Bone Music

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Let’s go back to the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

Alexander Genis:
There was a terrible hunger for anything that came from the West. Anything at all. It doesn’t matter what.

Roman Mars:
This is Alexander Genis, Russian writer and broadcaster.

Alexander Genis:
For example, lighter – ‘boleye legkiy.’ How important was lighter. American lighter, it was like treasure.

Roman Mars:
But a lighter is just a lighter. During the Cold War, what many Russians really craved were expressions of creativity and art, much of which came from the West. They wanted Western music.

Alexander Genis:
There was, of course, American Western music, and Western music was incredibly important. They were crazy about jazz.

Roman Mars:
They were crazy about jazz and rock and roll.

Alexander Genis:
Of course, Elvis Presley.

Roman Mars:
And it was extremely hard to smuggle in vinyl records that were made in the West, and if a prized album did make it in, ordinary Russians couldn’t make copies to sell or trade to their fellow comrades because vinyl, the material itself, was impossibly expensive and scarce.

Alexander Genis:
So we didn’t have any records. I didn’t even see a record, I think, in my life – a Western record – because it was dangerous.

Davia Nelson:
Soviet censorship was endless. But so was Russian ingenuity.

Roman Mars:
That’s Davia Nelson. She and Nikki Silva are ‘The Kitchen Sisters’, and they produce the Radiotopia podcast ‘Fugitive Waves’.

Davia Nelson:
So the dissident music counterculture produced bootleg records on anything they could get their hands on.

Sergei Khrushchev:
Before the tape recorders, they used x-ray film of your bones.

Davia Nelson:
They used x-ray film of your bones.

Roman Mars:
This is Sergei Khrushchev.

Sergei Khrushchev:
And they tape all this, the music from United States or from Europe, so it was ‘muzyka na kostyakh.’ ‘Music on the bones.’

Davia Nelson:
Music on the bone, rock on ribs, rib rock, skeleton music, bone records.

Roman Mars:
Yes. That Khrushchev.

Sergei Khrushchev:
My father was Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964. It’s the beginning of all this American music, then. Jazz, rock and roll, everything coming there. They did not broadcast it from the official radio.

Roman Mars:
The Kitchen Sisters first learned of bone music records when they interviewed Sergei Khrushchev about the dissident activity taking place in people’s tiny kitchens in the new Khrushchev apartments that his father had built in the 1960s.

Davia Nelson:
These private kitchens became the hotspots of the culture, the place to gather for the free expression of ideas. With the KGB lurking almost everywhere and nearly every phone line bugged, these individual kitchens made it possible for friends to gather privately and speak their minds. With vodka flowing and pickles and herring piled high on the tables, these dissident kitchens became unofficial lecture halls, nightclubs, art galleries, bars, dating services. The place where politics were debated, forbidden music was played, and underground art and literature circulated. It was amazing, the lengths people went to share uncensored culture and politics. The risks they took to see a forbidden painting, read a banned book or listen to a song.

Xenia Vytuleva:
Music on bones is the illegal production of records on exposed x-ray film.

Roman Mars:
This is Xenia Vytuleva. She’s a visiting professor at Columbia in the Department of History and Theory of Architecture.

Xenia Vytuleva:
And it was a dissident practice in the USSR, primarily during the Cold War.

Alexander Genis:
The first studio which produced records on ribs was ‘Golden Dog.’

Davia Nelson:
Named in tribute to Nipper, RCA Victor’s famous dog logo.

Alexander Genis:
Golden Dog.

Davia Nelson:
The Golden Dog Gang.

Alexander Genis:
Ruslan Bogoslowski was engineer, got the idea to use old x-ray.

Roman Mars:
Bogoslowski reverse-engineered a record duplication machine that a friend of his had brought from the West and put it to work. Raw vinyl plastic and other durable materials to make records was basically non-existent, so Bogoslowski tried to use whatever was available to scratch out copies of the records that were smuggled in. Coated paper was the most common source material on which to print copies, but those records only lasted a few plays on a turntable. Bootlegs could only make a big impact in the black market if they were more durable and had higher fidelity. That’s when he thought of using discarded x-rays.

Xenia Vytuleva:
Taken from the hospital trash and medical archives in order to make a kind of phonographic recording, a copy of a Western vinyl record.

Roman Mars:
But to talk only about the ingenuity of bone records doesn’t really do them justice.

