Bones And Grooves: The Weird Secret History Of Soviet X-Ray Music

Bones And Grooves: The Weird Secret History Of Soviet X-Ray Music

9:29am Jan 10, 2016
X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone explores a curious bootlegging practice that arose in Cold War Russia.
X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone explores a curious bootlegging practice that arose in Cold War Russia.
Strange Attractor Press
  • X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone explores a curious bootlegging practice that arose in Cold War Russia.

    X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone explores a curious bootlegging practice that arose in Cold War Russia.

    Strange Attractor Press

  • X-Ray Audio author Stephen Coates also fronts the British band The Real Tuesday Weld.

    X-Ray Audio author Stephen Coates also fronts the British band The Real Tuesday Weld.

    Paul Heartfield / Courtesy of the artist

Western music may have been changing the world in the 1950s, but if you happened to be in Russia you were out of luck. State censorship was in full effect in the Soviet Union, and sneaking in, say, an American rock record was close to impossible. But a few industrious music fans managed to find another way.

Stephen Coates, the leader of a British band called The Real Tuesday Weld, happened on this secret history by accident. Several years ago on a tour stop in St. Petersburg, he was strolling through a flea market when a strange item caught his eye.

"I thought, 'Is that a record? Or is it an X-ray?' I picked it up, and it seemed to be both," he recounts. "They guy whose stall it was was a bit dismissive — I think he wanted me to buy something else. But I brought it back to London, and I was fascinated by it. So I started to dig, and that has led me on a very strange journey."

Coates is now an obsessive of what is nicknamed "bone music" — makeshift LPs etched into used X-rays, which were playable on a turntable and provided a fitting disguise for their contraband contents. He's collected his findings in a new book called X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone, and he joined NPR's Michel Martin to talk about it. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

Michel Martin: Describe to me what a bone record looks like. Were they cut round, like records are?

Stephen Coates: So, they would start off with a square or rectangular X-ray, then probably put a plate on it, draw around it with a pen and cut it out by hand. I mean, often the circumference is quite ragged.

How did it occur to you to play the one you found? If I came across a scratched-up X-ray in a flea market, I'm not sure that it would occur to me to play it as a record.

Well, the thing is, it looks like a record. If you see these things, they've got a hole in the middle. They've got a groove on them; it's often very faint because it's very shallow. It plays at 78 [RPM] — that was the first thing to find out — and it's only one-sided, as well. I found all these things out by discovery, and went from there.

What can you tell us about how they figured out how to do this, and how widespread this practice was?

What happened was, it's 1946 or so. The Second World War is over but a much colder war has begun, and in the Soviet Union a lot of culture was subject to a censor, whether it be art, paintings, architecture, film. In St. Petersburg — Leningrad, as it was then — a guy turned up, and he had a war trophy with him. That war trophy was what's called a recording lathe: It's like a gramophone in reverse, a device which you can use to write the grooves of music onto plastic. People who came into his shop observed what he was doing, and, as is the Russian way, they "bootlegged" his machine and made their own machines.

It was a bit like dealing or buying drugs, actually. These records were bought and sold on street corners, in dark alleyways, in the park. We did hear a funny thing, which was that if you asked for a particular song — say, "Rock Around the Clock" — and the dealer didn't have it, quite often they would say, "Yeah, I've got that," and they would go in the corner and write "Rock Around the Clock" on one of their other records and give it to you. So there's lots of stories about people buying these records, and they may not have even known what "Rock Around the Clock" sounded like. They'd go home and put it on and it could have been anything, and they were like, "Yeah, that's Bill Haley. He's great!"

Listening to some of these, the quality's actually not bad considering how they were made.

I mean, they do vary in quality, hugely. Some were virtually unlistenable. But that didn't seem to matter, in some ways. I mean, talking to people who bought these records when they were young — even the tiniest thread of melody, of this forbidden sound, was so exciting. And it led to a different world, really, a world of freedom, [even though the music was] not obviously anti-Soviet. You would think, "Why would that mambo be regarded as something worth forbidding?"

