The vinyl countdown for DJ Wheelie Bag
As he steps down from his lifelong career as a maverick mobile DJ, Denys Avis talks to Dan Carrier
31 May, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
After discarding his discs, DJ Wheelie Bag is looking to revive his career as a creator of games
FROM designing mobile sound systems built into the classic shopping trolley favoured by older people to building new games and toys, DJ Wheelie Bag is a creator in the vein of the great British inventors: and he has an eye for aesthetics that draw on popular art movements ranging from the Victorian period through to the present day.
Last week in the news pages, we reported on how DJ Wheelie Bag, aka Denys Avis, had donated more than 7,500 seven-inch singles from his vast record collection to the Rock ’N’ Roll Rescue charity shop in Parkway, Camden Town. This marks the end of an era – not only was Wheelie B an astoundingly entertaining DJ and compère, with a musical appreciation that globetrotted its way through every style under the sun, he is also a maverick in true W Heath Robinson style. He has decided, after 40 years of playing music and making his “wheelie bag” sound systems that consist of a record deck and speaker mounted on four caster wheels, that he wants to concentrate on his other passion (and talent) – designing and making games, following up the success of inventions such as OK Play and Hoodoo Voodoo, which he has designed and sold to major toy firms.
At his Highbury workshop, a new precision wood cutter has been installed where once crates of records sat. It allows him to draw up prototypes, his latest being a spinning top game that’s a cross between bagatelle and pin ball.
Denys grew up in Sittingbourne, Kent, and watching the Mods and Rockers hurtle through the town as a young teenager piqued his interest in youth culture.
“I’d see these gangs driving through on their bikes heading to the coast for a riot,” he recalls. “I was fascinated by them.”
After graduating from Cardiff University, where he studied economic history, he taught at Kingsway College’s Clerkenwell campus, which included taking photography classes.
This period in the 1970s had two influences on Denys and his wife, Chris. The couple settled in Tottenham, where the rent was cheap – and living in N17 would change his life.
“I suddenly heard all theses amazing sound systems playing around me – and playing a type of music I had never heard before,” he says.
Denys Avis, aka DJ Wheelie Bag, at his Highbury Studio with one of his game inventions
He found boxes of 45s in Tottenham second-hand stores. “They have the names scratched out, or scribbled over, so only the DJ playing it knew what it was,” he said.
“That way they protected their gig.”
He began to seek out such records, sticking to an idea that he didn’t want to buy it if he had already heard it.
“One of my golden rules was to buy second-hand,” he says. “It was forced upon me as I did not have any money but it also meant someone had previously loved it, like a recommendation.
“I’d find these little boxes of records, tucked at the back of furniture shops. They’d be records that had come over from Nigeria, Ghana, the Gold Coast – and what a story these records could tell.”
They would range from imprints across the world playing music ranging from American rhythm and blues, Jamaican ska, calypso, West African highlife and plenty in between.
“I couldn’t help but imagine the journeys these records had come on to get to London,” he says. “I wasn’t really a collector – just inspired by hearing new music.”
With such a selection, and working at the college which had a rich cultural life, it was no surprise he’d start sharing his finds with others.
“It was a two-way street with our students,” he says. “It was the early days of punk, but every kind of music was happening. There was nothing that felt mainstream, there were kids playing ska, all sorts, kids in different bands, and it was great to soak it up.”
Using a pair of Dansette record players and a small stereo mixer, he could now spin tunes. “It meant I was now a DJ, and I made a little mobile deck for them but it was all rather heavy and cumbersome.” He had begun running his own nights at Clerkenwell’s Coach and Horses pub in the 1980s.
“I’d book all these alternative cabaret acts,” he says. “It was wonderful – you could get Julian Clary for about £30. I’d DJ between the acts, and I got a little envious of their performance. I thought to myself, it’s just not enough to play records.
“I decided to build a machine that would be both off-putting to people who wanted to ask me for requests – I’d build it so no one could come near me – and so it would look good, make it a performance.”
He built a booth by mounting a deck into a shopping bag on wheels, and in front of it created a contraption known as The Wheelettes – two dolls mounted on electric motors, hanging from wires, which spin dance in front of the booth, keeping punters both entertained and at arm’s length.
“I could wheel my system on the No 19 bus to get into the West End,” he says. “It fitted exactly into the luggage compartment.”
The original Wheelie Bag was wooden, but he began using a polycarbonate sheeting used by roofers.
“It is light and strong but not much used outside the building trade,” he adds.
He has since been commissioned to build 50 of his Wheelie Bags, and they have been sent to all four corners of the earth.
“I’m semi-retiring now,” he adds.
“I’ve still got 700 records, but I wanted to concentrate on making new games. I couldn’t have all this music distracting me whenever I went into my workshop.”