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Bad to the bone: Soviet-era pirate records made from X-ray plates on display in Tokyo

A "bone" record, courtesy of the X-Ray Audio Project.

TOKYO -- An exhibition showcasing Russian Soviet-era bootleg records made from discarded X-ray plates is underway here at the Ba-tsu Art Gallery, Shibuya Ward.

The Soviet Union's ban on Western music created an underground market for pirate LPs made from discarded X-Ray plates known as "bones" or "ribs." Through displays of records marked with apparitions of ribs, pelvises and other skeletal features, the exhibition encourages visitors to reflect on our freedom to listen to music.

Paul Heartfield is seen with a "bone" LP recorder at the exhibition in the Ba-tsu Art Gallery in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on April 26, 2019. (Mainichi/Maki Mochizuki)

The collection has been brought together by musician Stephen Coates and photographer Paul Heartfield, both from the U.K. It all began with a record bought in a Saint Petersburg flea market during a 2013 trip to Russia. The LP, a recording of Rock Around the Clock, was made from an X-Ray plate of a pelvis.

The pair decided to research their history and carried out interviews in Russia. It turned out banned western music deemed degenerate by the Cold War Soviet government was recorded onto the LPs up until the proliferation of tapes in the mid-60s.

Flexi discs, the cheap vinyl LP format that had been widely available in Japan, had yet to be introduced to the Soviet Union. Instead, X-ray discs discarded by hospitals after a fixed period, which were made of a similar material to LPs, could be obtained cheaply and reworked into records.

To make similar "bone" LPs, Heartfield got a recorder and assembled its arm using old stereo parts, a process that required refinement to perfect.

Video of interviews the two carried out with Russians connected to the records are also shown at the exhibition. In one, a man imprisoned for making them said, "We didn't do it for money. We did it for the adventure. We did it to get the music out to the people." Coates says the records are not only strangely beautiful, but also show us the struggle of people who didn't have the freedom to listen to music.

The X-Ray Audio exhibition at the Ba-tsu Art Gallery, Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, runs until May 12. Admission is 1,400 yen.

(Japanese original by Maki Mochizuki, Student Newspapers Editorial Department)

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