Wednesday, October 29, 2014

TMFW 60 - Soviet Music You Can Hear On Your Bones

In post-war Russia in the mid 20th century, the leaders of the Soviet Union sought to control the population's access to western music.  Such music was seen as an instrument of capitalist propaganda and a threat to the state, and was banned.  But the soviet people were keenly interested in jazz (and, later, rock and roll), and ironically the market found a way to make supply approach demand.
Because vinyl was too expensive, and in any event could not be commercially produced without detection, the black market record producers had to seek out a cheaper and more steady supply of raw material.  They found it in used x-ray plates from hospitals - which were virtually free because the alternative disposal means was the garbage.  The market was born for roentgenizdat (one of the rare times I can link to in a TMFW!), which is a portmanteau of "roentgen," meaning x-rays and "'izdatel'stvo," meaning publisher.   
Like samizdat copies of underground literary works, roentgenizdat (or "bone records") were  made by hand.  After cutting the film into a circular shape with scissors, the creators used modified phonograph equipment to reproduce the source material on the x-ray film.  This Wikipedia-esque post from NYU's Department of Media, Culture, and Communication and this detailed blog entry from Kevin Kelly tell the story well: the records were of very crude sound quality and sold for 1 or 2 rubles each - about the cost of a small bottle of vodka and easily affordable to most Russians.  They would last for a few months and then would become too worn to play.  Bone records started with music from the 30s and 40s like George Gershwin, and migrated in the 1950s to early pop and rock artists like Tennessee Ernie Ford, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly.  
By the late 1950s, the market for bone records was allegedly in the millions of copies, and the state stepped in to disrupt it.  They flooded the market with false copies and cracked down on the largest traders with jail time and public shaming.  In the late 50s and early 60s, the Komsomol (the youth organization of the communist party) lead music patrols where they sought out illegal western music and ratted out offenders.
If you want to hear and see some bone records, this Russian livejournal entry (Google's translation here) has a number of cool pictures and mp3s, including recordings of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" imprinted on a close-up of a heart and W.C. Handy's "St. Louie Blues" on a skull.  The blog writer recalls seeing some of the records as a younger man, saying "I vaguely remember my bewilderment [at] the piety with which they were stored - wrapped in a soft flannel and a newspaper on top. Although, maybe it was [a reflection] of their eternal disguise - in the event of a search." 
As reel-to-reel and cassette recording became more available in Russia starting in the early 1970s, albums were dubbed in endless chains and traded between friends.  It was peer-to-peer in the truest sense, and bone records became unnecessary and obsolete.   
If you still haven't purchased my Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice gift, here is a good selection of roentgenizdat available for purchase. What once was disposable media sold for pocket money is now a collectors item worth $100+.  
BONUS FACT:  Another great story of "Russian ingenuity meets youth rock-and-roll culture meets Soviet censorship" is this one of homemade electric guitars made with pickups from the receivers of Soviet payphones.  In a certainly-exaggerated-but-I-choose-to-believe-anyway claim, the article states that "[b]y the late Sixties, it was impossible to find a working public phone in all of Moscow. Every receiver was vandalized, harvested for parts that were necessary to build a primitive guitar pickup." 
BONUS FACT 2:  The Leningrad band Aquarium was one of the most famous underground Soviet rock bands of the '70s and '80s. In an overview of the group - written for western audiences - from 1986, the author explains that the band does not officially exist in the Soviet Union.  They had never been played on state radio, they were not permitted to play at official concert halls, and each of their seven records to that date had been unofficially released via dubbed cassettes shared from person to person.  The lead singer of Aquarium was a night watchman; his bandmates included a weed cutter for the railroad, a furnace stoker, and a roadside watermelon salesperson. You can hear one of their their early 1980s songs here; the crude sound quality comes through and almost adds something to the track.  One can imagine how exhilarating it must have felt to listen to. 
BONUS FACT 3:  After glasnost softened Soviet censorship, Aquarium was finally signed to a state music label in 1987 and released an official record.  It was a watershed moment in the USSR.
BONUS FACT 4:  One of the most robust reproducers of western music was the cooperative "Golden Dog" out of Leningrad, Russia (see that link for a 1963 Spokane, WA newspaper report of their bust by a "Russian vice squad.")  That name was chosen in tribute to Nipper, RCA Victor's famous dog logo
BONUS FACT 5:  I can't read W.C. Handy's name without getting "Walking in Memphis" stuck in my head. 
VERY IMPORTANT UPDATE/CORRECTION:  In the first Bonus Fact of last week's TMFW, when listing each of the cities namechecked in Huey Lewis & The News' "The Heart of Rock and Roll," I omitted New York (where you can do a half-a-million things, all at a quarter to three) and Los Angeles (with its neon lights and the pretty pretty girls, all dressed so scantily).  TMFW regrets the error. 

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