I was actually thinking that myself. It opens up all kinds of questions about what people think is dangerous, doesn't it?

It really does. And of course, in some [cases] it's obvious: rock 'n' roll, jazz, the music of America, the music of the UK. But with other stuff, it got very strange in the Soviet Union. Latin rhythms — the mambo, the tango — were forbidden because they were seen as being overly sensuous, if you like, encouraging the wrong sort of passions in young people. I mean, the saxophone became forbidden for a while.

As a musician yourself, this must have made you think about just how important music is to people, that they would go to such lengths to hear it.

For me, the thing that's really poignant is that some of these people went to prison for doing this — they were punished quite severely for it. This was a time when music mattered so much that people would risk public censure, they would risk imprisonment. We live in a time when you can get anything you want immediately. Music is abundant, and that's great, of course. But I wonder, as somebody who makes music, how much does music matter now? Does it matter as much as it used to? This was a time when it mattered immensely, and that's food for thought, for all of us I think.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today, a story about just how far people are willing to go for the love of music. I'm talking about the Soviet Union in the 1950s, a time when Western music was changing the world. But it was forbidden in Russia. Sneaking in a pile of records was dangerous, pressing your own vinyl almost impossible. But some industrious music fans found out that they could etch grooves into used x-rays - you know, pictures of bones - and the music would play. Let's listen and imagine an x-rayed rib cage or ankle bone spinning on a turntable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LULLABY OF BIRDLAND")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) Oh, lullaby of birdland, that's what I always hear when you sigh. Never in my worldland could there be words to reveal in a phrase how I feel...

MARTIN: Not bad. Rudy Fuchs was one of the makers of these bootleg recordings that came to be called bone records.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED DOCUMENTARY FILM)

RUDY FUCHS: I heard my first rock 'n' roll "Rock Around The Clock."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK")

BILL HALEY AND HIS COMETS: (Singing) One, 2, 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 5...

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED DOCUMENTARY FILM)

FUCHS: I would like to show that music to my friends. There is no magnetic tape, nothing else. And I tried recording the hand-made machine, which I have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK")

BILL HALEY AND HIS COMETS: (Singing) We're going to rock around the clock tonight...

MARTIN: Fuchs was interviewed for a forthcoming documentary by Stephen Coates.

STEPHEN COATES: One o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock rock - it's not deeply anti-Soviet stuff. It's not deeply anything, is it, you know? But, actually, of course, contained in it is this instruction actually to drop everything else and dance. And, of course, that was regarded as being deeply off-message.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK")

BILL HALEY AND HIS COMETS: (Singing) We're going to rock, going to rock around the clock tonight.

MARTIN: Stephen Coates fronts a band called The Real Tuesday Weld. During a tour stop in St. Petersburg a few years ago, he discovered one of the few remaining bone records in a flea market. And ever since then, he's been obsessed.

COATES: I came across this stall. There's lots of strange things on it. And one of them, I saw and I thought, is that a record or is it an x-ray? And I picked up and it seemed to be both. And I asked my friends about it - my Russian friends - they didn't know anything about it whatsoever. The guy whose store it was, was a bit dismissive. I think he wanted me to buy something else, you know? But I brought it back to London, and I was fascinated by it. So I started to dig, and that has led me on a very strange journey.

MARTIN: Were they cut round, like records are?

COATES: Yeah, so, I mean, they would start off with a square or rectangular x-ray and then literally, you know, probably, put a plate on it and draw around it with a pen and cut it out by hand. I mean, often the circumference is quite ragged.

MARTIN: What occurred to you to play it? I'm not sure if I came across a scratched-up x-ray in a flea market - you know, I have been known to buy a few things - but that it would occur to me play it as a record (laughter).

