For those who lived under the reign of the Soviet Union, it was hard to get your hands on most Western goodies. Russian black markets were packed with forbidden “propaganda” like Marlboro cigarettes, VHS tapes of American movies, and even blue jeans. But luxuries like Pink Floyd, Elvis, and Van Halen presented an especially tough challenge for music lovers before the Curtain fell.
So how did the oppressed get ahold of a hit? They improvised. Soviet bootleggers purchased old medical X-Rays from hospitals and clinics, and used the material to literally burn copies of popular vinyl records. The crude reproductions were then sold on the sly to hungry music lovers all over the country.
It was a tricky process. Fluorography X-Rays, chosen for their thick, soft coating, were first cut into crooked circles using manicure scissors. A cigarette was used to burn a hole in the middle. Sewing needles were then preheated using a 3V DC electricity source, and attached to speakers. The makeshift discs were placed underneath, and vibrations from the speakers allowed the warm needles to etch low-quality recordings of the music right into ankles and ribcages.
“You’d have Elvis on the lungs, Duke Ellington on Aunt Masha’s brain scan,” says Russian author Anya von Bremzen. “Forbidden Western music captured on the interiors of Soviet citizens.”
The X-Ray records, called “Ribs” or “Jazz on Bones”, colloquially, were extremely popular in the black markets. “[The] quality was awful, but the price was low, a ruble or a ruble and a half,” explains Russian musicologist Artemy Troitsky. Despite the substandard condition of the recordings, it was the primary method to obtain popular music banned by the USSR at the time.
Some of the forbidden artists, and the reasons they were deemed unacceptable by the Soviet government, are listed below.
Black Sabbath – violence, religious obscurantism
Julio Iglesias – neo-fascism
Junior English – sex
KISS – neo-fascism, punk, violence
The Originals – sex
Nazareth – violence, religious mysticism, sadism
Pink Floyd – misrepresentation of Soviet foreign policy
Sparks – neo-fascism, racism
Styx – violence, vandalism
Donna Summer – eroticism
Tina Turner – sex
Van Halen – anti-Soviet propaganda
Village People – violence
10cc – neo-fascism
If you’re feeling a little feisty today, you can check out our related guide and experience the bootlegging thrill like a real Soviet rebel.