For the first five years of Meltdown, the festival trod a fairly familiar line. Experimental and exclusive yes, but rarely straying from its contemporary classical routes. Elvis Costello had tested the boundaries a little during his curatorship in 1995 with what would tragically prove to be the last UK appearance of Jeff Buckley, but it wasn’t until the sixth edition of the festival that the form guide was properly tossed Thames-ward from a Royal Festival Hall window.
In 1998, Radio One DJ John Peel was invited to curate Meltdown, and bring his experimental and eclectic musical taste to the Southbank Centre. Peel initially declined the invite, not due to musical reasons, but due to a scheduling crossover with his other great love, as he himself would explain. ‘I wasn't very keen on organising the festival at first because it clashed with the World Cup, but David Sefton asked me to do it and he's basically a nice chap. So we set up the hall with screens so that people could watch the football if they wanted to. That's why I changed my mind.’
This concession even extended to an agreement that should any World Cup matches go to extra-time the start of evening performances would be delayed. Gorky's Zygotic Mynci had to wait until gone 11pm to take the stage following England’s penalty shoot-out loss to Argentina. Presumably the Welsh band weren’t all that disappointed though.
To say that Peel put his own stamp on Meltdown would be something of an understatement. He delivered a line-up of his favourite artists, bringing popular indie acts such as Atari Teenage Riot, The Delgados and Cornershop from the clubs to our concert halls. And he also helped project the festival to a more mainstream audience than ever before, by playing out Sonic Youth’s set on his Radio 1 show. Space rock band Spiritualized also appeared simultaneously live on Radio 1 and via a beam back to the Royal Festival Hall. ‘It could be terrible,’ commented Peel at the time, ‘the potential for disaster is almost limitless.’
But despite scheduling issues and technological risks John Peel’s Meltdown proved a great success, dragging the festival in a different direction to great effect. As Peel himself reflected in an interview with The Guardian in 2001, ‘One balmy evening I was standing on the riverside with my back to the balcony: on one side I could hear Culture playing and on the other Extreme Noise Terror in the Queen Elizabeth Hall... I could smell the waves of ganja wafting towards me and I thought, ‘I've done all this.’ It was my moment of vanity, if you like. What really mattered was that I could have people that I wanted to see – and the venue has a certain cache about it because it is the Royal Festival Hall’.
So, take a chance to relive that long, not so hot summer of 1998 – being confused by the new £2 coin, cheering on Tim Henman at Wimbledon, David Beckham’s red card – with this fabulous playlist of acts from John Peel’s Meltdown, featuring, among others, Sonic Youth, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Cornershop, Culture and Autechre.
The show must go on(line)
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by Glen Wilson