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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Wes Vinck: collector of 78-rpm shellac records

I take a seat next to my record player with a beer and listen for hours and hours in a row.

Interview Koen Galle (translated by Jill Mathieu)
Photographs Thomas Sweertvaegher

Shellac on the shelves

“Yup. Lots, but never enough”. With these remarkable words, Wes responded to our online shout-out to all those who still own 78-rpm shellac records. Arriving at his tiny yet cosy home in a carless street in Deurne, we were granted with proof: the place is literally filled with the precursor of the vinyl record. Frankly, Wes's home somewhat looks like the National Museum for Gramophone History. The shellacs left aside, Wes was able to get his hands on a wonderful vinyl collection, as well as some fine antique record players in prime condition. In the back of his living room, there's his workbench overloaded with spare parts, cables and all sorts of tools.

During the daytime, Wes is responsible for the indoor greenery of more than 70 enterprises. At night, he spends hours patching up old pick-ups. In a way, Wes' messy workspace contrasts strongly with the order and peacefulness that radiates from the shiny vintage equipment and the beautifully organised record collection. Wes himself is as calm as a summer sea and invites us along on a trip back in time.  

Time Travel

“I've been buying records since I was 18 years old. As a teenager, I used to go hunting for cheapo classics by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles at flea markets. I bumped into a crate of shellacs when I had to clear out a garage during one of my summer jobs. My boss wanted to chuck them out, but I took them home with me. I didn't have a 78-rpm record player back then but I kept dragging these records along with me until I moved in here three years ago. I bought my first audio system back then and that kind of got the show on the road.”

Above anything else, Wes loves to travel back in time thanks to his much-cherished old records. Through all sorts of rarities and paraphernalia — such as a one centimetre thick metal plate meant for storing radio archives — Wes guides us through the history of the medium. Think little cardboard plates featuring the number one hit song of the week that used to come with magazines, or a coloured shellac record, proving that brightly coloured vinyl isn't a recent trend after all.

Next up are Belgian pressings from Toots Thielemans recordings and a few from the Brussels Ronnex label, named after the founder's son who was called Ronny. Then a series of 78-rpm records in a cardboard case who, combined, formed an album. “Hence the origin of the word 'album': a collection of singles which had to be pressed to plates one by one, due to technical limitations”, Wes explains. 

Ultimate Buddhism

Equally good to know is that three minutes of music fit onto one 10-inch 78-rpm shellac record. You can go up to four or five minutes with a 12-inch. “Listening to my 78-rpm collection is nothing short of an experience. I take a seat next to my record player with a beer and listen for hours and hours in a row. I like taking my time, it's my moment of ultimate Buddhism.”

Wes mostly likes the distinct sound and the atmosphere of his 78-rpm shellac records. He generally gets hold of them at flea markets, second hand websites, through Facebook groups and friends. There's no huge market out there for shellacs and the prices are usually quite low. “I pay up to three euro for a 78-rpm record. Some pressings of standards by the greats like Miles Davis can get expensive, but I don't go out looking for them specifically. I've never paid more than 15 euro for a shellac, I'm not in it for the value nor the money.”

From Hamburg, with love

Thanks to this vintage medium, Wes has discovered a bunch of unexplored music, of which existence he wouldn’t have dared dreaming. “At first I bought everything I could possibly find. Now I'm mostly on the lookout for jazz, blues, exotica and calypso. I was especially impressed by how amazing that music turned out to be. Take this record by Harlem Hamfats from 1936 for example. It sounds like Tom Waits' grandfather and was later reworked into the classic 'Why Don't You Do Right'. I find that utterly amazing!”

According to Wes, the best spot for crate digging for 78-rpm records is Hamburg, Germany. Some of his best friends live there, as well as his godchild Matilda, giving him plenty of reasons for regular visits. “I assume it's got to do with the huge harbour Hamburg has got. Along with it comes one of the biggest red light districts in Europe and as the story goes, many sailors used to bring records from all over the world back to Hamburg, as a gift for their favourite gal. I always run into brilliant music from Colombia, Trinidad or even Belgian Congo when I'm there. And when I found this little record by Matilda, it felt like a jigsaw piece falling into place.” 

Mr. Fixit

Along with getting his hands on the first couple of shellacs three years ago, Wes started repairing and refurbishing all sorts of record players. He got enthralled by the design and the insides of vintage pick-ups. Singing up to the 'Vintage Audio Vlaanderen' Facebook group, one thing lead to another. When Wes didn't manage to get his freshly bought second hand record player up and running, he reached out for help.

“Han, the goodhearted admin of the group, came over to my house and helped me on my way. I had so much fun getting that thing to work again that I bought yet another broken down record player. Up until today I've fixed about fifteen record players. It's mostly friends who ask me to help them out. The requests just keep on coming. I specifically like working on Lenco players. Between the 50s and the 70s, these beauties practically remained unaltered in terms of construction, motor and mechanics. You can manipulate them as you please, and to top it all off, they're incredibly robust and reliable. Just try holding one of them, they weigh a ton.” 

Or Mister Wiezel?

Wes put together a 78-rpm record player in a suitcase to take with him to Radio Centraal. Accompanied by two friends, he hosts a two-weekly radio show called 'Bygone Days', which sometimes broadcasts 78-rpm records exclusively. You're equally free to book Wes — or should we say 'Mister Wiezel' — as a DJ.

“If you let me do things my way, I can go on for as long as eight hours straight with 78-rpm records only. There's just so much more to be discovered on these little gems than Viennese waltzes or awful schlager music. Whenever I get the chance, I put my case out in the garden, open up a bottle of wine and play records all night long for the woman of my dreams. That's my kind of summer evening”.

Name: Wes Vinck | Occupation: Greenery | Age: 38 | Where: Antwerp | #records: +- 1200 LP’s & 500 singles | #schellac: +- 1000 | Genres: Jazz, Blues, Rythm & Blues, Soul, Exotica, Rock,... | Dj aliases: Mister Wiezel | Favourite record store: Freiheit und Roosen in Hamburg | 78rpm turntable: Garrard RC120/4D | 78rpm mobile turntable: Garrard 4HF Monomaster | 33/45rpm turntable: Custom Lenco L70 met Acos Lustre toonarm | Classification: by what I listen to most and chaos | First ever record: Sesame Street | Favourite record sleeve: Buck Meets Ruby, Buck Clayton & Ruby Braff (Amadeo AVRS 7002-X) (the green version)