Retro Tech Spotlight: Bone Music

As a monthly feature of this blog, Audiogon looks at some of the technological marvels of the past that may have preceded your birth, escaped your memory, or come and gone without ever having made an impression. This month, we take a look at bone music.

Is that a knee? A hip? Is it two different X-rays? What it IS is a very crude recording of The Stooges’ “Fun House,” taken from the author’s collection.

The foot bone’s connected to the leg bone. The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone. The knee bone is broken, comrade, and will need to be put in a cast. And this X-ray will be repurposed into a makeshift gramophone recording of The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” And that’s how Soviets got a hold of Western music back in the day. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dancing bones, doin’ the skeleton dance …

Crude gramophone recordings cut into used X-rays were the primary means by which music that had been banned for broadcast and sale in the Soviet Union were distributed during the Cold War. This included not only Western music – like rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues, and jazz – but also the work of banned emigre musicians.

Typically, discarded X-ray film would be scavenged out of the trash bins of hospitals or, even better, sold on the black market by enterprising medical employees to willing bootleggers. The thin film would then be cut into 7-inch discs, and grooves cut in real-time by hand at 78 RPM, as 33s and 45s were completely foreign to the Soviet market, being relatively new Western innovations.

These recordings were known by many names, including “ribs” (рёбра), “music on ribs” (Музыка на рёбрах), “jazz on bones” (Джаз на костях) or simply “bones” or “bone music” (Roentgenizdat). They sounded awful, and usually lasted no more than a dozen plays at most, but they were cheap, and they provided the Soviet populace – in particular, disenchanted Soviet youth – with a keyhole look into another, forbidden world.

The Soviet government saw bone music as enough of a threat that it passed a law banned its production in 1958. But that didn’t stop the tide, as generations of Soviets would be exposed to the likes of Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Elton John, the last of whom would find that more than a few concertgoers knew the lyrics when he became one of the first Western artists to perform in the USSR in 1979.

The eight-date visit prompted Soviet authorities to issue John’s 1978 LP A Single Man on the state-owned Melodiya record label after his departure. It was the first Western pop album ever released in the USSR. Shortly thereafter, music by other Western artists began being made available in the Soviet Union, and dem bones no longer became necessary.

It isn’t that difficult to find bone music nowadays, thanks to the Internet, as there are plenty of examples available for sale on various sites, although you’ll pay more than the couple of rubles that Soviet peasants paid back in the day. Just remember that you’re not buying these for sound quality. The grooves on most of these examples are already well-worn, and they didn’t sound good to begin with. Just think of it as doing your part to keep The Skeleton Dance alive.

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