Going underground behind the Iron Curtain

I recently came across the very interesting book “X-Ray Audio” – The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone by Stephen Coates. Focusing on the underground culture of Roentgenizdat, also known as “music on ribs” or “jazz on bones”, it tells the fascinating story of bootleg and pirated X-ray music discs that were circulated illegally in Soviet Russia during the immediate post-war era through the 1960s.

Made from medical X-rays that were subsequently cut into 7-inch discs with the aid of special machines, these discs featured music by officially censored artists such as the “King of Russian Tango” Pyotr Leshchenko or Western jazz and rock’n’roll musicians like Bill Haley, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Beatles.

A sort of musical parallel to the samizdat (the underground publication and distribution of dissident literature), the history of these Soviet bone discs is truly incredible as well as illuminating: it reveals how far people were willing to go in order to obtain, enjoy and share the forbidden fruit of inaccessible music. The risks involved were serious: Sound engineer Ruslan Bogoslovsky (1928-2005), a true hero of Soviet underground record production, was sent to prison camps no less than three times throughout his life for cutting Western music onto records that originally contained speeches of Soviet leaders.

Eventually the X-ray record production was eclipsed by the emergence of reel-to-reel tape recorders which became available in the early 1960s and soon grew enormously popular. This in turn sparked the process known as magnitizdat, i.e. the re-copying and self-distribution of audio tape recordings that were not available commercially. According to leading Russian music journalist and critic Artemy Troitsky, “the overall quantity of X-ray records ever produced in the Soviet times would not exceed a million, whereas with reel-to-reel tapes we would be talking about tens if not hundreds of millions.”

In his book Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia (first published in 1987, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union), Troitsky provides a compelling account of the evolution of the Soviet rock scene since its birth in the 1960s. An insider, Troitsky offers an abundance of first-hand information and anecdotes related to the foremost Soviet rock musicians and groups that are little, if at all, known in the West, such as Time Machine (the “Russian Beatles”) and their founder Andrey Makarevich, Aquarium and their leader Boris Grebenshchikov, guitarist Alexander Lyapin (“closer to Hendrix than any other Soviet rock guitarist”), or the iconic post-punk band Kino and their singer Viktor Tsoi.

Starting with the crucial influence of The Beatles on the genesis of Soviet rock, Troitsky goes on to describe key events, places and moments of its history, such as  the hippie gatherings in Tallin and Crimea (“something of a Soviet California”), the Leningrad and Moscow scenes, the “intense though fairly isolated” rock culture of Estonia, the 1980 Tbilisi festival, the emergence of home-made albums in the early 1980s, and the “Account 904” concert (organized in 1986 by Troitsky and others to raise funds for the victims of the Chernobyl disaster).

Troitsky’s commentary is at times both funny (“punk rock with us is something exotic, like an avocado – everyone has heard the name, but very few know what it actually is”) and penetrating: “Meanwhile, nothing at all was happening in Lithuania (…) nothing, that is, if we don’t count having the best jazz and the prettiest girls in the country. Perhaps these circumstances hindered the development of rock music there.”

Apart from its purely historical value, Troitsky’s account also offers some stimulating remarks on the nature of Russian culture and its differences from the West. For example, he writes: “[T]he purely literary level of our rock lyrics is higher, on the average, than in the West. Rock lyrics here have a direct tie to our poetic tradition and reflect its lexical and stylistic heritage.” I find this assertion particularly interesting in the light of the recent Nobel award to Bob Dylan and the related discussion on the relationship between music and literature.

Troitsky’s book closes with a somewhat disheartening remark: “[T]oo few rock bands dare to test glasnost (…) And this is sad. It seems that the long-awaited sunlight has blinded most of the creatures crawling out of the underground.” Thirty years on, the Iron Curtain having long been lifted, the question of cultural and political dissent remains as urgent as ever, both in Russia and the rest of the world. And music can play a crucial role in this respect. As cultural critic Edward Said once put it: “Music, in some profound way, is perhaps the final resistance to the acculturation and the commodification of everything.”

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