I’m Looking Through You – Music on Bones

In the USSR in the mid-sixties the Beatles music began to filter through behind the iron curtain, where there was an insatiable demand for it among Soviet youth.  The Khrushchev era had loosened up the culturally repressive communist empire a little but the importation and sale of western pop music was strictly forbidden so enterprising bootleggers had to find a way to spread the fab gospel from the limited supply of original vinyl smuggled in via ports, military bases and embassies.  The answer was x-rays.  In Russian hospitals x-ray plates were made of soft vinyl.  The record recording booths found on the street could be used to cut a copy of the groove from an official vinyl record onto the discarded picture of Uncle Ivan’s busted head or ribs.  The quality was absolutely appalling, thin and shrill with no bass of course as the vinyl groove was too shallow.  And that was if the stylus of your cheap East German record player could even stay the course.  Even so, for a few roubles you got to hear your idols’ subversive music and practice amateur oncology.

The trade was risky – the KGB prowled looking for market stalls selling illegally imported Beatles vinyl and most purchases were arranged over the phone.  Stasi goons also posed (largely unsuccessfully) as fans wanting to buy but a few questions about the pop scene out west usually alerted the seller to a sting.  Counterfeits with no music only propaganda speech were also flooded onto the market to try and disrupt the underground market.

Bones records were a stepping stone to a much better form of counterfeiting; tape.  Magnetic tape was a common commodity in the USSR because the KGB needed miles of it to bug and record enemies of the state.  Reel to reel recorders were manufactured in large quantities inside Russia and making a tape copy of Sgt Pepper or the Velvet Underground was a simpler process.  That could then be copied several times providing better quality reproduction all round.  Cassette tape was even better and when it came on the scene in the 1970’s, the Soviets largely gave up the fight against western music and even sanctioned a few official rock releases via the state record label Melodiya.  Even so, periodic crackdowns on popular music and musicians continued right up until the Gorbachev era.  Leslie Woodhead’s book “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin” reveals how the fierce love of the Beatles above all other groups was a key factor in demolishing the Soviet Union; an entire generation grew up believing if being ideologically wrong sounded this good you could keep your totalitarian state.

While we are on the subject of covert music from behind the iron curtain mention should be made of Polish postcard flexis.  These first appeared in Poland in the late 1960’s when tracks by Procol Harum, the Doors and Pink Floyd started to appear pressed on small diameter clear flexi vinyl and pasted to a double sided colour postcard.  The Polish communist state was not as violently down on western music and these artifacts seemed to have flirted with official status, certainly thousands were churned out up to the fall of the wall and beyond, Frank Zappa was a particular favourite.

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