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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Bernard Dobbeleer

That gold record? Daft Punk gave it to me.

Interview Koen Galle
Photographs Thomas Sweertvaegher

An afternoon with Bernard Dobbeleer is like a good film: over before you know it. It must have something to do with his job as radio producer at RTBF: Bernard tells one good story after the other. Like that one time in London, back in 1983, when he nabbed a promo copy of Night Moves’ Transdance. The track soon became an anthem at La Chapelle, the Liège club where Dobbeleer was resident DJ for many years. Yet only one hundred copies were pressed of the edit he fished out of those London cases. To this day, it is coveted among collectors. Dobbeleer added it to the CD compilation 80s Underground Clubbing, released in 2004 as a musical tribute to La Chapelle. ‘But I just couldn't track down the copyright holders of the track, so I wrote them a message in the CD’s booklet. Years later, they actually reached out, and that’s how those guys – for the first time ever – made some money of the track!’

Bernard Dobbeleer grew up in ‘70s Liège. His parents didn’t listen to music that much, save for a dash of Mozart and some French chansons. It was TV that first introduced him to concerts of musicians such as Curtis Mayfield, Captain Beefheart and Miles Davis, which soon brought him to USA Import, Liège’s smaller brother to the Antwerp record store of the same name (and fame). The records on display there would forever influence Bernard’s taste in music: ‘Jean-Claude, who ran the place, handed me Kraftwerk’s Robots, which really touched me deeply. Or Being Boiled by The Human League. And everything by Cabaret Voltaire. He also taught me how to spin records. At that time, DJs mixed records mostly by, well, talking them together. Jean-Claude was the first DJ who I saw mixing songs, and shutting up in the process. I definitely appreciated that.’

Another important inspiration in Bernard Dobbeleer’s life has been Marc Moulin. The internationally acclaimed musician and producer of Placebo and Telex also worked as a radio DJ, and he always had Dobbeleer clustered to his radio set. King Kong, Cap de nuit, Radio Crocodile, ... I was addicted to Marc’s shows. Even if I wasn’t into DJing yet at all back then, I’ll never forget the excitement and experimental quality of those shows. That kind of radio is much more difficult to do these days. Most all radio stations experience a great deal of ratings pressure.’

Back in the day, I had my one-stop shops in New York – like Sounds at St. Mark’s Place. Journalists unloaded all their promos there, and I bought them for next to nothing.

A third name, who often pops up in Bernard’s stories, is François Kevorkian. The Frenchman is said to be one of the most influential New York DJs of the twentieth century. When Benard’s record store guy moved to New York in the early ‘80s, he befriended Kevorkian. Dobbeleer visited him often and was quickly enthralled with the American disco and house sound. At the same time, he was increasingly on the move as a journalist for a couple of national and international magazines, ‘so I was in New York quite regularly, but I did lots of interviews in Los Angeles and San Francisco as well. I always brought back records from those trips and, soon enough, I had my one-stop shops. Like Sounds at St. Mark’s Place, where Led Zeppelin took the photo for the cover of Physical Graffiti. Journalists unloaded all their promos there, and I bought them for next to nothing.’

During the early ‘90s, Bernard contracted the radio virus. First he joined a local radio station, then he was offered a gig at national public broadcaster Radio21. Dobbeleer was the first DJ there to play electronic music – a feat that earned him a Red Bull Elektropedia Vanguard Award in 2014. He was also one the first to discover Daft Punk. ‘Those guys just blew me away. The moment they signed with Virgin, I picked up the phone and conveyed my interest to the label. Because I was one of the first, we managed to do a lot with Guy-Manuel and Thomas (the robots’ real names) in those early years. Their first Belgian interviews and DJ sets took place in the studio of Radio21. The gold album they gave me as a thank you is still shining on a pedestal here.’

In his record-filled attic, Bernard ambles from one cabinet to another. He gleefully shows his collection, with entire sections reserved to Strictly Rhythm, F Communications, Versatile, Moodymann, Trax, Daft Punk, Dimitri from Paris, ... All trendsetting French and American house labels from the ‘90s are represented in Dobbeleer’s well-kept collection. It would count even more records, if he hadn’t sold off a big part of his collection at the advent of CD in the ‘80s. As with many of his peers, you detect a hint of regret at that decision, although Bernard is really not the nostalgic type. ‘Mind you, I just tidied up a bit and then I always stumble upon so many forgotten records. That brightens me up. On the other hand though, all of my DJing today is digital, so I’m not that much on the lookout for old vinyl anymore. I only still buy bootlegs, and some funk, jazz or Jamaican music here and there.’

I once got Nile Rodgers to cry because I told him that Marvin Gaye loved Chic. Rodgers had always thought the opposite but I was able to prove Gaye expressed his love for Chic on Belgian radio.

Bernard is visibly joyed at poring through his collection again, as he generously shares more (and more) stories. ‘Chic’s Nile Rodgers was once very grateful to me because I proved to him that Marvin Gaye loved Chic. Gaye had said this on Belgian radio, and that actually got Rodgers to cry because he always thought the opposite. Oh, and this record here by Logic System, a Japanese band in the vein of Kraftwerk, is actually a tribute to Georges Nagelmackers, the Belgian engineer of the famed Orient Express. (excited) Listen! On this you can hear the voice of Renaat Vandepapeliere, the founder of R&S Records. Man, I love oddities. Like this record that explains how a man can do a proper striptease for his woman. Or this Rose Royce promo I got from an old hippie in LA. He had a million records stashed in some warehouse, and told me to always buy the promo edition. With promo copies, he said, the pressing is at its best.’