CUTTING THE (BBC) BONE

Although techniques for building a device capable of making home-made records were known about in the Soviet Union before the war, they were strictly for the highly knowledgeable amateur with considerable engineering skills. The Leningrad bootleggers really got going after a Polish refugee, Stanislav Philo, turned up in 1946 with a war trophy, a Telefunken recording lathe.  He used it to make copies of forbidden records and Ruslan Bugaslovsky of the Golden Dog Gang was able to copy the machine itself to make his own records and subsequently further machines.

The Telefunken machine was designed to be a portable (or at least 'transportable') machine to be used by war reporters in the field.  The American and British also issued these type of machines to journalists and military personnel to make recording on proprietary discs of various sorts.  Above are some wonderful photographs courtesy of the BBC of the 'Midget' recording lathe in action.

 

Here at X-Ray Audio, we have been fortunate to be able to get hold of our very own 1950s lathe - an "MSS" - a later alternative to the Midget which was also used extensively by the BBC.

Currently being refurbished by the amazing Norman Field, we are hoping to take it on the road to cut x-rays and other one-off records later in the year.

THE TRAGIC STAR OF THE BONE UNDERGROUND

On the bone records that survive, the most of music is  Russian. Some of it could be called Soviet jazz or jazz-influenced but a great deal could not. Much of it was the repertoire of émigré artists like Pyotr Leshchenko, a singer who might be described as 'the star of the Bone underground', as his music features on x-ray records more than any other artist. Listening to it now, the haunting, romantic melodies, old-fashioned rhythms and sometimes dramatic, sometimes innocuous lyrics don’t seem ‘anti–Soviet’. So why would it have been forbidden?

There were two reasons: firstly Leshchenko was a traitor as far as the Soviet regime were concerned because he was considered to be a ‘White’ Russian émigré of noble blood. In fact he was born into a Ukrainian peasant family but by living in the West he was tarnished by association with the capitalist oppressor, and by not returning to the Motherland to help the Great March Forward, he effectively set himself beyond the pale. Secondly, he performed in styles which had increasingly became prohibited as Stalin increased the cultural stranglehold after the Second World War: the ‘gypsy’ romances and flamboyant tangos he performed with exaggerated gestures and passionate changes of tempo which were condemned as being superficial and encouraging the wrong sort of passions in young Soviet minds.

Like the life of singer Vadim Kozin, Leshchenko’s story was a cold war era musical tragedy, But Kozin was a Soviet citizen, beloved not only of the Russian people but,  for many years, of the establishment. The charges of homosexuality and moral corruption on which he was arrested, convicted and sent to the gulag were just an excuse to bring him down. His extravagant lifestyle, increasing celebrity and wealth inevitably made him a target as the prurient personality cult of Stalin developed. Leschenko's life - and death  - were quite different.

A musical child, Pyotr's star rose from poor beginnings and local performances through foreign travel and international theatrical shows until he was so popular that he became known as ‘The King of Russian Tango’. As his fame increased,  he performed for the European nobility and  Russian aristocratic émigrés in his own cabaret in Bucharest  - a venue described as an Eastern version of the famous Parisian 'Maxim’s'. But, like many émigrés, he nurtured a yearning to return to his homeland. During the Second World War, he had the opportunity to do so when the Romanian army occupied Odessa. His concert performances  there were hugely oversubscribed and became legendary, increasing his fame in the motherland even more.  In the subsequent occupation of Romania by the Soviets, life could have taken a vengeful turn for the worse, but he seems to have been protected by General Burenin, the commander of the Red Army in Bucharest who was a secret admirer of his music.

