For the thousands of you who join us by the Thames each year for this much-loved annual festival – whether you’re out dancing on our terrace, or inside a sold-out Royal Festival Hall headline show – the Meltdown experience, complete as it is, never strays beyond stage front. But what happens behind the scenes? How does it all come together? Well with our own archives sadly off limits to us at present, we’ve scoured the internet to pull together the following clips and moments to help paint you a picture.
And the best place to start is undoubtedly with To Fail Is Art’s mini documentary filmed around Nick Cave’s 1999 Meltdown festival. Or as Cave himself described it ‘a collection of assorted nutcases from the music and acting and spoken word worlds’. The remarkable documentary includes short interviews with other artists as well as clips from rehearsals, and other backstage moments.
As Cave explains in the video, the starting point for Meltdown, once we have a curator secured, is – in very simplistic terms – to ask said curator to write down who they would love to see perform, or perform with, at their festival. And then we see whether we can make that happen. Cave however, decided to test the mettle of our programming team.
In 2018 it was Robert Smith’s turn to curate Meltdown; the 25th edition of the festival. In the midst of the ten day run our Senior Contemporary Music Programmer, Bengi Unsal, and the festival’s producer, Rhodri Jones, somehow found the time to appear on our own Think Aloud podcast. In conversation with presenter Harriet Fitch Little, the pair offered a fascinating first hand insight into how a Meltdown festival comes together, including how the curator is chosen and dealing with the unexpected once the festival does get underway.
As was intoned in that podcast, in the year prior to Robert Smith the festival’s curator was rapper, artist, producer and activist, M.I.A. Taking the festival in a different direction M.I.A. had promised to platform ‘new outlaw musicians from everywhere, who have contributed to keeping things weird, exciting, opinionated, loud, emotional and brave or off the grid’. Hers was a bill that included, Soulwax, Young M.A, Afrikan Boy, Mykki Blanco, JD Samson, Yung Lean, Princess Nokia, MHD and many more. And wrapping it all up was M.I.A. herself.
To give a flavour of backstage in the lead up to a big gig, M.I.A. allowed a videographer backstage at our Royal Festival Hall to produce this intimate short video of the performer getting ready to take to the stage.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering what it’s like to be on stage, looking out at a packed Royal Festival Hall then this additional first-hand video from M.I.A.’s Meltdown gives you an idea. On the festival’s opening night Young Fathers delivered a memorable performance with a set that included the band being joined on stage, first by a choir of young singers and musicians, and then latterly by the audience themselves. Among the choir was singer Kelly Dante, who shot this understandably wobbly video.
Of course, backstage at Meltdown isn’t solely a jumble of excited choirs, limbering dancers, panicking producers and contemplative Australian singer songwriters. Eventually, when all is sung and done, it’s also where the afterparty begins. Unfortunately (or thankfully depending on how long a party they turned out to be) we don’t have a great deal of footage or photos from these moments, but it does exist, such as this brief glimpse of David Bowie backstage following The New Heathen Night that brought his 2002 Meltdown to a close.
Yep, that was Bono clinging onto Bowie there, and he wasn’t the only star to be found celebrating backstage after that gig. Among other people packing our Royal Festival Hall corridors and dressing rooms were future curator Robert Smith, as well as Paul Cook, Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, Kylie Minogue and Brian Eno.
‘It's pretty amazing to be able to programme a whole week like this, to get some of your heroes on and get to meet those people as well,’ Jarvis Cocker told The Observer of his curation of the festival in 2007. So let us end this peer backstage with the culmination of Cocker’s amazing week. Via Motorhead and Iggy Pop, Devo and John Barry, Jarvis finally wrapped up his Meltdown in one of our upstairs bars with a rendition of Andy Williams’ ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. Meltdown; ‘there’s nothing else to compare’.
The show must go on(line)
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by Glen Wilson