Thanks to the internet's amazing capacity for self-recycling, articles about Soviet pirate recordings made of X-rays pop up frequently in my feeds. These popular, widely-shared posts explain how, in the 1950s and 60s, music fans in the Soviet Union fabricated bootlegged recordings of banned western music—and they used old X-rays to do it. In reality, the story of these records extends even further back than the USSR.
X-Ray bootleg records of Western music from the Eastern block
The story was warmed up by The Verge, NPR, and Junkculture not long ago, and Der Spiegel and the BBC wrote about it a few years earlier as well. A common element in these articles–including NPR and the BBC–are images from Hungarian photographer József Hajdú, regardless of the fact that Hajdú's images don't have much to do with the Soviet bootleg discs.
I had seen Hajdú's photos before, and some of them can be found on the old site of the Bolt Photo Gallery with a brief description about the origin and the circumstances of Hajdu's work. To get a better picture of what was really behind this story, I went to the source and asked Hajdú himself to tell me what to know about these strange recordings, which wear the stunning marks of invisible short wavelength electromagnetic radiation.
József Hajdú, museologist of the Hungarian Postal Museum (Photo: Attila Nagy/Gizmodo)
We sat down in the Postal Museum to talk. This is where an exhibition called Hello, this is Tivadar Puskás's telephone took place in 1993, showcasing the relationship between Puskas and Edison, examining their achievements through objects and documents of transmitting and recording sound. At this exhibition, visitors could admire a few special X-ray plates too, which had been imprinted with different kinds of recording thanks to record cutters.
József Hajdú, who is also the museologist of the Postal Museum, noticed these bizarre, flexible records depicting human body parts at this time, and found beauty in these ancient multimedia objects originating from the collection of the Hungarian Radio Corporation.
Politician speech from 1941 (Photo: Attila Nagy/Gizmodo)
As it turned out, the oldest of these plates were created in the 40s, in the Hungarian Radio record cutter workshop, and affluent music lovers and radio enthusiasts, prepared and receptive to new technology, also made such records at home—after purchasing their own record cutting machines.
At the time, most music pieces and radio shows were recorded to shellac resin, but during World War II, it was almost impossible to import shellac from Southeast Asia, mostly from India. The shortage of raw materials gave birth to a forced solution: radio professionals and enthusiastic amateurs looked for a material that was cheap, was available in large quantities, and of course, could play back recorded sound in acceptable quality. They found it in hospitals.
This music recording was created on the 31st of December, 1940 (Photo: Attila Nagy/Gizmodo)
Exposed, developed, and then discarded, X-ray film sheets were consistent with the target. The celluloid plates coated with light-sensitive emulsion on one or both sides were thick and durable enough to scratch grooves of dance music, popular songs, speeches by politicians, and pretty much everything that came from radio speakers. Then the thick radiographs were cut into discs of 23-25 centimeters in diameter, sometimes with uneven brims, and given labels and holes in the middle. These 78 rpm, normal furrow (i.e. non-LP) discs contain about two to three minutes of voice or music recordings, says Hajdú.
So that is how the first X-ray records were born in the studios of the Hungarian Radio, and as Hajdú emphasizes, today we see them as extremely exciting pieces of art which can be viewed as recycling and early multi-media works. These records can definitely be studied as art, to which the anonymous authors added their own aesthetic two cents: Many X-ray recording are apparently well-composed and created in a deliberate manner, with the original images—for example of a skull, or a chest—presented in a way that pleases the eye. Some of these more suggestive-looking plates would honor any obscure black metal bands, even today.
Some piano bar music (Photo: Attila Nagy/Gizmodo)
This artistic approach captured Hajdú's attention, and in the 90s, he based several photography projects on these X-ray audio records. At first, he used the plates he collected as negatives and made 1 to 1 contact prints onto photo paper (14 pieces in total), then experimented with lighting tables, and eventually took 4x5 inch Polaroid enlargements, too, seen below:
(Photo: József Hajdú)
The resulting limited edition photo series was featured in several exhibitions—for example, a few years ago, in an X-ray themed exhibition in Budapest called X-Ray Men: Invisible World. Today, most of them are in private and public collections, scattered around the world. And of course, you can find some of them on the internet, illustrating articles written about Soviet bootleg recordings.
The history of the X-ray records did not end with the Second World War, though. In the 50s, very similar records appeared in the Soviet Union, illegally disseminating the most popular recordings of banned western music among the young people of the isolated country. That was how communist piracy was born. Stilyagi, a Russian movie from 2008 made a nice tribute to this subculture:
It is still not clear how the X-ray method spread from Hungary to the Soviet Union, since researchers could not find any direct connection between the two phenomena. One possible explanation could be that after 1945, Hungarian prisoners of war and forced labor workers—up to 600,000 Hungarians were captured and deported by the Soviets after the war, including roughly 200,000 civilians—brought the technology to the USSR. Of course, it is also possible that people in Hungary and in the Soviet Union independently invented the method a few decades apart.
Flexi discs were very similar but official recordings in the USSR (Photo: Attila Nagy/Giozmodo)
X-ray records remained popular among the music lovers in Hungary and the USSR. Only much later, in the 70s after the easing of austerity and broadening of the Western portfolio of the state-owned record companies (Melodiya in the USSR, Hungaroton in Hungary), did it start to decline.
Since then, these records almost completely disappeared from private music collections, and only a few of these bizarre objects have found their homes on the shelves of collectors—as well as in the sound archives of the Hungarian Radio and the National Library. There are signs that they're remembered, though. Jack White's label, for example, even printed one record on X-rays last year. It seems that all the attention from the past few years may be engendering a renaissance in an art form that, originally, was born out of pure necessity.