COATES: Well, the thing is it looks like a record. I mean, if you see these things, you know, they've got a hole in the middle. They've got a groove on them. It's often very faint because it's very shallow, the groove. But you can see there's a groove on there. It plays at 78 - that was the first thing to find out. So you've got to play it on a record player that's 78. It's only one-sided as well. So - but I found all these things out by discovery, you know, and went from there.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about how they figured out how to do this and how widespread this was?

COATES: Well, what happened was that it's - as you mentioned - it's 1946 also - the Second World War is over, but a much colder war has begun. And in the Soviet Union, you know, a lot of culture was subject to a censor - you know, art, paintings, architecture, film and, of course, music. And, as you mentioned, American music, British music became forbidden because it was the music of the enemy. But also a lot of Russian music became forbidden in St. Petersburg - Leningrad as it was then. A guy turned up, and he had a war trophy with him. And that war trophy was what's called a recording lathe. It's like a gramophone in reverse. It's a device which you can use to write the grooves of music onto plastic. And then people who came into his shop observed what he was doing and, as is the Russian way, they bootlegged his machine and they made their own machines. And it was a bit like dealing or buying drugs, actually. You know, these records were bought and sold on street corners, you know, in dark alleyways, in the park, you know? You would go and you would meet the dealer. You could maybe ask for, like, "Rock Around The Clock." But we did hear a funny thing, which was that if you asked for a particular song, say "Rock Around The Clock," and the dealer didn't have it, quite often they would say, yeah, I've got that. And they would go around the corner, and they would write "Rock Around The Clock," on one of their other records and bring back and give it to you. So there's lots of stories about people buying these records and getting home, and they may not have even known what "Rock Around The Clock," sounded like, so they got home and put on and it could've been anything. And they were like, yeah, that's Bill Haley. It's great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMBO ITALIANO")

MARTIN: Do you recognize that one - what is that?

COATES: It's a mambo.

MARTIN: It's a mambo?

COATES: It's "Mambo Italiano," yeah.

MARTIN: You know, it's not bad, right? I mean, considering.

COATES: It's pretty good, isn't it? Yeah. I mean, they do vary in quality hugely. I mean, some were, you know, virtually unlistenable but that didn't seem to matter actually in some ways. I mean, talking to people who bought these records when they were young, it was just this - even the tiniest thread of melody of this forbidden sound was so exciting. It led to, you know, a different world really - a world of freedom - not obviously anti-Soviet, you would think. I mean, you know, why would that mambo be regarded as something worth forbidding?

MARTIN: You know, you're right, I was actually thinking that myself, like, what's the deal with that? I mean, it opens up all kinds of questions about what people think is dangerous, doesn't it, right?

COATES: It really does. It really does. And, of course, you know, it's obvious in some ways to think, well, rock 'n' roll, jazz - the music of American, music of the U.K. But with other stuff, it got very strange in the Soviet Union. I mean, Latin rhythms - the mambo, the tango - were forbidden because they were seen as being sort of overly sensuous, if you like, encouraging the wrong sort of passions in young people. I mean, the saxophone became forbidden for a while.

MARTIN: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMBO ITALIANO")

MARTIN: As a musician, yourself, you have to be - I don't know - this gives you, probably, a lot of food for thought, right, about so many things, like what people consider OK and not OK and how - the lengths that people will go to - just how important music is to people that they would go to such lengths.

COATES: Well, I think, you know, for me, the thing which is really poignant is that some of these people went to prison for doing this. They were punished quite severely for it. And, you know, this was a time when music mattered so much that people would risk that. They would risk public sanction; they would risk imprisonment. And, of course, we live in a time when you can get anything you want immediately. Music is abundant, and that's great, of course. But I wonder, as a musician, somebody who makes music, how much does music matter now? You know, does it is a matter as much as it used to? And this is a time - this was a time when it mattered immensely. And that's food for thought for all of us, I think.

MARTIN: Stephen Coates is a bone record enthusiast. He's the author of the book "X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story Of Soviet Music On The Bone." Mr. Coates, thanks so much for speaking with us.

COATES: It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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