“I’ve got music that I wrote that’s pressed on my grandmother’s skull,” Brandon Burkart, 36, who founded Blank City Records along with Marc Sallis, 40, and Kawika Campbell, 36, told The Washington Post.
Most Western music, such as jazz and rock-and-roll, was outlawed in the Soviet Union under the Zhdanov Doctrine of 1946, which regulated all intellectual activity, from literature to medicine to music, Radio Free Europe reported.
Records by the Beatles, Billie Holliday and Roy Orbison, for example, weren’t allowed through the Iron Curtain, since they didn’t adhere to Communist Party principles. Music from homegrown dissidents like Vladimir Vysotsky, the Russian equivalent of Bob Dylan, was similarly outlawed.
But a certain subculture of young people wanted to listen to rock-and-roll. They were known for dressing in stylish clothes and throwing parties. The Soviet government dubbed them “stilyagi,” which translates as “style hunters,” according to Atlas Obscura.
So they figured out a way to get the music by making homemade records out of X-rays.
Some bootleg copies of records would inevitably find their way into the country, so the stilyagi often had a master disc. What they needed was a material to reprint it on, as vinyl wasn’t too common.
They took to rummaging through hospital trash bins and digging out discarded X-rays, according to Fast Company. They then used a traditional wax disk cutter and a recording lathe to etch copies of the album onto the X-ray, which they cut it into a circle with scissors before burning a hole in the middle with a cigarette. Voilà: an album that could be played on a turntable.
“Usually it was the Western music they wanted to copy,” Sergei Khrushchev, the son of former Soviet premiere Nikita Khrushchev, told NPR. “Before the tape recorders they used the X-ray film of bones and recorded music on the bones, bone music.”
“You’d have Elvis on the lungs, Duke Ellington on Aunt Masha’s brain scan — forbidden Western music captured on the interiors of Soviet citizens,” author Anya von Bremzen told the station.
“There were even Russian rock bands and stuff who would press their records on these X-rays,” Sallis told The Post.
The practice quickly grew into an underground business run by black market record distributors called “roentgenizdat,” which translates into X-ray press. The groups distributed millions of records until the Soviet Union made the practice illegal in 1958, Fast Company reported.
These bone records served a purpose at the time, but since X-ray film is so thin, the sound quality of the records was terrible — and the albums themselves would eventually disintegrate under the turntable’s needle after a handful of plays.
“Some were virtually unlistenable,” Coates told NPR. “But that didn’t seem to matter, in some ways. I mean, talking to people who bought these records when they were young — even the tiniest thread of melody, of this forbidden sound, was so exciting.”
In some ways, that’s the appeal to Burkart.
“It’s on this format that kind of speaks. There’s something really amazing about having something tangible, and there’s also something amazing about things that are fleeting,” he said. “The fact that you only get a few plays.”
Sallis also sees the records as more than ways to transport music. They’re art in and of themselves.
“We sourced a bunch of X-rays from various places, such as family and friends and stuff like that,” Sallis told The Post. “After you get your five to 10 plays out of it, the quality begins to disintegrate. Then you have this very cool crazy looking record to put on the wall.”
“If you want your personal medical history turned into audio art, then send them our way,” Burkart added.