Below is a guest post in which our good friend Stephen Coates of The Real Tuesday Weld tells the fascinating story of what he terms "X-Ray Audio," aka Soviet-era bootleg records made from second hand X-Ray plates and containing forbidden western music such as jazz and rock and roll; See images above for a few examples.
On Friday, May 8th, Coates and Aleks Kolkowski will teach us more about the subject in an image, film and sound filled presentation at The Morbid Anatomy Museum entitled The X-Ray Audio Project: The Incredible story of Bootleg Technology, Cold War Culture and Human Endeavour, sponsored by Art in the Age spirits. You can find out more here. You can also find more about Coates' project--and see more images and hear audio!--on his X-Ray Audio project website by clicking here.
They are images of pain and damage inscribed with the ghostly sounds of forbidden pleasure. They are fragile pictures of the inside of Soviet citizens overlayed with the music they secretly loved. I first saw one when I was wandering in a market in St. Petersburg a few years ago with Russian friends. It looked somewhat like record and somewhat like an x-ray. My friends didn't know what it was and the man who sold it to me seemed dismissive. I brought it home and tried to learn more. My research was the beginning of journey that led to a strange and poignant story. It is a story of Forbidden Culture, Bootleg technology and most of all, of Human Endeavor.
In the Soviet Union in the years after the Second World War, a lot of music was forbidden. Most Western music was forbidden just because it was Western. The official reason given might be that it was decadent or bourgeois, but really it was just because it was American or British and we were the enemy. A lot of Russian music was also forbidden. Anything made by emigres, those White Russians who had left after the revolution, was off-limits because by definition they were considered traitors, whatever their repertoire and even if they had once been approved of. And much domestic Russian music was forbidden, or at the very least deemed 'unofficial'. Why?
From 1932, all Soviet art, literature, poetry, film and music was subject to a censor. The ideologues of the Soviet Union determined that all the arts had to be in the service of socialist realism. Self expression was out. Much popular music, especially those in the 'criminal' or 'gyspy' genres were deemed to be 'low culture' and would not pass the censor. Perhaps it showed the dark side of Socialist Realism or portrayed violence, jealousy or the rough and tumble of love and lust and life. Even certain rhythms such as the foxtrot and tango were forbidden as they were said to lead to lewd behaviour and general frivolity.
But people had a huge desire to hear this music, it was their culture. They wanted to hear songs that were played in the gulag or sung by those who had returned; songs from earlier, less-controlled times; songs by artists who they had once loved but were now forbidden, even songs they had heard played by a local singer at a secret concert. And of course there was a demand for the exotic, cool sounds of Western music: boogie-woogie; rock & roll or jazz. But official records of this music would be rare and very expensive. And so a bootleg culture arose.
We had such a culture in the West too once - illicit live recordings of concerts made on vinyl or tape in the days before the internet changed everything. But even if illegal, these were relatively easy to make. In the Soviet Union after the war, it was not so easy. The bootleggers' first technical problem, obtaining a machine to record with, was relatively straightforward. Literature existed from the 1930s explaining recording techniques and various recording machines had been brought back from Germany as trophies after the war. These could be adapted or copied but a further problem existed. You couldn't just go and buy the discs to record on. The state completely controlled the means of manufacturing records.
But an extraordinary alternative source of raw materials was discovered - used x-ray plates obtained from local hospitals. And that is where this story begins. Many older people in Russia remember seeing strange vinyl-type discs when they were young. The discs had partial images of skeletons on them and were called 'bones' or 'ribs'. They contained ghostly music - music that had been forbidden. This practice of copying music onto x-rays got going in Leningrad, a port where it was easier to obtain illicit records, but it spread, first to Moscow and then throughout the Soviet Union.
With the photographer Paul Heartfield, for the last couple of years I have been interviewing and collecting images for The X-Ray Audio project, an initiative to record the testimony of people who were involved in this incredible trade. As well as live events, an exhibition and a documentary, we will be publishing a book about the x-ray bootlegs and the people who made them with Strange Attractor Press in Autumn 2015.
And we are also making new x-ray records. At our live events, sound artist and researcher Aleks Kolkowski cuts new plates using a vintage analogue record-cutting lathe from music written especially for the occasion - or from live performances
X-Ray Audio is a story about strange skeletal flexi-discs for sure, but it is really a story of people. People for whom music held a value it probably never can for us. People for who the sound of the music they really loved was only available 'off the bone'.
Stephen CoatesImages: X-Ray Records, Photos by Paul Heartfield