An Extraordinary Phenomenon of Soviet Culture

Alexandr Akhmadeev wrote in and sent these wonderful images of three of his collection of celluloid based 40's - 60's Soviet records. 

The inscriptions read: 'Sokolsky', (Konstantin Sokolsky,  a forbidden artist popular on x-ray bootlegs) 'Sinyaya rapsodia' or Rhapsody in Blue, (a version of the Gershwin piece) and 'Domino' (possibly as in 'Fats Domino'). On the last record there is another inscription, which Alexandr assumes is the last name of the x-ray's patient.

He says:
'I consider X-ray records as an extraordinary phenomenon of the Soviet culture that should be saved for the next generations'

Absolutely,

Thanks so much Alexandr.

 

 

Bones and Beyond

The Soviet Bootleggers would happily use any surface that would take a groove to record on. These included x-ray films that had not been used, had been discarded or overdeveloped, plus a range of other plastic films.  They also repurposed the 'Sound Cards' or 'Sound Letters' which were commercially available and officially made for novelty recording machines in tourist resorts.

Here are some more lovely examples from Victor Dubiler's collection.  The Rolling Stone one looks like a Golden Dog Gang production but must have been later (check out the length of Jagger's hair). There is also deeply strange one with a child. Who knows what that was about?

The lines between legal, illegal, official, unofficial, outright bootlegs and pirate records were grey, so it is often impossible to to tell the status of particular record- even when the music on a disc is accurately represented by the titles written on the disc.

You can see more 'non bone' Bones  HERE and various examples of Soundcards HERE

New Bones

Thanks to all the people who have got in touch as a result of our recent activities and press.  Here are a selection of images of  bones records sent by Victor Dubiler.  Victor has been collecting Russian gramophone records since the 1960s - he now has over 30, 000.  Yes, you read it right - 30,000..

There are some real beauties here with music by Bill Haley, Elvis and Louis Armstrong. And more to come..

Thanks to Victor

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A New Bone is Born

In January  during the X-Ray Audio exhibition at London's The Horse Hospital, we held two live events. Stephen told the story of the original Soviet X-Ray bootlegs and the people who made them and Aleks Kolkowski explained the process of recording audio onto a used X-Ray film.

In the second half, Stephen and Marcella Puppini of The Puppini Sisters performed the song 'Those Were the Days My Friend' (which is based on the old Russian song 'Endless Road') whilst Aleks cut their performance to an x-ray film with a 1940s lathe.

Thus, a new X-Ray record was made live and played back on a gramophone to a rather delighted crowd..

The End of the Bone Era

The period of X-Ray bootlegs ended quite abruptly.  Some say within a year.  Around 1963 - 4, something happened which changed everything - and it was nothing to do with the authorities or clamp downs or censorship.  As has so often been the case in the music industry, it was a technological change - in this case, the reel to reel tape recorder.  These became widely available and cheap enough to be owned by many people.  There was no longer any need for the laborious complicated process involved in cutting music onto x-rays.  And you could fit a lot more music and at much better quality on to a reel of magnetic tape.

Home recording with tape became widespread  indeed it lasted right up until the 80s ushering in a period of what was called 'Magnetidzat'.  Why the authorities did not see this coming is anyone's guess.

 

Bone Show

On Wednesday, we held a live event inside the X-Ray Audio exhibition at The Horse Hospital. There was an amazing packed audience. It is inspiring to realise how much people respond to this story.  We will be repeating it tonight (now sold out) and are preparing more dates for later in the year. In the meantime, here are some images by Paul Heartfield.

What was different, and amazing, this time was that Aleks cut a new X-Ray record direct from a live performance.  Stephen and Marcella Puppini of The Puppini Sisters performed 'Those Were The Days My Friend' the song made a world-wide hit by Mary Hopkins in 1968.  That song of course was a translation of  the Russian romance song "Dorogoi dlinnoyu" ("Дорогой длинною"), or "By the long road" composed by Boris Fomin with words by the poet Konstantin Podrevskii. Probably the most famous version before Mary Hopkins was by Alexander Vertinsky - and it was a favourite on Bone records.

