Built in the 1950s as a mixed-use arts venue, London’s Southbank Centre is a classy joint, best known for its dignified relationship with classical music, international-standard theatre, and blockbuster art exhibitions. It’s not that the centre has a fusty reputation – it is, after all Europe’s largest arts centre – it’s just not a place that’s immediately associated with the noise and clamour of contemporary music. Once a year, though, all that’s thrown firmly out of the window as the centre’s annual Meltdown festival lands with a thump, with this year’s iteration curated by singer, model, and living legend Grace Jones.
Meltdown festivals make full use of all these venues and more
The Southbank Centre is a sprawling Brutalist estate, covering twenty-one acres of Thames riverbank, and its complex includes three live performance spaces, the Hayward art gallery, and plenty of piazza-like outdoor areas. The centre’s Royal Festival Hall venue seats an audience of 2700, and is home to the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Queen Elizabeth Hall holds 900 seats, and its smaller Purcell Room (370 seats) is known for its chamber music and jazz concerts.
The Meltdown festivals make full use of all these venues and more, as Baroque recitals are replaced by electronic wig-outs, poetry readings are usurped by hip-hop and grime, and evenings of interpretive mime give way to nights of doom metal. Each year the Southbank nominate a Meltdown curator, and it’s the curator’s job to work with the festival team to programme the two-week event, selecting a predominantly musical line-up of their favourite artists and bands.
After a relatively genteel start (composers George Benjamin in 1993 and Louis Andrieseen in 1994) the festival’s first crossover curatorial appointment was Elvis Costello in 1995. Over the years the honour has gone to the likes of Nick Cave (1999), David Bowie (2002), Robert Smith (2018), and Nile Rodgers (2019).
While there are countless music festivals coming back to post-coronavirus life in the UK, only the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown offers the luxury of enormous, audience-ready spaces, capital city connectivity, and hi-tech operational resource. So, what can be done there, besides programming a solid fortnight of good music?
Meltdown really takes flight when a curator makes full use of the opportunities in front of them, and David Byrne is a case in point. Along with the auditoriums, the Southbank houses The National Poetry Library, the world’s largest collection of modern poetry.
As part of his 2015 curatorship, Byrne created his own addition to the library, shipping in his entire collection of books about music – 250 volumes, complete with his own handwritten, margin notes – that lucky visitors were allowed to borrow from for the duration of the festival. Naturally, all Meltdown curators get to perform during the fortnight.
Byrne used his spot to put together, for one night only, Atomic Bomb!, a supergroup consisting of – among others – Beastie Boys’ keyboard player Money Mark, Alexis Taylor, and Sarah Jones from Hot Chip, South African group Mahotella Queens and Byrne himself. Hot Chip returns for Meltdown 2022, with Ms. Jones instigating Hot Congotronics, a live collaboration between the band and Congolese group, the Kasaï Allstars.
Unsurprisingly, artist and activist Yoko One had applied similar lateral thinking to her stint as Meltdown curator in 2013. Not only did she invite Peaches to perform the vocal soundtrack from the ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ musical in a variety of costumes as part of the festival, her own live finale in the Royal Festival Hall saw Ono (then aged 80) bring the house down with a version of ‘Walking On Thin Ice’, accompanied by Siouxsie Sioux, Sean Lennon, Talvin Singh, Earl Slick (veteran guitarist who played on John Lennon and Yoko Ono albums ‘Double Fantasy’ and ‘Milk and Honey’) and more.
James Lavelle was appointed curator for the 2014 iteration of the festival, the twenty-first anniversary year of both his Mo’Wax record label and Meltdown itself. Alongside his musical choices, Lavelle gave over the Southbank Centre’s Clore Ballroom to British artist Doug Foster and his wall-high video installation, ‘No Beginning, No End’, accompanied by UNKLE (one of Lavelle’s pseudonyms) soundtrack.
Nick Cave (1999 Meltdown curator) included another artist in his line-up, bringing in Australian fine art photographer Polly Borland to design the festival’s promotional visuals. Cave’s year has also gone down in the annals for its night with Nina Simone. Or, to be exact, Nina Simone’s chewing gum.
Miss Simone had taken out her gum and left it on the piano while she performed, a move spotted by Cave cohort Warren Ellis. After the singer had finished playing, Ellis crept up on stage to pocket her discarded gum, a moment that forms the basis for his 2021 book ‘Nina Simone’s Gum’.
In matters seemingly as prosaic, when the late lamented DJ and tastemaker John Peel curated Meltdown in 1998 he was so worried about attendees missing that year’s World Cup football finals that he asked for television screens to be installed throughout the arts centre, all showing the crucial matches.
He also insisted that should any of the matches go into extra time, whoever was programmed to appear that night could not take the stage until the game was satisfactorily concluded. One evening Welsh band and Peel favourites Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci had to wait until past 11 PM to perform after England lost to Argentina on penalties.
Peel was also the first curator to include comedians in his festival (Ardal O’Hanlon and Jeremy Hardy), a thread picked up the following year when Nick Cave invited Barry Humphries along. 2012 Meltdown curator Antony Hegarty’s choices included an evening with Sex and the City actress Kim Cattrall, wherein she talked about performing as Cleopatra in the Liverpool Playhouse’s production of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. Given that this took place before ANOHNI changed her name from Antony, it was a neat match.
Meltdown is, however, all about the music, and when Jarvis Cocker was invited to curate the festival in 2007 he took to the task with obvious relish. In an inspired move, he put together a night called ‘Forest of No Return’, in which classic Disney songs were reinterpreted live in the Royal Festival Hall.
Sadly (very sadly) no video footage remains, but the evening included Cocker himself covering ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ from ‘The Jungle Book’, Nick Cave and David Thomas from Pere Ubu performing ‘Heigh Ho’ from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, and Cave going solo for a version of ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee’ from ‘Pinocchio’.
For Grace Jones’ curatorship she’s asked the likes of Senegalese star Baaba Maal, Cut Hands (ex-Whitehouse teeth-rattler William Bennett), Shingai Shoniwa (formerly singer with early 2000s indie band The Noisettes), and South London punks Big Joanie to come and cut loose. Pencilled in to perform at both the festival’s opening and closing nights, it remains to be seen if La Jones herself can equal her turn at Cocker’s event where she charmed her way through ‘The Jungle Books’ ‘Trust In Me’ dressed as a snake.
The 2022 Meltdown Festival, curated by Grace Jones, takes place at the Southbank Centre in London from June 10th – 19th.