Hipsters aren’t anything new. Under Stalin, even the U.S.S.R. had them. They were called stilyagi. Whereas today’s hipsters are obsessed with skinny jeans and fixed-gear bicycles, the stilyagi were obsessed with Western culture–in particular, with jazz, boogie woogie, and rock ‘n’ roll.
But in the 1950s, unless you had a radio near the border, there was no way to actually hear rock ‘n’ roll. Without CDs, flash drives, the Internet, or even analog tape recorders to distribute the rare bootleg recordings of the slim supply of Chuck Berry albums that did come into the country, the stilyagi had to get clever.
The solution was homemade records ingeniously pressed on exposed X-Rays–called bone music.
Because vinyl was scarce in the Soviet Union, the stilyagi would dig through hospital waste bins to find discarded X-Rays, which were both plentiful and cheap. Using a standard wax disk cutter, the stilyagi would copy Western records that managed to make it into the Soviet Union through satellite countries such as Hungary.
They would then etch a copy of an album into the X-Ray, cut it into a crude circle with manicure scissors, and use a cigarette to burn a hole in the middle, allowing the record to be played on any turntable.
“Usually it was the Western music they wanted to copy,” Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Joseph Stalin’s successor as the U.S.S.R.’s General Secretary explained to NPR. “Before the tape recorders they used the X-ray film of bones and recorded music on the bones, bone music.”
This process was famously captured in the opening credits of the 2008 Russian cult film, also called Stilyagi.
These records only played on a single side, and the quality was low, but they were extremely cheap: A single disc only cost about one ruble on the black market, as opposed to five rubles for a two sided-disc. And it was subversive. According to Artemy Troitsky’s 1987 book Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia, they often contained surprises for the listener: “Let’s say, a few seconds of American rock’n’roll, then a mocking voice in Russian asking: “So, thought you’d take a listen to the latest sounds, eh?” followed by a few choice epithets addressed to fans of stylish rhythms, then silence.”
Soon, an entire underground network of bone music record distributors popped up, called the roentgenizdat, or X-Ray press. Analogous to the samizdat that reproduced censored publications across the Soviet bloc, the roentgenizdat was soon distributing millions of Western records.
Sadly, though, Soviet officials eventually caught on, making the practice illegal in 1958. In 1959, they broke up the largest roentgenizdat ring, and by the 1960s, the Komsomol–or Leninist Young Communist League–sponsored anti-Western “music patrols” that hunted out distributors of bone music and confiscated any X-Ray records they found.
While it may seem as if used X-Rays are a strange way to distribute bootleg copies of Heartbreak Hotel, it’s worth noting that eventually, the Western music industry got its own version of bone music. They were called flexi-discs, and like X-Ray records, they were thin, flexible vinyl sheet records that were so cheap and easy to make that they were distributed in everything from magazine bindings to boxes of breakfast cereal.
Perhaps for obvious reasons, though, flexidiscs weren’t printed on actual X-Ray film. Few individuals want to scrutinize a stranger’s tumorous colon over their morning bowl of cornflakes. But now that vinyl sales are growing, maybe it’s time to bring bone music back.