Bone Records: Anything for Music
Civil rights, political rights, human rights, and property rights were severely curtailed. Association with unsanctioned churches, labor unions, or opposition political parties was not allowed. Secret police, state-controlled media, mass surveillance, civilian informants, propaganda, and suppression of criticism were all legitimate tools of the Communist Party. Activities deemed counter-revolutionary could be punished by death. Your defense lawyer was required to be a member of the party and was also required to presume your guilt.
Art, literature, and science were scrutinized to ensure that they did not threaten the state or contradict its doctrine. Rejected materials were suppressed and censored. The distribution of disallowed materials could be punished with a stiff prison term. Nevertheless, disaffected hipsters called stilyagi published dissident literature in an underground movement called samizdat. These secret, often crudely made texts were passed from one trusted friend to another. They became symbols of resistance and freedom.
Also high on the list of censored materials was Western music. Rock & roll, jazz, and any music deemed bourgeois was outlawed. In response, roentgenizdat, an offshoot of samizdat, created “bone records,” also called “rock on ribs.” An odd name, until you consider that vinyl pressing plants were strictly off limits, and a deliciously subversive alternative disc material was X-ray film. Anyone with access to a dumpster behind a hospital was in business. The rectangular sheets were cut into discs and center-punched, and improvised cutting lathes were used to cut the spiral groove. The thin and flexible discs were only cut on one side, usually at 78 rpm. The sound quality, as you can imagine, was less than pristine.
Music enthusiasts (anyone who risks hard prison time for a little jazz is truly an enthusiast) could listen to copies of Western music smuggled across the Iron Curtain, often bartering for records on the black market.Nevertheless, bone records thrived. Music enthusiasts (anyone who risks hard prison time for a little jazz is truly an enthusiast) could listen to copies of Western music smuggled across the Iron Curtain, often bartering for records on the black market. Millions of bone records spread across the USSR, giving the youth movement its own underground soundtrack. The state was not amused. Roentgenizdat was officially outlawed, and members of the Leninist Young Communist League were encouraged to form music patrols to hunt down anyone with bone records, rat on them, and confiscate the illegal discs. Many roentgenizdat distributors were sent to prison.
Today, the Soviet bloc is in the dustbin of history, and so are bone records. If you search for “roentgenizdat” on eBay, you’ll find some surviving examples, some commanding very premium prices. Whether these are authentic relics of the Cold War, or just modern replicas, is something the buyer will have to guess. If you are curious, you can listen to some roentgenizdat files at this Russian site. Actually, do me a favor. Go to the site and listen to the bone-record recording of “Heartbreak Hotel.” As the song plays, consider that in the Soviet Union, if authorities caught you with a pile of Elvis Presley songs, your government could send you to prison.
Now that I think about it, this election year in the United States could be worse. Much worse.