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Soviet “hipsters” secretly shared Western music by pressing homemade records on X-rays

on August 14, 2014, 2:01pm

Photo via Flickr/Andrew Ellis

Those who were here in the US to witness the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s and ’60s should consider themselves lucky. My parents, who were born and raised in the Philippines, used to tell me all about the afternoons they’d spend anxiously sitting by a friend’s radio — usually one of the very few in their small, provincial towns — in hopes of hearing songs by The Beatles and Elvis Presley. These anecdotes reflect a time that seems so far removed from today, one where Western music was incredibly difficult to access if you were on the other side of the globe.

Still, it’s not just geography that’s limited people from hearing rock ‘n’ roll. For those living in the U.S.S.R. at the time, Stalin’s government had totally restricted the dissemination of Western music. But there was one group of people called “stilyagi” (or “hipsters,” as we’d call them today) who were able to effectively distribute and keep such music alive in the Soviet Union using one of the sneakiest, most inventive ways imaginable: They’d press records on disposed X-Rays, which they collected en masse from hospital dumpsters.

These homemade records, dubbed “bone music,” didn’t actually cost much to manufacture, and eventually spawned an entire network of underground distributors, according to FastCoDesign:

These records only played on a single side, and the quality was low, but they were extremely cheap: A single disc only cost about one ruble on the black market, as opposed to five rubles for a two sided-disc. And it was subversive. According to Artemy Troitsky’s 1987 book Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia, they often contained surprises for the listener: “Let’s say, a few seconds of American rock’n’roll, then a mocking voice in Russian asking: “So, thought you’d take a listen to the latest sounds, eh?” followed by a few choice epithets addressed to fans of stylish rhythms, then silence.”

Soon, an entire underground network of bone music record distributors popped up, called the roentgenizdat, or X-Ray press. Analogous to the samizdat that reproduced censored publications across the Soviet bloc, the roentgenizdat was soon distributing millions of Western records.

Unfortunately, government officials finally caught on, and “bone music” was made illegal in 1958.

For a short look at the process behind “bone music” records, watch the opening minutes of the 2008 Russian film Stilyagi. For more pictures of the actual LPs, head to FastCoDesign.