"I myself create it, edit it, censor it, publish it, distribute it…and get imprisoned for it." -Vladimir Bukovsky
As one of its core concepts, technology is there for us to makes things easier and more efficient. But after researching the story of ‘bone’ records, I can’t help but wonder if the romance and mystery somehow gets lost along the way. The following is a compilation of various articles and information found in Russian newspapers, online, and from first-hand accounts told by those who lived it. This is the story of the recordings made “on the bones”.
“On The Bones” refers to a practice in the 1950s when dissidents who wanted to bring banned Western music into Russia would go to hospital trash cans, secure already exposed X-ray film and then press a master disk onto the X-rays to make floppy records. It was called music “on the bones” (or “music on ribs”) because the grooves were cut on images of chest cavities and spinal columns.
Despite some Western vinyl records being smuggled through to Russia and Eastern Europe, demand far exceeded supply. Vinyl was nearly impossible to get, so even when records could miraculously cross the border, they could not be reproduced. However, soon enough, it was realized that sound grooves could be inscribed in the acetate of old x-ray plates. Thus, roentgenizdat (self-published x-ray) was born.
The machine for making these recordings was originally designed for making "sound postcards" where you could record a voice message to your relatives on a flexible record. It was commonly found in photography salons. The roentgenizdat used these amateur record engravers along with the most plentiful, useful, and cheap substitute for record blanks they could find: used x-ray negatives. The x-rays warped easily, weren’t quite as good as the real thing, but they took a groove well enough to be worth a day’s lunch money (or a half pint of vodka). According to Russian musicologist, Artemy Troitsky, the one-sided x-ray disks cost about one to one and a half rubles each on the black market, and lasted only a few months, as opposed to around five rubles for a two-sided vinyl record. The bootleg albums were sold illegally, and then played at underground night spots throughout Russia and Eastern Europe.
At first, because these ‘bone’ records had no artist name or song title printed on the record surface, the KGB didn’t realize what they were. But by the late 50′s, the roentgenizdat was discovered, and the bootlegged records were eventually made illegal in 1958. Officials took action to break up the largest ring in 1959, arresting a group of men in Leningrad who were sent to prison for seven years. An organization of “music patrols” was introduced by the Komsomol (Russian Communist youth organization) to curtail illegal music activity all over the country. American rock-n-roll was considered a great threat to the KGB, with the USSR going so far as to make it illegal to sing in English, as well as banning the word `Rok' from all media and press.
The KGB dealt with the bootlegged American records by producing their own ‘anti-American’ records. Occasionally, one would buy a ‘bone’ record at the market expecting to hear Elvis or Little Richard, but when played, after the first few bars, the music would stop and a voice would say "You want rock-n-roll? F*ck you, anti-soviet slime!”, followed by a few minutes of colorful Russian cursing and propaganda. These records were produced by the government in the attempt to flood the market with unplayable records and kill the demand.
What actually killed the ‘bone’ records was not government action, but availability of new technology in the form of the reel-to-reel tape recorders. Very soon, people were trading tapes and making copies at home, without risk of going to the market. But even after the advent of tape recorders, ‘bone’ records still remained a popular means of distribution among Soviet punk bands due to the high cost and low availability of vinyl, political suppression, and limited publishing outlets.
I first heard about ‘bone’ records while traveling through Eastern Europe in 2004. When I heard the story, it got me thinking about how drastically different our world is now in the digital age. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much is taken for granted these days. Think about how easy it is to own and listen to music now - one is able to legally download music files online with the push of a button; you don’t even have to leave your house. Whereas, back in Russia in the 50’s, it was illegal to even listen to western music, let alone own it. And on top of that, one could go to prison if caught selling bootlegged records. It seems unimaginable that this happened only 50 years ago.
I wrote the song “On The Bones” based on the story I’d been told about ‘bone’ records. Then, the rest of the album just kind of fell in place with that same rock n' roll spirit of the past. In fact, this is definitely "my 70's album". I was listening to a lot of Zep, Skynyrd, Bowie, T Rex, Sabbath, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, etc. over the course of the last year while recording it, and I think that that sound had no choice but to creep in there. I used (almost exclusively) 70's-era gear and guitars while recording to maintain the vibe. And so, thanks to the ghosts of past, I can now say that I am fully intoxicated with the dirty sound on the bones.
released September 2, 2014
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