But fatally, Leschenko seemed to have come to believe that such patronage extended to other figures in the Soviet establishment and he could risk making an application that he and his wife Vera be allowed to return to the Soviet Union. In 1951, a week after official permission was granted, they were arrested. He was sent to a prison camp in Romania while Russian-born Vera was extradited and condemned to hard labour camp in the Soviet Union for ‘marrying a foreigner’. As for Kozin, their tragedy was almost of Greek proportions - the fall from fame, success, opulence and adoration must have been almost impossible to bear in the indiscriminate brutality of person life.  In a final poignant twist to their tale, they both outlived Stalin and might have been reunited but Vera on release, believed Pyotr dead and stayed in Russia,.*

He died forgotten and alone in the camp without them meeting again.

Like Kozin’s repertoire, Leschenko’s music had become immensely well-loved during earlier, more permissive Soviet times, which is why after the war, he featured on many of the x-ray records copied from smuggled 78s or cut from foreign radio broadcasts. Apparently, when his records were played, people would fall silent. Bootlegger Rudy Fuchs says that this was because his mysterious, other-worldly voice awoke romantic thoughts of an imagined, happy elsewhere in listeners. Plus, nobody in the Soviet Union really knew much about his actual life and so he attained a kind of mythical status.

He was so popular that a Moscow baritone, Nikolai Markov, who had a very beautiful and similarly tender voice, was hired to record forty songs of his repertoire. These were copied onto x-ray and successfully passed off as being by Leschenko himself. One, ‘The Cranes’, considered the quintessential Leshchenko tune amongst Bone buyers, was in fact never recorded by the master himself.

*Vera Leschenko died on December 18, 2009, age 86.

BEAUTY AND BONE: THE FALL OF VADIM KOZIN

I recently recorded an extended interview for a US TV show called 'Mysteries at the Museum’ which will feature a piece on bone records in 2017. The producers were keen for me to confirm one of the most common myths about the Soviet x-ray records: that they were bootlegs of American jazz and rock ’n’ roll made as a dissident protest by ‘Stilyagi’.  The Stilyagi or ‘style hunters’ were a small youth culture group (the only real example of Soviet youth culture according to Art Troitsky). They were mainly Moscow and Leningrad based kids who dressed in an ersatz western style and aped American mannerisms but they were not a political group and certainly not dissidents - more hipsters than punks. 

Vadim Kozin before his arrest

Kozin on x-ray record

Kozin on x-ray record

None of the bootleggers we have met or heard about described themselves as either dissidents or Stilyagi. They seem to have regarded the latter as a bit of a joke even though they would have been eager purchasers of their bootlegs of jazz and rock ’n’ roll tunes. In fact, the majority of bone records did not contain Western music. They contained Russian music, forbidden Russian music. On first impression that doesn’t seem so romantic a story to a Western audience because it doesn’t fit our inherited cultural prejudice, but on deeper examination it is a more interesting and moving narrative.  The intention of the Stalinist censor was to completely control the cultural input of the Soviet people and by the late 1940s had outlawed a huge amount of popular music. If this was a crime, it was surely a much greater crime that an entire nation's music lovers were cut off from their own culture, their own songs, their own much-loved artists and performers than prevented from listening to music from abroad that they were barely familiar with.

In the next few posts, I will write about some of the forbidden Russian artists whose songs were cut to x-ray. Their stories are usually tragedies. Many of them were ‘emigres' whose repertoire was forbidden just because they lived in the West and declined to return to the Soviet Union. But one of the most prominent was someone who lived in Russia all his life and performed in the Kremlin for the highest members of the inner party, a singer as famous in his homeland as Frank Sinatra in the USA, a star whose records were sold in all the Soviet music stores and a man who became one of the richest private individuals in the Soviet Union: Vadim Kozin.

