In post WWII Russia, Stalin banned the possession of any western music. All records allowed in the country had to be of Russian composers. But there was an underground hungry for Western popular music—everything from jazz and blues to rock & roll. But smuggling vinyl was dangerous, and acquiring the scarce material to make copies of those records that did make it into the country was expensive and very risky.
An ingenuous solution to this problem began to emerge in the form of “bone music,” or sometimes called “bones ‘n’ ribs” music, or simply Ribs.
A young 19 year-old sound engineer Ruslan Bogoslowski in Leningrad changed the game when he created a device to bootleg western albums so he could distribute them across Russia. Problem was he couldn’t find material to bootleg his pressings onto, vinyl was scare as were all petroleum products after the war. Then, one day he stumbled upon a pile of discarded X-rays. It worked. At the time, Russian law mandated that all X-rays had to be destroyed after 1 year of storage because they were flammable so he dug through trash bins and paid off orderlies for x-rays.
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, hip bones, 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 jamsand for 20 years he handmade about 1,000,000 bootlegs onto X-ray film of everything from classical to the Beach Boys . The dead sang along with the living. For 20 years he handmade about 1,000,000 bootlegs onto X-ray film of everything from classical to the Beach Boys.
The morbid presentation of these records earned them a variety of colorful codenames—“ribs,” “jazz on bones,” “my grandma’s skeleton,” and the more recognized roentgenizdat.
For over 20 years, Bone Music was the only way Russian music lovers could get western music, which they played at “music and coffee parties” in their kitchens, away from the KGB ears and eyes.
Bone Music. A testament to the underground courage to subvert authority, rebellion, and the love of music. The spirit of rock n roll. 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.
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.
Macabre Grimoire Chapter 20 Soviet Bone Music
Hosts Ari Show, Robert Mehling, and Travis Nye
Produced by Robert Mehling
Voice Over by Dave Holly
Opening Theme Enhance Your Starry Night by Mouthful of Bees