Have a listen beneath. to both

For more images from the exhibition and live events, go HERE

Blood, Bone and Bootlegs

I was talking the other day and remembered that Rudy told me how he got the money to pay for his first recording machine.  Even though he had been an engineering student, he didn't have the expertise to craft the technology himself as it requires quite specific skills.  He commissioned someone he knew to make one to order and raised the funds - by repeatedly donating blood to a blood bank that paid a small sum each time.

At least I think that is what he said.  

If so, then that's what I call devotion.

Bones and Horses

Our exhibition at London's Horse Hospital runs until January 31st.  There is a selection of original beautiful and spooky forbidden x-ray bootlegs collected in Russia over the last few years plus film, images, associated ephemera and a miscellany of strange objects. It has been getting an extraordinary response. Stephen is on BBC's Today program talking about it this week and there are upcoming features in the national and music press.  Do see it if you can. It is wonderfully atmospheric in the cold war bunker atmosphere of the Horse Hospital

The live event on January 28th with Stephen and Aleks is sold out. and we have just agreed to another on Friday January 30th.  

More details HERE

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Bowlly on Bone

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When I first met Rudy Fuchs, the last bootlegger standing, he was understandably a little suspicious.  We eventually bonded when he surprised me by playing an 1930s gramophone record by the Ray Noble orchestra and the crooner Al Bowlly.  Al Bowlly is one of my favourite artists.  

The interesting thing about the record was that it had a Russian label (see the image). I couldn't quite work out whether it was a record officially pressed or imported  into Russia  (or pirated) but Rudy had used it as the master copy from which to make various Bowlly Bones records in the 1950s.

Russian Al Bowlly

The St Petersburg bootleggers generally got their Western records from Russian or foreign sailors in the port. Other travellers and diplomats would have brought records back too but probably for themselves rather than to sell.

Torgsin

Another source during the years 1931 - 1936, were the Torgsin stores for foreigners which were open to Soviet citizens too, provided they had access to hard currency, gold, or jewels.  The lower image shows an advertisement for the branch in St Petersburg.  

There it was possible to purchase goods such as food, clothing and even gramophone records which were unobtainable elsewhere. There were, of course, security guards at the door who would not let people in if they looked as if they hadn't got the hard currency. Locals would hang out near the shop to try to make trade with the foreigners coming out or make an order before they went in.

The Beryozka stores that opened from 1964 were similar but even less accessible to Soviet citizens - unless they were of the privileged inner party.

You can hear the Al Bowlly record (with Rudy's voice over) beneath.

A Bone Machine

Here is a little film clip made by Paul Heartfield of one of Rudy Fuch's original recording lathes used to make Bone records on X-Ray plates in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  

We made it when we visited Rudy last summer in his apartment in St Petersburg.  He is the last of the original St Petersburg bootleggers.

Rudy's Bone Machine

Brubeck on Bone

"No dictatorship can tolerate jazz - it just seems to represent freedom"

Dave Brubeck

Brubeck became the first American jazz musician to perform behind the Iron Curtain when he toured Poland in 1958.  Jazz had been popular and tolerated in both Poland and Russia at various times before the war but it was despised by Stalin, a prejudice enforced by the Polish communist government too. So after the war, Jazz could only be played in private houses during what became known as the “catacomb period”  (another bone reference ironically).

By 1958, with Stalin dead five years,  the climate had changed  - Poland in particular opened up to Western musical influences and was developing its own respected Jazz scene.

Music on the (skull) bones, Rilke and Primal Sound

"The coronal suture of the skull .. has–let us assume–a certain similarity to the closely wavy line which the needle of a phonograph engraves on the receiving, rotating cylinder of the apparatus" 

In 1919, relatively early in the development of recorded sound, the Austrian - Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 - 1926) wrote an extraordinary essay describing a fantasy of playing the coronal suture of a human skull with a gramophone needle as if it were the groove on a wax cylinder.* Rilke speculated on the ‘primal sound’ that such playing could reveal and the unimaginable music of the feelings that are naturally inscribed on the surface of the skull.**

In some elliptical way, this evokes certain symbolic feelings associated with the 'Bones' bootlegs. Although the images of the X-Rays on the discs was almost certainly not as important to their owners as the music they contained, the poetical resonance of images of the interiors of Soviet citizens and the inscribed grooves of music they privately loved is virtually unavoidable - at least for us. 

