‘Not in my wildest dreams did I think it would ever become a job,” says Mark Berry, the policeman’s son from Bolton who’s better known simply as Bez. “I’m forever grateful for it happening. Although it did take me years to own up to being a dancer.”
But a dancer he is, and has been since the day he first clambered up on stage with Happy Mondays, the band formed by some old schoolfriends. That was in 1985. Well, some time around then. Making a note of dates wasn’t much of a priority.
“I’d scored a lot of black microdots,” says Bez, who does remember his LSD hauls. “So me and Shaun [Ryder, Happy Mondays’ frontman] were tripping our heads off.” That wasn’t ideal, given that the then little-known band were about to record a performance for TV, supporting New Order at Manchester’s Haçienda club. “Shaun turned round and said, ‘I can’t go on, Bez! You’re gonna have to come on with me.’ So I ended up on stage tripping my nut off, shaking this maraca.”
Despite shaking the maraca so hard it left a wound in his hand, Bez’s impromptu performance was well received, notably by Factory Records boss Tony Wilson. “He said, ‘Who’s that kid on stage with you? You’ve got to have him again.’ From that moment on, I’ve always been a Happy Monday.”
Since then, plenty have scoffed and scratched their heads at Bez’s role. Ryder once recounted that Americans simply couldn’t understand Bez’s purpose: “That dude doesn’t do anything!” But the truth is, it’s hard to imagine Happy Mondays (and their continued crowd-pulling popularity) without their trademark freaky dancer. So is it possible that Bez, and music’s other select few who occupy a similar dancer/vibesman role, deserve a little more respect?
Martha Graham, the legendary American dancer and choreographer, once said: “Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are great because of their passion.” That certainly seems to be the model pursued by dancers with bands. It’s all about that passion, and the ability to communicate it.
Just ask Wojtek Dmochowski, who’s danced with the Blue Aeroplanes throughout the Bristol art rockers’ 35 years together. “I dance like a man possessed,” he says, with such enthusiasm you don’t doubt it. “Lots of energy, very expressive. You had that time when everyone was shoegazing and stood on the stage doing nothing. And that is just a really dull event.”
As Dmochowski says, it takes a special live band to mesmerise you purely with their music. (He remembers Television as one.) Plenty of others have to try a little harder. So, back in a time when only stadium acts had video screens and big production, having somebody bouncing about on stage meant the audience was more likely to follow suit.
“We’re middlemen between the band and the audience,” says Joel Gion, who’s played tambourine and maracas for Brian Jonestown Massacre since being invited on stage when the San Francisco psychedelic rockers played a party in his apartment building in 1994. “It’s like, ‘You can do this, look at me.”’
They are, in a sense, the exuberant everymen of the music world. What they do seems attainable to everyone in the crowd. Although that’s certainly not to say they don’t take their craft seriously. “You’re not just bumbling around,” insists Dmochowski. “I definitely thought I could add to the live experience, by expressing the music and the poetry, and make it much more dynamic and visual.”
Even Bez, a man who admits he doesn’t spend much time pondering the intricacies of his role, will explain, when pushed, that he’s “trying to portray the rebellious, fucked-up attitude of the ecstasy, acid generation”. And who’s to argue that he hasn’t achieved that over the last 30 years?
Indeed, Gion reveals Bez was a major inspiration when the Brian Jonestown Massacre were looking for somebody to take a similar role. “Initially, it was just, ‘Look at that loaded guy up there,’” he says. “I could just look good and feel good. I kind of saw it as performance art. But, as I got older, I started to feel like I needed to learn the craft more and become a proper percussionist.”
As far as Gion is concerned, “proper percussionist” isn’t a rock oxymoron. As he points out, when Bo Diddley started out, he didn’t have a drummer, he just had Jerome Green playing maracas. Tambourine, meanwhile, was a big part of the sound of everyone from the Byrds to the Beatles to Neil Diamond.