Davia Nelson:
They’re ghostly, beautiful, haunting, transparent, and just ever so slightly creepy: x-ray plates thicker than the ones we grew up with. Ribs, feet, tarsals, metatarsals, femurs, tumors, kidneys, all with a slight etching of circles of sound scratched onto them.

Roman Mars:
And you can see the rough edges of the graft, which reflects the level of hardship that was being overcome.

Anya Von Bremzen:
These bone records came out of what the Russians called ‘total nyy defitsit’, total shortages of absolutely everything.

Roman Mars:
That’s Anya Von Bremzen. She’s a food and culture writer.

Anya Von Bremzen:
So they would take an x-ray, they would cut it, trim it in the shape of a record.

Alexander Genis:
I’m working on the very rough-made circles of x-ray. You see how uneven the cut, because it’s made with scissors, and you can see simply through the record. You can see the x-ray of skull. It’s like from Hamlet.

Xenia Vytuleva:
These records were cut with manicure scissors.

Anya Von Bremzen:
Then with a cigarette, they would burn the middle out so you could actually play it.

Roman Mars:
These strange homemade creations were eventually put on the market. The black market, of course.

Alexander Genis:
It was a shadow industry, like moonshine. It was pop culture moonshining. My brother, he got us x-ray records. “Love Me Tender”, just his most precious things in his life. This record was very, very expensive. You have to pay weekly salary, something like three bottles of vodka, and everything was divided on bottles of vodka, everything.

Xenia Vytuleva:
They were sold in underground cafes under the table.

Alexander Genis:
You can never check what you buy because it’s in dark alleys. They give you something and they promise that it is Elvis Presley but you don’t know. And you can’t complain because you never meet these people again.

Gregory Freidin:
I remember the first one I heard was Chubby Checker’s.

Roman Mars:
That’s Gregory Freidin, Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literature at Stanford.

Gregory Freidin:
When I became a teenager myself, I used to go and shop for them. The black market was opposite the official Soviet record store ‘Melodiya’, right in the center of Moscow. There was a courtyard where there were young men in long overcoats. You would walk up to them and you ask them what they had and they would open the overcoat and would say, this is Chubby Checker’s, this is Elvis Presley, and this is ‘The Twist.’ They had the whole catalog, the whole display cases on the inside of the overcoat.

Roman Mars:
It’s pretty easy to look back on this practice and find it to be light, subversive fun, but this was serious business.

Xenia Vytuleva:
There was an official music patrol initiated by the KGB to track the production of this anti-USSR activity.

Davia Nelson:
Punishments could be extreme. People making and buying bone records were always looking over their shoulders.

Anya Von Bremzen:
In the ’50s, the owners of this recording studio got arrested for spreading Western propaganda.

Voiceover:
“Moscow (UPI). A Russian vice squad uncovered a clandestine record company recording Western-style music in a vast underground studio in Leningrad. The report said officials shut down the operation, which had pressed records on the Golden Dog label for big profits.”

Anya Von Bremzen:
You could get three to five years for illegally copying music.

Roman Mars:
The x-ray innovator himself, Ruslan Bogoslowski, was sentenced to five years’ prison in Siberia.

Davia Nelson:
But cracking down on the pirates copying the disc wasn’t the only way the state was combating the scourge of bone records. They pirated the pirates.

Alexander Genis:
The Soviet government attempted to flood the market of bone records by creating unplayable records in an effort to kill the demand. They would either make records that would physically mess with players, or they would include work or recording in the middle of the music saying things like, “you like rock and roll? (beep) you, anti-Soviet slime.”

Alexander Genis:
This is ‘Cheek to Cheek.’ ‘Shcheka k Shcheke’ is Russian translation.

Anya Von Bremzen:
You could easily identify them because there were no labels. So you say, this is lungs and that means Elvis, and this is dad’s brain tumor and that means Duke Ellington.

Xenia Vytuleva:
These exposed x-rays became a new form of secret and precious information. Western hits recorded on the interiors of Soviet citizens.

Roman Mars:
Bone Music was a collaboration between The Kitchen Sisters and 99% Invisible. You can hear more about bone music and the x-ray records that Jack White and Gibby Haynes made for Third Man Records on The Kitchen Sisters podcast. It’s called Fugitive Waves. Subscribe today. The Kitchen Sisters are Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, with help from Brandi Howell, Andrew Roth, and Nathan Dalton.

  1. horsed bean

    Fun fact, whenever there is anything noteworthy coming from west, it’s DUE TO ingenuity of capitalism or “the west” but when same happens in ussr, it’s DESPITE communism or soviet union.

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