Bone Music: The Bootleg X-Ray Records of Soviet Russia

“X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone” by Stephen Coates – Strange Attractor Press – Hardcover, 162 pages

Post-World War II, a new form of record smuggling emerged in Russia. Known as “Bone Music”, “Bones ‘n’ Ribs”, or “Ribs,” this music revolutionized the way Russians listened to tunes from the western world.

Throughout history, music has served many purposes, from simply entertaining to effecting social change. Joseph Stalin understood the power of music and, as a result, chose to ban the possession of all western music. For decades, the only records that were allowed in Russia had feature music from Russian composers.

What happened when the dictator placed a ban on western music? A vast underground network formed for those who were desperate to diversify their listening.

“Bone Music” originated with a 19-year-old sound engineer named Ruslan Bogoslowski. Bogoslowski, who lived in Leningrad, created a device that helped him to bootleg western albums and distribute them across Russia. Because he didn’t have access to vinyl, he chose to use discarded X-ray film.

Bogoslowski paid off orderlies and dug x-ray film out of trash bins to get supplies for his business. Over 20 years, he made more than 1,000,000 bootleg records on the film, creating recordings of everyone from The Beach Boys to classical composers. Eventually, he was caught and spent five years imprisoned in Siberia.

Many elderly Russians still remember these unique vinyl-type discs from their youth. They featured partial images of skeletons, which is where the names “Bone Music” or “Bones ‘n’ Ribs” came from.

Although Bogoslowski eventually had to end his bootlegging operation, he made a huge impact on music-loving Russians. For more than 20 years, Bone Music was the only option for those who wanted to enjoy western music. These records were often played in kitchens during “music and coffee parties” to protect the listeners from the KGB.

In an interview with NPR, Stephen Coates, who leads the British band The Real Tuesday Weld, explained that the sound quality for these records wasn’t great but, in some cases, also was “not bad.”

He went on to explain that, while some records were “virtually unlistenable,” it likely didn’t matter to the people who were buying them at the time. Because the music was forbidden, even faintly hearing it was thrilling and better than nothing at all.

Coates also pointed out in his interview how powerful music of any kind is and reflected on the fact that music mattered so much in post-WWII Russia that people would risk imprisonment to listen to it.

For those who want to learn more, this link from X-Ray Audio shows images of what Bone Music looked like. The website also features an online library where people can listen to recordings of these discs and experience the unique sound of musical rebellion for themselves.