How Soviet hipsters invented the first flexi discs...and were sent to the gulag for doing so.
Photo courtesy of The X-Ray Audio Project
Imagine living in a world where music is illegal, where simply owning a Beatles record could get you arrested and sent into the wilderness to die. Imagine knowing that, and still buying those records, sharing them with your friends, and spending hours upon hours figuring out how to make your own. Imagine loving music so much that you're willing to risk your life for a scratchy, two-and-a-half minute recording of "Rock Around the Clock." Welcome to the Soviet Union in 1950.
During the Stalinist era then up to and after World War II, Soviet Russia was a grim and repressive place. The Communist Party ruled with an iron fist, shielding its citizens from corrosive Western influences like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and of course, rock’n’roll. In the 1950s, it was still nearly impossible for a budding music fan to get their hands on a bonafide jazz or rock’n’roll record. Strict rationing and constant shortages allowed the black market to thrive and supply comrades with both necessary supplies and forbidden pleasures, and thanks to the Party’s Stalinist social realism hangover, “fascist” or “mystic” Western music (especially from the hated Americans and British) were explicitly forbidden. So was anything from Russian-born musicians who happened to be pegged as traitors or dissidents—a blanket designation that encompassed everyone who offended the sensibilities of the state censor, from White Russian emigres to “criminals” who committed the offense of writing and recording their own music. At that point, musicians were expected to cooperate with the composers union and lyricist’s union to create songs; producing your own was remarkably subversive, and landed several Soviet musicians in the gulag. The gulags themselves had a rich musical tradition (thanks in no small part to the staggering numbers of musicians, artist, and intellectuals shipped off into the frozen waste during Stalin’s heyday), but that’s another story.
During that same span between the late 1940s and 1960s, a youth subculture that seemed custom-made to irritate the government sprang up. The stilyagi—or “style hunters”—were inspired by the post-war return of young soldiers who’d developed a taste for modern trends and foreign influences during their time away from the motherland. They sported fashionable clothes, were largely apolitical, and most importantly, had a ravenous appetite for Western music. One of these young Soviet beatniks, Stanislav Philo, brought back more than just ideas from his tour abroad: he returned from the war lugging a record duplication machine under his arm. Bizarrely enough, these duplication machines were totally legal; after all, what was the harm in letting a citizen record a favorite patriotic march or speech from Comrade Stalin, or allowing her to send a postcard message back to babushka in the village? You could find these contraptions all over the place, and a few roubles would buy you the chance to record a short two-minute message and cut a brightly-colored audio “postcard” in minutes. When he got home to Saint Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), Philo set up his machine in the corner of his new photography store, and charged tourists and relatives a few bob to do just that.
Soon after he set up shop, business was booming—not because of the portraits he was selling during daytime hours, of course, but thanks to the illicit bootlegging operation he ran after dark. That little duplication machine was pressed into service to record low-quality dubs of coveted jazz, boogie woogie, and rock’n’roll songs on whatever he had lying around, mostly coated paper. They didn't last long, sounded terrible, and were easily worn down by steel gramophone needles, but they were cheap, and they were available. What the printing press was to the samizdat publishers, this little hunk of metal became to a burgeoning scene of jazz fiends. It wasn’t long before a small community of music lovers began haunting his shop, snapping up record after record and lining Philo’s pockets with dirty money. Two fans in particular, Ruslan Bogoslowski and Boris Taigin, were there nearly every day, and the reason became clear when the two men convened at Bogoslowski's family dacha one night.
