Recorded music has never been as omnipresent as it is in 2011. If, heaven forbid, there should be a supermarket, gas station, dentist’s office or public street not blessed with speakers providing perpetual Muzak, that’s why Jobs made iPods. As technology moves from CDs to digital downloads to—perhaps—receptors implanted in the brain, it is instructive to look back to a time when finding music on record was less easy and much more dangerous. The time was the 1940s and ‘50s in the Soviet Union.
The subject of rib music came up in a discussion among jazz researchers about Willis Conover, whose broadcasts on the Voice of America constituted one of the United States’ most effective tools of Cold War cultural diplomacy. As Conover won friends for the US during a time of international tension so powerful that worldwide nuclear destruction was a fear on both sides of the Atlantic. Reception of his Music USA programs was banned in the USSR and its satellites, but his subversive audience there numbered in the millions. Many shortwave listeners learned English from Conover as they hid with their radios, risked arrest and absorbed music symbolizing freedom that was forbidden to them. A major reason for Conover’s popularity was the scarcity of recordings, particularly of music from the west. A few records made their way into the Soviet Union from Eastern Europe, where controls were less strict, but they were unlikely to be of jazz or rock and roll. Almost no records got in from beyond the Iron Curtain.
The ingenuity of young people with technical skills led to the discovery that prohibited records—and illegal recordings of Conover’s programs— could be duplicated by pressing copies on an unconventional material—x-ray plates that had been discarded. The plates had images of broken ribs, cracked skulls, damaged spinal cords, chest cavities. There was a large and continuous supply, they were cheap, and millions of pressing made from them reached Soviet listeners through the x-ray press or roentgenizdat, the equivalent of the samizdat that reproduced and distributed illicit literature. The sound quality was dreadful, but people were hungry for the music.
For much of this information and for access to the rare photographs of three rib music records, I am beholden to Cyril Moshkow, the editor of Jazz Ru.Magazine. Cyril provided this account of how underground manufacturers got their raw material and made the records.
One would apply (unofficially, of course) to the local state-owned clinic (there was no private clinics anyway) and ask the nun at the “Roentgen room” (X-ray laboratory) if they had old X-ray plates. They did, and, according to the state fire protection rules, were supposed to get rid of them every three months; but clinic personnel normally consisted mostly of women, and they were reluctant to move hundreds of pounds of used X-ray plates themselves, and therefore very grateful to unknown polite young men who offered to “throw away” the plates at no charge. Then, the dusty plates were cleaned, sorted, and cut in approximately round shape, the size of a 10-inch 78 record; an industrial beam compass was used to mark first the rim, and then the center, where then a spindle hole would be punched. All this would happen, of course, not at an industrial facility (which were controlled by government), but in somebody’s apartment or, in smaller towns, in a country house.
The final stage was the recording; some underground record copy facilities had professional equipment, some would use two gramophones with the tone arm of one of them loaded with some weight, and connected with the tone arm of the playing device with a tight cord. The recording device looked roughly like a gramophone; only, the “tone arm” was thicker and heavier, as it would cut the groove, not play it. These makeshift systems would, of course, produce a much worse quality than the regular recorders, but it would sell nevertheless, as jazz or early rock records were not officially available in the Soviet Union (with rare exceptions) until the 1970s. Even then, the “bone music” or “rib music,” as people would call the unofficial X-ray plate records, would still be available in the black market. I have even seen “rib music” recorded at 33 1/3 RPM! Those records would be called “rib music” even if the material was not X-ray plates. They were made on film used for professional maps or technical drawings, which was of a much better quality, but much more expensive and harder to obtain.
Cyril Moshkow persuaded the owner of the rib music photographs, Igor Belyi, to give Rifftides permission to use them. Mr. Belyi asked that we provide a link to his website. We are happy to do so and hope that our readers who know Russian will find his work informative.