The Bone Music Exhibition in Harajuku’s Ba-Tsu Art Gallery offers an eye-opening look at how music transcended censorship in the USSR back in the '50s and '60s. Perhaps what’s most unusual about these bootleg tunes is that they were ‘embedded’ and disguised within x-ray films.
These circular x-ray scans are ghostly remnants of a time when foreign music of certain genres were banned in the Soviet Union. Rock ‘n’ roll was condemned for being too corruptive, jazz for its flagrant eroticism, and thus songs by the likes of Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald were prohibited.
The problem was that by the end of World War II, the Soviets had already grown an unshakeable liking to such music. Rather than allowing arbitrary restrictions to separate them from the music they loved so dearly, young Soviet rebels dived into an intricate underground music trade where forbidden records were distributed like illicit drugs.
It started with Stanislav Philo, a young soldier who returned home from the war with a machine that could duplicate records. He took whatever forbidden records he could get his hands on and began secretly selling copies alongside records that were authorised by the government.
Philo gained a reputation for himself amongst the stilyagi, or ‘style hunters’, who defied what was deemed culturally appropriate under the dictatorship and sought to consume modern foreign trends. These bona fide hipsters were also soon to discover that the discarded x-ray films from hospitals could be repurposed as makeshift records by cutting them into discs and burning a hole through the middle with cigarette butts.
The quality of the sound was terrible compared to the smooth streaming of a proper record, but the discs worked nonetheless and could be played up to ten times before the films burned out. Authorities quickly became aware of the commonality of x-ray audio as a way of distributing illegal music, yet bootleggers and Soviet youths continued to risk time in prison for their love of rock 'n' roll. When the ban of foreign records and ‘unseemly’ genres were finally lifted, the flimsy scans of broken bones were cast aside as people eagerly turned to better quality vinyl that would last more than a few songs.
These so-called ‘bone music’ was almost completely forgotten until Stephen Coates, lead singer of British band The Real Tuesday Weld, stumbled upon one of the black market records at a flea market when he was in Russia for a gig. The peculiar x-ray record captivated Coates and he resolved to uncover the history behind it.
Hosted at Ba-Tsu Art Gallery in the back streets of Harajuku, the Bone Music exhibition is a collection of the fragments Coates uncovered through his research and interviews with the original bone music bootleggers. At a time when any genre of music can be downloaded instantaneously through a multitude of apps, the days of vinyl records and physical albums seem far behind us, but these scans of broken bones survive as an extraordinary reminder of how music can transcend time and place, and censorship.
Bone Music Exhibition is now on until Sunday May 12.