Recording ingenuity from Aleks Kolkowski's collection / Photo by the author
Bogoslowski had been studying Philo’s record duplicator, taking careful notes on its measurements and mechanisms, and using his engineer father’s tools, was able to build his own replica. Not only did it work, it worked better than Philo’s rickety old machine, and the quality of his and Taigin’s records was higher, too, thanks to the inventive new material they used. Somehow, Bogoslowski got the bright idea to cut records onto discarded X-ray fluorography sheets bought and pilfered from workers at the local hospital, who were required to regularly dispose of vast quantities of the highly-flammable files. By carefully cutting the X-rays into circles and burning a hole in the middle with a cigarette, the duo—who dubbed themselves The Golden Dog Gang after the British His Master’s Voice label—cranked out countless bootlegged songs from Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Beatles. They flooded the black market with these cheap precursors to modern flexi discs, all adorned with living—and dead—Soviet skulls, hipbones, femurs, and guts. Shattered kneecaps held the strains of "Birdland." Elvis Presley warbled out from a broken ribcage. A cracked skull grinned through an anonymous rendition of W. C. Hardy's "St. Louis Blues." Ghostly scapulas embraced boogie woogie jams. The dead sang along with the living.
The morbid presentation of these records earned them a variety of colorful code names—“ribs,” “jazz on bones,” “my grandma’s skeleton,” and the more recognized roentgenizdat. Unfortunately for the Golden Dogs, it also eventually earned them the attention of the authorities, who caught them distributing forbidden music in 1950 and sentenced both of them to five years hard labor in Siberia. In a stroke of luck for him (and millions of other Russians), Stalin’s death in 1953 brought relief; thousands of prisoners were granted amnesty, and he headed back home armed with even grander plans.
During those long, cold years in prison, Bogoslowski had figured out a method to separate the two layers of the X-rays themselves, and to transfer designs onto the transparent film. He and Taigin got back to work, this time churning out records with both beautiful folk art and ripped-off Western labels—you’d see albums with Columbia Records insignia written in Russian with a Made in Great Britain stamp. All went well for awhile, until they got arrested and chucked into the gulag again.
When Bogoslowski was released several years later, he had one last big idea—he was going to press his own vinyl records. He figured out a way to soften the wax on existing albums, and in the relative privacy of his shed, he pressed real, black vinyl albums that proved immensely popular. How did he get his hands on the proper material? At that time, record stores stocked scores of vinyl records containing patriotic speeches from Lenin and Stalin, priced dirt cheap to encourage citizens to buy them. Bogoslowski bought up a ton of them, which is ultimately what led to this third and final arrest; no one ever really bought those, speeches, so seeing someone swoop in and hustle out with armloads of them clearly looked suspicious to some whistle-blowing clerk. So, back to the gulag he went for three more years of forced labor... all because he wanted to listen to some jazz.
Fancy bones at the Morbid Anatomy Museum / Photo by the author
By the time Bogoslowski won his freedom, he was returning to a different world. The reel-to-reel tape recorder had arrived, felling the black market bone business for good and signaling the beginning of the government’s gradual thaw towards the West. There was no need for him to continue bootlegging, so he retired into obscurity (and hopefully stayed out of jail). All in all, the reign of bones over Soviet music only lasted about fifteen years, and their original disposable nature means that there are few surviving copies left. The X-ray audio story has captivated people for decades—even Jack White got in on the action, releasing a pseudo-roentgenizdat of his own in 2013—but Bogoslowski's story survived only as a historical footnote until recently, when British musician Stephen Coates of The Real Tuesday Weld began The X-Ray Audio Project.
Last weekend, Coates spoke at an event at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, spinning the yarn told above while X-Ray Audio collaborator, sound artist, and early sound recording expert Aleks Kolkowski treated the audience to a few songs from the duo's collection of “ribs” and recorded a brand-new X-ray flexi on his own machine right before our eyes. Coates first became intrigued by roentgenizdat when he stumbled across one at a flea market while he was on tour in Russia; since then, he’s gone back multiple times to interview old bootleggers and gather the definitive story of jazz on bones. Look for his upcoming book, on the subject, and dive deeper into the world of audio skeletons at the X-Ray Audio Project website. He's a brilliant storyteller, so try to catch him at an event if you can!
Kim Kelly is feverishly trying to find a roentgenizdat of her very own—help her out on Twitter: @grimkim