Not that everyone can fill the role of tambourine-playing dancer well. I ask Gion – who was introduced to a much wider audience via the award-winning 2004 rock documentary film Dig! – if he sometimes watches other bands and thinks they could do with someone dancing and playing tambourine. “Oh, I think the opposite,” he laughs. “After Dig! came out, everyone had one. Put a tambourine in their hand. Get up, you’ll be in the band. And they’re just standing there in the corner doing nothing.”
That said, when Gion decided to scratch his songwriting itch and embark on a well-received solo project in 2011, it’s telling that he recruited a tambourine/maraca player for his band. “She’s great,” he says. “She got it a lot quicker than I did. But then she’s not constantly loaded like I was.”
Gion, then, is in the rare position of knowing what it’s like to perform both as a dancer/percussionist and in a more conventional musician role. “It’s certainly more difficult to play guitar and sing at the same time,” he says. “It’s limiting in a certain way. When I’m with Brian Jonestown Massacre, I can just go into the zone.” Bez describes being on stage as, “an incredible feeling”, while Dmochowski calls it “my biggest passion in life”.
There’s also the fact that, despite being treated (and paid) as full members, dancers don’t have the responsibilities of their bandmates. On tour, Dmochowski would leave the rest of the Blue Aeroplanes sound-checking in airless venues, while he visited museums and galleries. And Bez has fond memories of Happy Mondays’ recording sessions. “They were like holiday breaks for me,” he says.
Little wonder the three men I speak to all seem very happy to still be doing what they do. At the age of 60, Dmochowski is bursting with excitement having just booked time off his work as an English teacher to tour with Blue Aeroplanes around the release of their new album.
And, with his own new album just completed, Gion is very content to continue dividing his time between solo work and Brian Jonestown Massacre. “I’m sitting so pretty right now,” he says. “I couldn’t be happier to still be in BJM, doing that and have people want me to do it. It’s a trip, man.”
Bez, meanwhile, has made a few changes since that Haçienda debut, three decades ago. No chemicals make it into his body these days: “I’ve not actually stopped taking drugs,” he clarifies, “but only if they’re organic will they get into my system now.”
He thinks he may also need to limit his non-dancing activities. “I played football for a United XI against Newcastle recently, and then did a show with the Mondays the weekend after. Man, my legs! My groin! I really struggled through that gig. I’m not as young as I used to be.”
But, at 54, Bez has no plans to hang up his maracas just yet. Nor does he have any regrets about a life spent twisting his melon, man. “It has been quite a rollercoaster ride,” he says, “but one that I’ve enjoyed. It’s changed my life in a permanent and positive way. In a funny sort of way, the ramshackle bunch known as the Happy Mondays were a lifesaver for me.”
Brian Jonestown Massacre’s new album Don’t Get Lost is released on ‘a’ Recordings on 24 February. Welcome, Stranger by the Blue Aeroplanes is out now on Art Star.
‘She wore paint and little else’ – great onstage dancers
Danced with: Spacerock titans Hawkwind.
Notable for: Being an imposing 6ft 2in and performing her interpretive dance wearing little but luminescent paint.
Last heard of: Working as a visual artist in her native Ireland.
Danced with: 80s synthpopper Howard Jones.
Notable for: Bringing unsettling mime artistry to Top of the Pops.
Last heard of: Organising drumming workshops, and appearing on Top of the Pops – The Story of 1983, explaining how he brought throwing off one’s mental chains to life.
Danced with: Madness, though he also took on “multi-instrumentalist” duties, occasional vocals, and wrote songs.
Notable for: Dancing nuttily, and yelling “One step beyond!”, co-writing Our House, then for reconstituting Madness in 1992.
Last heard of: Releasing a well-received solo album, A Comfortable Man, in 2015.
Danced with: Party-starting baggy scamps Flowered Up.
Notable for: Being London’s answer to Bez, while wearing a giant latex flower.
Last heard of: Running an “exotic” nightclub in Thailand.
Notable for: Accompanying his Mancunian friends in their formative years and reputedly introducing Ian Brown to flared jeans.
Last heard of: DJing at an after party following the Stone Roses’ Manchester shows last summer.