In a recent interview with London’s Sunday Times Magazine, rock musician Jon Bon Jovirecalled 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. Theroentgenizdat 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.