Imagine growing up in the 1950s in the Soviet Union and not being able to hear Bill Haley and the Comets sing Rock Around the Clock or to dance to Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. The authorities feared that such subversive Western influences would turn youthful passion away from love for the Motherland, and they therefore banned them along with recordings of both tango and saxophone.
An ingenious workaround, variously known as Bone Music, Jazz on Bones, and Ribs, came about. Bootleggers would play a smuggled, commercially produced record next to a transcription lathe armed with a sharp needle. This would scratch the music’s audible vibrations into a long spiral groove on a spinning disc of discarded vinyl X-ray film. The vinyl was soft enough to accept the groove and hard enough to preserve it.
The task was tedious because a bootlegger had to cut the x-ray films one by one into crude circles, record each one, and burn a center hole with a lit cigarette. The product, however, was cheap and also easy to conceal and sell using the standard methods for distributing urban contraband.
The audio quality of Ribs has been variously described as “sounding like sand” or as if listening to Ella Fitzgerald “from across the street while being pummeled by torrential rain.” Furthermore, the grooves wore out quickly, sometimes after only five to ten playings. The demand for Bone Music dried up after 1964, when tape recorders became legal.
Curiously, the banned music itself had nothing to do with bones or ribs. Why then, the names? At that time in the Soviet Union, vinyl was scarce and tuberculosis was common. Strangely, there is a connection. Bootleggers repurposed old vinyl X-ray films that hospitals discarded in bulk. Many of these were chest X-rays that had been taken to diagnose lung infections. Listen to a rendition of St. Louis Blues recorded on a skull film, to Ella Fitzgerald singing Lullaby of Birdland, and to Elvis crooning Heartbreak Hotel. The latter two were both recorded on chest X-rays with easily identifiable ribs.
Consider the irony if a bootlegger had recorded one of Mr. Presley’s hits on a pelvic X-ray. Subversive indeed.