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke

*   For the full text of Rainer's Primal Sound piece, go HERE.

József Hajdú's X-Ray Record Photographs

This beautiful image is a photograph of a Bone record made by József Hajdú who worked in the postal museum in Budapest. It is one of several contact prints and enlargements from polaroids he made of various x-ray records found in the archives of Hungarian Radio.  His haunting images elevated the appearance of the low quality records to the level of high quality art.

The age and provenance of the records themselves imply that the technique of recording onto used X-Rays may have originally been invented in Hungary as an officially sanctioned response to a general shortage of material needed for the purpose. 

To see more of József's beautiful images go HERE

Image courtesy of József Hajdú and the Bolt Photo Gallery of Contemporary Arts.

Image courtesy of József Hajdú and the Bolt Photo Gallery of Contemporary Arts.

X-Rays at The Wellcome Collection

We have just made a proposal to make an X-Ray Audio live event at London's Wellcome Trust.  More on that if it happens but in doing the research I came across this beautiful image in the Wellcome's amazing on line collection.

It is one the first X-ray images ever produced and was made by German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen (1845-1923) soon after his discovery of X-Radiology (using short wavelength electromagnetic radiation to make interior photographs) in 1895. 

It shows the bones of the hand of his wife, Anna, who was left handed, and who upon viewing her skeleton exclaimed: “I have seen my death!”

Röntgen was professor of Physics at Würtzburg University and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1901 for the application of radiology in photography. 

To see more X-Ray images from the Wellcome Library go here

 

Image courtesy of Wellcome Library

Image courtesy of Wellcome Library

Live X-Ray Cutting at The Horse Hospital

Last Wednesday, we formally launched the X-Ray project  at London's Horse Hospital.  It was an amazing event.  Stephen introduced the project by telling the story of the X-Ray records in the Soviet Union and the cultural background that brought them about.

After the interval. Aleks Kolkowski gave a brief history of home-made recordings on plastic with various weird and wonderful examples from his collection.  Then, as the piece-de-resistance, he cut a new X-Ray record live from a specially written and recorded song by The Real Tuesday Weld: 'Skeletons in Waiting". 

We tried to replicate the process as nearly as possible to the way it would have been carried out originally - copying music from either a gramophone record or a new master.  The song "Skeletons is Waiting' was recorded in the studio and cut onto a dub plate  (a one-off vinyl master record).  At the event, we played the dub plate on a 1950s gramophone to demonstrate its sound and then Aleks used a recording lathe amalgamated from various original pieces of 1930s - 1950s equipment (see below), to copy and write the music onto a new X-Ray film obtained from the US.

If you were there, I am sure you will agree it was super exciting and funny.  First Aleks cut the square X-Ray into a circle and made a spindle hole, albeit with a hole punch rather than using the traditional method of rocketing a cigarette and burning a hole thought the plastic..

The X-Ray film was placed on the lathe and the audio from the gramophone sent to the lathe head.  There was much tension in the air as the lathe began to cut its spiral groove.  We had to do the whole thing twice as only one side of the X-Ray can properly take the groove and we started with the wrong one.

The finished Bone was then played back on the gramophone  to great cheering (and relief) from those present.  It sounded suitably 'bonelike' and scratchy and took quite some effort to keep on the turntable.

Check out the sound file to hear The Real Tuesday Weld on X-Ray.

This was all useful as a demonstration and experiment because  it showed how difficult and laborious the process of making such records actually is.  But now having  learned how, we will be repeating the experiment with refinements at future live events and for our upcoming radio documentary.

The Real Tuesday Weld dub plate - plus

The Real Tuesday Weld dub plate - plus

A new X-Ray from the US - equals

A new X-Ray from the US - equals

A new The Real Tuesday Weld X-Ray Record

A new The Real Tuesday Weld X-Ray Record

Alek's lathe

Alek's lathe

X-Rays and Other Bootlegs

X-Ray plates were used because they were the easiest and most available surface to cut bootlegs records onto, not because of the way they looked.  What seems most striking to us - the images of bones - didn't seem to be of much interest compared with the music they contained.  Indeed, any other plastic surfaces that would do the trick were used too.  The image to the right shows an example.

