The Soviets Who Bootlegged Western Music on X‑Rays: Their Story Told in New Video & Audio Documentaries

When you learn that Sovi­et music-lovers bootleged West­ern rock, pop, jazz, and more on the sur­faces of dis­card­ed x‑ray plates, you can’t help but want to learn a bit about it. We post­ed about that curi­ous Cold War phe­nom­e­non back in 2014, but much more mate­r­i­al on this cul­ture of “bone music” has emerged in the years since, includ­ing Stephen Coates and Paul Heart­field­’s book X‑Ray Audio: The Strange Sto­ry of Sovi­et Music on the Bone. They also put togeth­er the four­teen-minute com­pan­ion doc­u­men­tary above, fea­tur­ing con­ver­sa­tions with some of the actu­al par­tic­i­pants in this for­bid­den musi­cal scene which last­ed rough­ly from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, when tape recorders came around and the cen­sors loos­ened up.

“This is a tru­ly fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject that seems to cap­ti­vate peo­ple by com­bin­ing pain and suf­fer­ing reflect­ed in the X‑rays with the plea­sure of lis­ten­ing to music,” writes film­mak­er and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Michael Dzierza, who pro­duced the short video above on Coates and Hart­field­’s work with x‑ray audio in which they dis­cuss the ori­gins of their fas­ci­na­tion with this illic­it medi­um and how that fas­ci­na­tion turned into a sub­ject for a long-term mul­ti­me­dia research project.

The world of bone music also became the high­ly suit­able sub­ject for an episode of Fugi­tive Waves, the pod­cast by radio pro­duc­ers the Kitchen Sis­ters on “lost record­ings and shards of sound, along with new tales from remark­able peo­ple around the world — peo­ple with a mis­sion, a pur­pose, a sto­ry to tell”:

The Sovi­ets who made it pos­si­ble for their fel­low cit­i­zens to enjoy the sounds they craved — whether music for­bid­den for its for­eign ori­gin or music per­formed by musi­cians hail­ing from U.S.S.R. coun­tries but deemed insuf­fi­cient­ly loy­al to the regime — cer­tain­ly had a mis­sion, pur­pose, and sto­ry to tell, and their efforts have left as cul­tur­al arti­facts some of the more fas­ci­nat­ing lost record­ings and shards of sound in recent his­to­ry. Now that almost every­one in the devel­oped world takes for grant­ed their 21st-cen­tu­ry abil­i­ty to share high-fideli­ty music more or less instant­ly, it can restore a mea­sure of grat­i­tude to learn more about these med­ical records turned musi­cal records, passed in dark alleys between one trench­coat to anoth­er under the ever-present threat of impris­on­ment. The vinyl revival has hap­pened; could an x‑ray audio revival be on its way?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

“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)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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