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Bone Music or Music on Ribs - How to Share Music in a Totalitarian State

Bone Music

Holly |

Rib records originate from the Soviet Union in the 40s and 50s when many types of music were banned from broadcast. They are music pressed onto x-rays purchased from hospitals, or taken from the bins in hospitals.

This is an extension of a section of one of our previous posts which looks at several areas of Bootleg history. You can read that post here.

One of the most fascinating kinds of bootlegs  we’ve discovered in our research has got to be rib records or ‘bone music.' In Russia it has the name of roentgenizdatThis name comes from the name of the inventor of x-ray, Wilhelm Röntgen, combined with the word for publishing.

Hospitals were required to dispose of x-rays after a year because they were considered a fire risk, which led to a consistent supply - perfect for creating these records. 

X-Ray Rib Record Featuring Hands
X-Ray Audio​​
X-Ray Rib Record Featuring Ribs
X-Ray Audio​​

Some of the most regularly seen parts of the body on rib records are ribs and sternums. This is a result of almost everyone in the Soviet Union having been tested for tuberculosis which required x-rays of the chest.

Similar to old shellac records, these counterfeit discs spin at 78rpm. This allowed for just 3.5 minutes of music on each side, which is fairly similar to a 7" single. It has been said that the centre hole was typically burned into the disc using a cigarette, but this has been found to probably not be true.

X-ray film used to contain flammable silver nitrate, so it wasn't a sensible thing to take a lit cigarette to. It is more likely the hole was made in a similar way to the rest of the rib record, which was typically cut into a crude circle using scissors.

Did you know?

Some of the most commonly seen parts of the body on rib records are ribs and sternums.

Rib records can be most closely compared to flexi-discs, which have often been given out for free by record labels or with magazines such as NME. There is also a long history across the world of ‘audio postcards,’ which we mention in our post about picture discs.

The pressings were of such poor quality that they could be played only 5 to 10 times. Because of this, it is very likely that the surviving rib records today are some of the least popular tracks. Owners would often throw away records that were no longer able to be played. Largely because they no longer had any use, and it was also risky to own items like this... they held banned music!

This means that discoveries of these records will become rarer and rarer, with the most popular music being surely the rarest. It also means that it's very difficult to know how many were produced in the first place, but it is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands.

We sometimes experience the same thing with standard record releases. The albums people loved the most will often be the ones that everyone else adored too, leading to the rarest records often arriving from their old homes in far less than perfect condition. Whilst the less popular albums may be close to pristine…

Skids - The Olympian Flexi
Skids Flexi-Disc​​
Flexi from the USSR
1981 USSR Flexi-Disc​​

So, why didn’t people just buy ‘real’ copies of the banned records?

There was a black market for real copies from other countries of banned records, but these were extremely sought after and became very rare and expensive. So, a need for cheaper alternatives arose and rib records were born. It was necessary to print on x-rays because the state controlled or owned all the means of manufacturing music and raw material supply.

Seeing as the actual record presses were owned by the state, (read about how records are made here) people were forced to use lathe cutting machines instead for rib records. Lathe cutting is like creating master record after master record. The machine takes in the audio information which causes the lathe to vibrate, and the grooves are cut into the spinning disc in real time. Many of the rib bootleggers started to build their own lathes, which required a lot of engineering skill.

A lathe cutting machine

The only music that was released legally during the Soviet years was anything that the USSR leaders deemed appropriate (or, really, what they liked). As a major genre of the 30s, the Soviet leaders decided that jazz resembled pro-capitalism and decadence and so improvisation in music was forbidden. Most Soviet jazz stopped existing after 1948. Much of the music pressed on ribs and shared on the black market was this Soviet jazz (amongst other genres), and not just western rock music as it may be easy to assume.

A law was passed in 1958 to ban the home production of recordings, but with the music still being banned by the Soviet leaders, production of rib/bone music was bound to continue. The production of bone music ended up stopping in the early 60s, with Khrushchev in power. After his visit to the US in 1959, tape machines including Reel to Reel machines became more popular and allowed more people to create their own illicit recordings. These new, home recordings were able to be much longer and significantly higher quality and so rib records were no more.

Click the picture below to go to a page containing some bone music recordings. They include tracks by artists like Elvis Presley. You’ll be pleased to know that records of this condition wouldn’t get though our grading process (unless they were a genuine rib record that is)...

The above recordings were compiled by the X-Ray Audio project which was started nearly ten years ago by Stephen Coates. He was on tour in Russia with his band when he came across a record pressed on an x-ray at a market stall. The people around him thought little of it, but he brought it home to England and studied it further.

That discovery has blossomed into a fascinating project working to educate and preserve these little and increasingly rare pieces of history. They’ve had an ‘x-hibition’ on tour in various places around the world – the next location is set to be Bradford in 2024. You can find out a lot more on their site, here.

Stephen Coates has also written a book about rib records, called ‘Bone Music’ which was published in 2022. It contains a huge wealth of information, and if you enjoyed this blog post it is a serious must read. 

Watch Stephen Coates' TED Talk

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