Play That Funky Music, X rays
by Ellyn Hament • July 23, 2015
Rock on Bones gramophone record (USSR, 1950s). Gallery Vinzavod, Moscow, Dmitry Rozhkov
Back in the USSR in the 1950s and ’60s, people who wanted to listen to Elvis, Chuck Berry, or the Beatles, for example, were either out of luck or in big trouble: Western music was banned. But a light bulb went off somewhere when someone realized that discarded, exposed x-ray film would make a fine underground recording medium. It was flexible, easily available (vinyl wasn’t), and cheap. These recordings, called roentgenizdat (from the Russian roentgen and samizdat; x ray and self publish), were pressed on specially rigged phonographs. They were supposedly respectable sounding though temperamental, and sported a bonus assortment of human anatomy images. Eventually, Soviet officials banned them, but not before lots made their way onto the Soviet black market.
More recently, there’s been a renewed interest in roentgenizdat as both cultural artifacts and recordings. For example, in 2013 Jack White’s boutique record label, Third Man Records, released a very limited number of the Gabby Haynes Blue Series 7-inch single pressed on old medical x rays.
To explore more surprising things about sound, check out Sound Uncovered, our award-winning, free app for the iPad that features auditory illusions, acoustic phenomena, and other things that go bump, beep, boom, and vroom.
And if you're feeling geeky and inspired, you may want to try a related DIY project that will guide you—if you've got the right equipment and techie chops—through a process of turning your MP3s into physical records. If you master that, there's nothing to stop you from recording the Beatles's "Norwegian Wood"—on wood.