” by lo-fi L.A. hip­sters Puro Instinct. The lyrics tell of a charis­mat­ic dude who impress­es “all the girls in the neigh­bor­hood” with his “mag­ni­tiz­dat” and gui­tar. Wait, his what? His mag­ni­tiz­dat, man! Like samiz­dat, or under­ground press, mag­ni­tiz­dat—from the words for “tape recorder” and “publishing”—kept Sovi­et youth in the know with sur­rep­ti­tious record­ings of pop music. Stilya­gi (a post-war sub­cul­ture that copied its style from Hol­ly­wood movies and Amer­i­can jazz and rock and roll) made and dis­trib­uted con­tra­band music in the Sovi­et Union. But, as a recent NPR piece informs us, “before the avail­abil­i­ty of the tape recorder and dur­ing the 1950s, when vinyl was scarce, inge­nious Rus­sians began record­ing banned boot­leg jazz, boo­gie woo­gie and rock ‘n’ roll on exposed X‑ray film sal­vaged from hos­pi­tal waste bins and archives.” See one such X‑ray “record” above, and below, see the fas­ci­nat­ing process dra­ma­tized in the first scene of a 2008 Russ­ian musi­cal titled, of course, Stilya­gi (trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish as “Hipsters”—the word lit­er­al­ly means “obsessed with fash­ion”).

These records were called roent­g­e­niz­dat (X‑ray press) or, says Sergei Khrushchev (son of Niki­ta), “bone music.” Author Anya von Bremzen describes them as “for­bid­den West­ern music cap­tured on the inte­ri­ors of Sovi­et cit­i­zens”: “They would cut the X‑ray into a crude cir­cle with man­i­cure scis­sors and use a cig­a­rette to burn a hole. You’d have Elvis on the lungs, Duke Elling­ton on Aunt Masha’s brain scan….” The ghoul­ish makeshift discs sure look cool enough, but what did they sound like? Well, as you can hear below in the sam­ple of Bill Haley & His Comets from a “bone music” album, a bit like old Vic­tro­la phono­graph records played through tiny tran­sis­tor radios on a squonky AM fre­quen­cy.

Dressed in fash­ions copied from jazz and rock­a­bil­ly albums, stilya­gi learned to dance at under­ground night­clubs to these tin­ny ghosts of West­ern pop songs, and fought off the Kom­so­mol—super-square Lenin­ist youth brigades—who broke up roent­g­e­niz­dat rings and tried to sup­press the influ­ence of bour­geois West­ern pop cul­ture. Accord­ing to Arte­my Troit­sky, author of Back in the USSR: The True Sto­ry of Rock in Rus­sia, these records were also called “ribs”: “The qual­i­ty was awful, but the price was low—a rou­ble or rou­ble and a half. Often these records held sur­pris­es for the buy­er. Let’s say, a few sec­onds of Amer­i­can rock ’n’ roll, then a mock­ing voice in Russ­ian ask­ing: ‘So, thought you’d take a lis­ten to the lat­est sounds, eh?, fol­lowed by a few choice epi­thets addressed to fans of styl­ish rhythms, then silence.”

But they weren’t all cru­el cen­sor’s jokes. Thanks to a com­pa­ny called Wan­der­er Records, you can own a piece of this odd cul­tur­al his­to­ry. Roent­g­e­niz­dat records, like the scratchy Bill Haley or the Tony Ben­nett “Lul­la­by of Broad­way” disc sam­pled above, go for some­where between one and two hun­dred bucks a piece—fair prices, I’d say, for such unusu­al arti­facts, though of course wild­ly inflat­ed from their Cold War street val­ue.

See more images of bone music records over at Laugh­ing Squid and Wired co-founder Kevin Kel­ly’s blog Street Use, and above dig some his­tor­i­cal footage of stilya­gi jit­ter­bug­ging through what appears to be a kind of Sovi­et train­ing film about West­ern influ­ence on Sovi­et youth cul­ture, pro­duced no doubt dur­ing the Khrushchev thaw when, as Russ­ian writer Vladimir Voinovich tells NPR, things got “a lit­tle more lib­er­al than before.”


via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Glo­ry to the Con­querors of the Uni­verse!”: Pro­pa­gan­da Posters from the Sovi­et Space Race (1958–1963)

How to Spot a Com­mu­nist Using Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism: A 1955 Man­u­al from the U.S. Mil­i­tary

Louis Arm­strong Plays His­toric Cold War Con­certs in East Berlin & Budapest (1965)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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