Kozin with his band short before his arrest

Kozin with his band short before his arrest

In the X-Ray Audio documentary ‘ROENTGENIZDAT', the singer Marc Almond describes Kozin’s life and spectacular fall from grace. Marc has been a fan of Kozin for a long time, he made a record of his songs 'Orpheus in Exile' in 2009 and recently presented a BBC radio documentary about his life.  In 1944, Kozin was arrested on charges of homosexuality and perversion.  But it is likely that the fact of his sexuality, (which had been known about since the 1920s), was just used to bring him down because he had been in conflict with a high ranking Soviet official, possibly even Beria. Or it may be that he had just become too rich, too famous, too well-loved. After all, there was only room for one star in the Soviet Union and that was Stalin.  Kozin was convicted and dragged from his luxurious, ostentatious lifestyle at the Metropole hotel in Moscow to the brutal conditions of the far eastern Siberian prison camps. As far as his adoring public were concerned he no longer existed.  His deeply loved songs and beautiful voice would have surely been sorely missed and though many people would have owned his records and could carry on listening to them after his arrest, no new ones would have been made. Any still available would have immediately been withdrawn from sale and destroyed.

Kozin’s immense popularity would ordinarily have made him a prime candidate for the bootleggers. But interestingly he does not appear anywhere near as often on x-ray records as one might expect  This is probably because news of his alleged crimes was widely believed. It perhaps still is. Recently I was talking with an old Russian, a music lover who was a bone record buyer in his youth. He had absolutely no respect for Soviet propaganda but grimaced when I brought up the subject of Kozin and referred to him with a Russian word a friend translated as ‘paedophile’ or child rapist. We know from recent experience in the West that any such association, real or false, effectively puts an artist's music beyond the pale.

Marc Almond performing Vadim Kozin and cut onto X-Ray at Rough Trade East, London 

At an X-Ray Audio event recently, we cut a new x-ray record of a performance of the Kozin song ‘Druzhba’ (Friendship) sung by Marc Almond. The x-ray used was one made of Marc himself after a serious accident he barely survived a few years ago. This, as you can imagine, added a certain poignancy to the occasion, as did his description of Kozin’s life in Siberia. The fallen idol managed to survive there because his fame and voice afforded him protection by various camp authorities who had been fans before his conviction. He even continued to perform - in the extraordinary ‘gulag revues’ organised by prison camp bosses for their own entertainment, but even after his release, he was unable - or unwilling - to return to Moscow to revisit the scenes of his former glory, He died in 1991 in Magadan at the age of 91.

Kozin in his apartment in Magadan

Marc's X-ray record with his performance of a Vadim Kozin song

Marc's X-ray record with his performance of a Vadim Kozin song

Kozin experimental flexi gramophone record c.1936

Kozin experimental flexi gramophone record c.1936

For someone once so famous, he remains fairly forgotten in Russia and is virtually unknown outside. Like many artists who were not dissidents and whose ‘crimes’ were not political he hasn't been deemed worthy of any attention in the West - until Marc released his record of Kozin songs.

It was difficult to know how to say thanks for Marc's performance at our event so I decided to give him a present of a strange record I once found on a trip to Russia. This record is evidence of the inaccuracy of another common myth about music during the Soviet era: that there was only one record company, the State controlled Melodiya.  

It was made by one of the so called ‘experimental’ independent labels. These were semi-private businesses allowed to operate under licence from the State. They made various discs with specialist recordings such as film soundtracks, spoken word narratives or certain permitted foreign repertoire. In this case, the label experimented with making coloured vinyl flexi-discs and this red transparent disc contains a special recording of a Kozin song made before his arrest. Any copies would of course have been destroyed afterwards but this one, like the old singer, survived.

Although it is not really playable now, it is rather lovely, almost like a very beautiful bone record,  a blood coloured, luminous legacy of the life of a fallen Soviet star.

 

BEAUTIFUL BONE RECORD

Here is a beautiful bone record we found in the archive of a radio station whilst doing research. We will publishing some of the results of that research soon, It has opened up an incredible and important new dimension to the x-ray story and the origin of this technique of recording. (Thanks to the Radio Archive)

ROCK MUSICIANS PROHIBITED IN THE USSR

Here is a document listing of Western bands banned in the Soviet Union because their 'work contains ideologically and morally harmful product' Until recently it was classified "For Official Use Only."

