It seems these days that every record comes in a thousand color variations, with creamsicle splattered wax or S-sided etchings or even those terrible-sounding picture discs. If you’re into all that crap (no judgement), keep your eyes peeled for a Ribs Record next time you’re shopping at a Moldavian flea market.
What are ribs records?
Sometimes also called Bones Music or, roentgenizdat in the native Russian, a Ribs Record is a contraband recording pressed into a used x-ray sheet. In the 1950s, when the listening habits of Soviet citizens were strictly regulated by the Kremlin, Ribs Records proliferated on the Russian black market.
What was on rib records?
A desire for Western music fueled the underground practice of bones bootlegging. It wasn’t necessarily the only way to hear Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker, and Ella Fitzgerald. But it was a lot cheaper than the cost of an actual LP smuggled from beyond the Iron Curtain.
Whereas the real thing might cost five rubles, you could pay as little as a single ruble for one of these trash-picked x-ray records. This was a small price to pay for a tiny taste of Western music.
And it was a tiny taste. Basically, ribs records are sheets of discarded x-ray film plucked from the dumpsters outside of radiology clinics. The quality, say those who lived to tell, was genuinely awful…and also fleeting. You might get 10 spins out of a single record before it went kaputnik.
Still, the methods of these clandestine bootleggers are nothing short of brilliant. Russian rock journalist Artemy Troitsky explains of the process that record printers upcycled old phonograph machines to create their own crudely constructed record lathes.
X-rays were cut into 7-inch discs, grooved at 78RPM, and spindled using the end of a lit cigarette. This last detail is so deliciously Soviet that I’d kill for an actual picture of the process.
What was at stake for bones bootleggers?
Of course, it’s generally considered poor business practice to visually document your own crimes, so there aren’t a lot of pictures of this process. Indeed, by 1958, the Kremlin was officially hip to the jazz and rock leanings of its citizens. The activity of bones bootlegging was officially added to a list of restricted “hooligan trends.”
Hooligan trends was a catch-all term for the untoward behavior of the Soviet youth subculture–referred to as stilyagi. Such behavior generally included an embrace of Western style, dance, and music. This is what makes the story of ribs recordings an important one. By the early ‘60s, people living under Soviet rule faced genuine peril just to hear the Beatles and Stones.
*History Lesson Alert : There were also harsh restrictions around the music of Soviet artists who had emigrated beyond the Iron Curtain. Famous examples include The King of Russian Tango Pyotr Leshchenko, whose popular records were widely bootlegged, and who sadly, in 1954, died in a Romanian forced-labor camp. Naturally, when I learned of his story, I spent the better part of a morning falling into a rabbit hole of Russian tango. Why? What did you do this morning?
Why So Serious, Soviets?
So what was the big deal? It was just music, right?
Well, the end of World War II delivered us into a divided globe. The Soviet Union and the United States squared off in an effort to prove the superiority of their respective forms of governance. By the 1950s, the entire world was at the mercy of this competition.
The Soviet Union carved out a sphere of influence built upon communist ideologies and authoritarian rule by proxy. America sought to carve out its own sphere of influence predicated on the notions of free market capitalism and constitutional democracy. (It didn’t always work out that way in real life, but that was the idea).
Of course, the Cold War was waged on countless military battlefields from Korea to Vietnam, from Nicaragua to Afghanistan. But just as importantly, the Cold War was a cultural showdown. The United States excelled at exporting its culture to a world compelled by Western fashion, cars, and music.
These exports suggested sexual liberation, freedom of expression, and style. In short, for young Russians, there was a giddy excitement that came with glimpsing these cultural exports. For Russian authorities, that excitement was dangerous.
Naturally, America’s tantalizing cultural touchstones were strictly verboten in the postwar Soviet Union. The Kremlin was particularly concerned with the risks posed by the penetration of Western music. As Americans were awakening to the gyrations of Elvis Presley and the mind-expanding possibilities of Miles Davis, Russians were restricted to a diet of largely classical music, much of it nationalist in nature. There was some room for Western classical music in this atmosphere. But jazz and rock and roll were strictly prohibited.
Black Market Platters
The rock, jazz and tango records that did make their way into the hands of young smuggling Russians were resold on the black market. But they were expensive and scarce, as was the material or equipment needed to reproduce them.
With the Birth of Rock and Roll in the mid-50s, Western Music would make an increasingly profound impression on the world—Chubby Checker and the chart-smashing sensation of “The Twist”; the all-conquering arrival of The Beatles; the dangerous truth that was Bob Dylan; the warm, sunny breeze of the Beach Boys, harmonizing from a place that must have felt like another planet to teenagers behind the chilly Iron Curtain.
These songs were formative for Americans, who twiddled radio knobs while cruising the burbs. But for the teenagers of postwar Soviet Russia, this was a forbidden sound from a faraway place. Listening to this music was more than an act of rebellion. It was a minor act of revolution.
So, was the Soviet Union’s cultural paranoia justified? Hard to say. We could credit Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there are a lot economists and defense experts who would beg to differ.
Still, rock and roll was the soundtrack to the toppling of the the Kremlin and exposure to this music had an irreversible impact on Eastern European youth, who glimpsed freedom and wanted more.