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Unearthing Russia's X-Ray Records

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 16, 2011 09:26 AM

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In a recent interview with London's Sunday Times Magazine, rock musician Jon Bon Jovi recalled the music industry's good old days -- particularly "the beauty of taking your allowance money and making a decision based on the jacket, not knowing what the record sounded like, and looking at a couple of still pictures and imagining it." I remember those days too -- but they pale in comparison to the 1950s in Russia, when underground music lovers listened to banned Western hits on home-made records pressed on discarded X-ray film. The records were called "roentgenizdat," or "X-ray pressed" records.

An X-ray pressing of "St. Louis Blues," from this online collection of roentgenizdat.

Western music was largely banned in the USSR, and so pop music lovers had to copy smuggled records themselves, using very basic equipment. In place of expensive vinyl, they discovered that old X-ray film, liberated from hospital dumpsters, worked well enough, and thus roentgenizdat were born. In fact, they were a key part of a vibrant underground music scene, opposed at every turn by the state. In 1959, with the establishment of an official "Music Patrol," many roentgenizdat distributors were actually sent to prison.

These days roentgenizdat are increasingly interesting to historians and critics, both for their beauty and for their rich metaphorical and political significance. Eduardo Cadava, a professor of English at Princeton, is currently working on a book about them, Music on Bones, which will think about the records as cultural artifacts. They are extraordinary objects -- but, as visually striking as the roentgenizdat, their sound is only more so. You can listen to "St. Louis Blues" (pictured) here), and find even more MP3s on this page. The roentgenizdat recording of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" is mesmerizing: the song is interwoven with the sound of the X-ray film. What must have sounded degraded in 1956 now sounds enhanced -- enriched, really, with the texture of history.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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