One of the most common alternatives were 'Audio Postcards'. These were a kind of flexi disc that appeared in many countries, including the UK, from the 1940s right through to the 1980s.  Novelty recording booths or 'photo studios' where visitors could make a basic recording of their voice leaving a message for the folks back home were common at tourist resorts.  The customer would speak into a microphone and the recording machine would cut the sound onto a surface mounted on a picture, usually a photo of the resort.

Alternatively, it was possible to choose one of a selection of popular approved songs on the disc or to include a voice message followed by a song.  But of course such technology leant itself to other, more illicit uses.  So for instance, rather than having a jolly Soviet seaside song, it may be possible for those in the know to request something  'special', a Western Rock and Roll song perhaps. A Russian friend proudly showed me such a disc from the mid sixties.  It had an innocuous picture of Yalta, a popular Soviet resort but on the back was written 'The Rolling Stones' (The funny thing was that when we played it, it was in fact....The Doors).

By the way, the technology to make these sort of recordings was available back in the earliest days of sound devices as the final image shows.  This is from one of the famous 'Leibig' cards (these rather beautiful freebies came in boxes of a German dried meat extract and were collected in albums like the better known cigarette cards).

So What Music Wasn't Forbidden?

There were some bootlegged versions of approved recordings copied onto X-Rays just because the discs could be bought a bit cheaper but in general the music they contained was forbidden.  Whilst most strikingly for us this included Western Jazz and Rock and Roll, the bulk of it seems to have been Russian music - either made by emigres or by homegrown singers. The latter was often 'bard' or folk music with lyrics about life in the gulag.  Perhaps this was more 'unofficial' rather than banned, considered low culture rather than actually anti-soviet. It was certainly very popular not least because as a friend said to me recently: 'nearly every family at that time had at least one member in the gulag.."  

People want to hear their own music in their own language.  But what was the officially approved repertoire?  Of course, there was much wonderful instrumental classical and choral music  but  a lot of the sanctioned songs and popular music may have been rather worthy and hence to young people at least, very dull -  with stiff rhythms and politically correct lyrics. 

The images show a seven inch vinyl recording on the State record label Melodiya: "Pioneers' Songs' recorded by the Soviet Communist Scouts Organisation.  The song titles give an idea of the content:

1. BURN THE FIRES UP!

2. BAKLAGKA

3. POTATOES

4. ATTENTION, START!

5. NA ZARYADKU!

6. PIONEER'S ROAD SONG

X-Ray Folk Art

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Like Kolya Vasin's Beatles Bone (see below), many X-Ray records appear to have been carefully customised by their owners - elevating them at times to the level of folk or outsider art.

Here, the perennial favourite 'Rock Around the Clock' has been embellished with collaged decoration. To modern Western thinking it may seem odd that a song with lyrics as crashingly banal as 'one o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock rock' etc could be held in such high regard, never mind banned.  

But apart from the fact that it was American (and therefore automatically suspect), the very beat and energy of such music was deemed a threat, encouraging people to gather to dance and indulge in uncontrolled behaviour and reckless passions.  The very superficiality of the words, whilst obviously not anti-Soviet in meaning could not possibly contribute to the aesthetic high ideals of socialist realism as all art should.

A Beatles Bone

It is difficult to comprehend or over estimate the effect that hearing certain Western music such as the Beatles on X-Ray records had on some young Soviet people. In the case of Kolya Vasin, still widely known in Russia as 'The Beatles Guy', it literally transformed his life - he has pretty much devoted himself to the Fab Four ever since.  His apartment in St Petersburg is a temple to them. 

Here is one of his Beatles Bones - painstakingly customised with the faces of John, Paul, Ringo and George.  It maybe the first one he bought but he never plays it - it is too important and has the status of a sacred object for him. The musical score on the disc doesn't appear to be a Beatles tune.

There is more on my encounter with him last year here.