What happens when rock’n’roll, x-rays and political resistance come together?
Roentgenizdat, that’s what.
Let us explain…
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen is famous for discovering the x-ray, and his name is even used as a unit of measurement of radiation. His life changing discovery came in the last years of the 1800s.
Then came new forms of music, a few wars, some radicals and… the fear by some misguided governments that rock’n’roll would incite the masses against them. In the case of roentgenizdat, it was the government of the Soviet Union, post WWII, that feared the influence of western music, literature, and rowdy free-thinkers.
When vinyl records are forbidden, what can help?
Ronten’s discovery to the rescue! Enterprising music lovers found a way to record music onto already exposed (and discarded) x-ray films. Imagine a recording on the turntable going round and round with the images of someone’s hand or chest decorating the “record”. These rare prints have colorful nicknames like “bone music” or “rock’n’ribs”.
It’s important to remember in those times and places, it wasn’t just Kevin Bacon winning the rebelling teens over to dance* - this type of subversion wasn’t adolescents battling their parents to be cool. These recordings were literally considered to be an act against the government, punishable by years in prison or labor camps. While “bone music” can appear interesting for vinyl-lovers, music-lovers, radiologists… it is also profound, historically.
Musician Stephen Coates talks about his discovery and obsession with bone music in this interview on NPR; his book X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone (find it at your public library) and further stories can be found here. If that leaves you wanting to know more, 99% Invisible also covers more of the story at this site. The podcast is a great listen, even if the medium is digital and not written on bones!
*Doctors’ note: We approve of the dancing, but not the smoking. Quit, Kevin!