March 16, 2018
Today’s blog comes from the world of the Russian music industry in the 1950s. What you are about to read is one of those very, very cool facts that you’ll be bringing up during pub conversations for years. Go and grab a cuppa, sit back and enjoy the next few minutes of a story that we think is well worth its place on our pages.
Jazz on Bones is a succinct way of summing up what we are referring to with other official names used for these improvised gramophone records including ‘Ribs’ and ‘Music on ribs’. During the Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s, a lot of foreign music was prohibited from distribution, meaning that music lovers had to turn to illicit means to enjoy a record from the likes of The Rolling Stones, Elvis and The Beatles.
The solution was to start up a black market around ‘Jazz on Bones’; real medical x-rays were purchased or picked from the rubbish bins of hospitals and cut down to 7-inch discs, the perfect size of a record. The centre hole was created using a cigarette, before grooves at 78rpm were cut into the ‘record’ using specialised equipment and skilled conspiratorial hands.
Amazing, right? Somewhat but unfortunately the quality of the recordings was absolutely terrible, as you might expect from a do-it-yourself recording studio. Even so, this being the black market, the price was low and if you wanted to hear the music then you had no choice but to pay. How else was a Soviet music lover able to hear the latest release from Bill Haley, The Beach Boys or Ella Fitzgerald?
The materials used unfortunately meant that most x-ray records could only be played 5 to 10 times before becoming completely unlistenable. Even so, this underground music movement was so prevalent that laws were passed to put a stop to it; the home production of recordings was banned under the explanation of being “a criminally hooligan trend”, which referenced a subculture of Soviet teens who enjoyed referencing the West through what they wore and how they danced.
Due to the nature of the ‘business’, there aren’t too many resources to find out which records were pirated and sold into the Soviet market. Although a fair number survive today, English musician Stephen Coates took to launching The X-Ray Audio Project, which works to preserve images, recordings and interviews with those involved. Want to hear more? Feel free to watch his TED talk on the subject.
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By Henry Fosdike