It includes: The B-52s for 'militarism', Blondie for violence, Depeche Mode for being apolitical, Donna Summer for eroticism, Culture Club for homosexuality, Madonna for sex, Michael Jackson for horror, Madness for violence, Motorhead for moral turpitude (fair enough), Pink Floyd for a 'perversion of Soviet foreign policy', Rod Stewart for eroticism (really?) and the list goes on: Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Prince, The Corgis (surely not?), Van Halen, Ike Turner..

It is listed as being published by the  'Ministry of Culture. October 1, 1984'. Obviously that is a lot later than the x-ray bootleg  record period but it shows how pervasive was the ideological position developed in the post war era with regard to foreign music.

It was recommended that "to strengthen the fight against the influence of bourgeois ideology' the work of these groups was prohibited for playback and for sale  on "LPs, CDs, cassettes, videos, books, posters and other products"

Thanks to Kass Bay and Grimnir 74

THE GOLDEN DOG GANG DISCS

These rather wonderful picture disc flexi-discs are, in fact, X-Ray records. They were produced by the most famous of the Leningrad bootleggers, The Golden Dog Gang in the 1950s. Unusually, they are recorded at 33rpm. This gives more recording time (albeit at a lower sound quality) with two or more tracks on each disc.

The technique used to make them was ingenious. The x-rays of the time had two layers, the photographic layer and a transparent protective over-layer.  The Golden Dog, in their search for a more 'Western' looking high-end product, discovered a way to separate the two layers. The transparent layer was then stuck down onto a card image (containing a collage designed by the gang) and the music to be copied was inscribed with a lathe onto the composite base.

The picture discs gave a semi-official Western feel to the discs which would have seemed much cooler and more sophisticated than the standard x-ray disc of the time. Bugaslovsky, the main audio engineer of the gang, was known for the quality of his cutting, so despite the inherent lower quality of 33rpm, these discs would have been desirable objects for a small bunch of music fans with record payers that could play at this speed. 

We photographed the examples shown here in the apartment of the very sweet Nina Taigin in St Petersburg.  Nina, tiny and now very old, was married to Boris Taigin, a samizdat poet and one of the main members of the Golden Dog gang until his death ten years ago.  She very kindly showed us Boris's archive, and gave us pasties and brandy before we headed back to London.

For more the story of The Golden Dog Gang, check out our book X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone

THE SECRET HISTORY OF SOVIET X-RAY MUSIC - on NPR

Stephen Coates was interviewed by Michel Martin on NPR's 'All Things Considered' program in a piece produced by Phil Harrell.

You can listen  HERE 

It features several pieces of bone music and excerpts from our interviews with original Soviet bone bootlegger Rudy Fuchs for the upcoming X-Ray Audio documentary.

Off air, Michel made the interesting comparison between the seemingly innocuous tunes that appear on many bone records and the black lifestyle magazines such as Ebony that were smuggled into apartheid era South Africa. They weren't political or particularly dissident in themselves but originated in and spoke of a world where there was much more freedom and the ability to enjoy the culture one chose to.

THE X-RAY AUDIO BOOK

Our book 'X-RAY AUDIO: THE STRANGE STORY OF SOVIET MUSIC ON THE BONE' has arrived from the printers. It looks amazing.

DJ Food kindly provided the images below - check out his blog post on the book HERE.  

The book and special edition with 'bone' flexi-disc can be ordered HERE

ORDER NOW to reserve one of a special Limited  Edition of 500 copies with flexidisc insert containing original Soviet bootleg Bone music and a specially recorded exclusive track by The Real Tuesday Weld

In the cold war era, the Soviet recording industry and permissible musical repertoire were ruthlessly controlled by the State. But a secret and risky subculture of bootleg recordings arose. Incredibly, bootleggers built homemade recording machines and found an extraordinary way to copy banned gramophone records – they used X-Rays clandestinely obtained from hospitals

X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone tells the secret history of these ghostly records and of the people who made, bought and sold them.  Lavishly illustrated with images of discs collected in Russia, it is a unique story of forbidden culture, bootleg technology and human endeavour. Contributions from Russian musical commentators and interviews, including one with the last bootlegger standing, set the scene for the intersection of ideological, technological and historical events that created this brief Samizdat musical culture.

In a time when songs can be copied in an instant and when streaming services provide virtually infinite choice and access, X-Ray Audio provides a poignant reminder of the immense cultural value of music and the extraordinary lengths people to which people will go to listen to what they love.

EDITED BY
Stephen Coates 

CONTRIBUTORS:

Paul Heartfield
Maksim Kravchinsky 

Sukhdev Sandhu

INTERVIEWEES:

Artyemi Troistsky, Aleks Kolkowski,  Rudy Fuchs, Kolya Vasin

BIRMINGHAM BONE SHOW

The X-Ray Audio exhibtion is currently at Vivid Projects in Birmingham.  We made several new pieces for the show including two new films - one an interview with bone bootlegger cut with archive material and one en ephemeral piece illustrating the process of making an x-ray record.

The show runs until 21st December - details HERE

 

This Friday 13th we will be hosting a live events with a very special guest - Nick and Christian from The Leisure Society - Aleks will cut a n x-ray record live from their performance.

Go  HERE for details

We will be back at London's The Horse Hospital from 28th November - 21st December

In the meantime, enjoy these images from the show courtesy of GREG MILNER

THE SOUND OF BONE

We routinely talk about the sound of bones records being pretty poor. It is clear from testimony from the 1940s and 1950s that they could often sound terrible - even when new. The quality would mainly be affected by the skill of the bootlegger and the lathe they were using.  As the practice spread and the opportunity to make money from bone business grew, more unscrupulous dealers got involved and the quality dropped - particularly when deals were conducted anonymously rather than between people who knew each other.

So I was very surprised recently when I met collector Victor Dubiler in Moscow and we played some of his bone records.  Check out this film to see why.

The sound quality is amazing - Bill Haley and Elvis are really kicking - and that is when they are just coming out of Victor's small speaker. I don't think you could tell much difference between this bootleg and the original records.  This a double sided bone too - and that is very rare - I have only come across one other before. The plastic that this is cut on may in fact not be an undeveloped X-ray at all but another type of film.  Victor thought it may be the film that was used for aerial photography. We have heard about this but have not come across it before - and assumed it hadn't been used much because of the difficulty of getting hold of it or the risk of getting caught with it - or perhaps because it didn't sound very good.

The last is definitely NOT the case if this is such film - even if this is a record that has miraculously survived unplayed for all these years.

TED TALK: X-RAY AUDIO

At TED in Krakow in June 2015, Stephen presented the X-Ray Audio project, telling the story of the Soviet bootleggers, bone music and asking the question: "What would you risk to listen to music?"

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

Whatcha_Gonna_Do.jpg
Heartbreak_hotel.jpg

Stilyagi

The era of X-Ray discs roughly corresponded to that of the Soviet youth subculture called 'The Stilyagi'.  They would have made up a significant group of those in the market for bootlegs.   The word literaly means 'Style hunter' and sometimes gets translated as 'Dudes' or 'Hipsters'.  It was a derogatory name like Beatniks, Hippies or Punks originally were in the West.

The Stilyagi provoked  ridicule and disapproval when they appeared on the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg in the late 1940s. The first reference to them as an actual group was a derisory piece in the satirical magazine Krokodil in 1949:

"The most important part of their style is not to resemble normal people. And as you see, their efforts take them to absurd extremes. The stilyaga knows the fashions all over the world.. He's studied all the fox trots, tangos, rumbas, lindy hops in detail, but he confuses Michurin with Mendeleev, and astronomy with gastronomy... they flutter above life's surface, so to speak"

The authorities couldn't do very much about the Stilyagi apart from getting the Komsomol volunteer youth brigades to bully them on the streets and instructing the media to ridicule them.  The cartoons here are from further editions of Krokodil. They portray the Stilyagi as lazy leeches, but  unintentionally and ironically make them look cool.., and stylish.

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.