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Celebrating 25 Years of the Meltdown Festival with Photographer Mark Mawston

The Manic Street Preachers perform at Meltdown 2018, curated by Robert Smith. © Mark Mawston. To buy a limited edition print of this photograph please contact Rockarchive at info@rockarchive.com

Every June London’s Southbank becomes home to the Meltdown Festival, which this year celebrates 25 years since its inception. The annual event is curated by a different musician or band each year, and gives audiences the chance to come and check out some of their heroes’ heroes.

Beginning in 1993 the artist-led festival has seen numerous icons take the helm. For instance, 2018 is curated by The Cure’s Robert Smith. While previous years have featured curation by David Byrne, Yoko Ono, Patti Smith, Massive Attack, the New York Dolls, Ray Davies, David Bowie, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker, and many more.

It was composer George Benjamin who initially came up with the idea to host the festival, and he was their inaugural curator too. He’d got the idea after he had hosted a music festival in San Francisco where he was able to collate together all the things he adored musically, and put them into one festival.

So he brought this idea back with him and spoke with the Southbank, and they decided it was something they should do.

“The idea behind Meltdown” explains the Southbank Centre’s Director of Music Gillian Moore in a BBC Radio 6 Music special about the festival, “is an artist, a musician usually, curates a festival, that they bring together all the different things that they love. And put a sort of, a portrait of themselves in a way to the public, and offer this to an audience.”

As such there’s been some fascinating, eccentric, obscure, and, of course, legendary musicians and artists perform at the festival over the years. One person who has been there to capture some great moments is Rockarchive and official Meltdown photographer Mark Mawston. His portraits have captured some of the legendary musicians and bands who have performed at the Meltdown Festival since 1993. Sometimes capturing the last ever gig of a beloved, and much-missed, band or musician.

Here Mark talks us through some of the shots he’s taken, which capture some legendary musicians and artists as they command the stage. It gives us a little glimpse at what’s been going on at this cultural melting pot every June for the past 25 years.

Yoko Ono performs at Meltdown 2005 curated by Patti Smith. © Mark Mawston. To buy a limited edition print of this photograph please contact Rockarchive at info@rockarchive.com

Yoko Ono

“The photo here was one that I took at Patti Smith’s Meltdown. We were perched right in front of the stage, and the film that was being shown on the screen suddenly became a 3D film as Ono had cut a small, fine slit in the fabric of the screen—and when the projected body on screen positioned itself in a certain way, she stepped through the cut and the projected body became her own which walked towards us, with a black silk bag covering her head! Not only did I find that she was still into baggism, but that she could sing a mean set [too]. I was astounded. To say this was something one didn’t see every day is an understatement.

Hopefully Yoko Ono’s forceful presence comes across in the photo here. At 71, she was the coolest bag lady I’d ever met. I believe Yoko has this shot in the Dakota building and she kindly signed one for me when we met again at her own Meltdown at the RFH in 2013 where this picture also hangs on the wall of the artists' entrance.”

The New York Dolls perform at Meltdown 2004 curated by Morrissey. © Mark Mawston. To buy a limited edition print of this photograph please contact Rockarchive at info@rockarchive.com

The New York Dolls

“The reformation of the New York Dolls [for Meltdown 2004] was a special occasion; similar to that of the reformed Sex Pistols gigs, just one of the many bands they inspired. Here was the chance to capture a band that hadn’t played together since the latter part of the seventies, who had reformed after Morrissey asked them to play at his Meltdown music festival in London at the RFH. I feel privileged to have been able to see and take the bands' picture in action at their first (and sadly one of their last) gigs at this Meltdown.

But like always with the New York Dolls, the high was followed by a harsh come down. Their bassist, Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane died of Leukaemia only two weeks after this dream return. The man who told those gathered backstage after the event that he would be 'returning to the library' where he worked because 'they were understaffed' had secretly dreamed of this moment for over 30 years.

The New York Dolls were lightning in a jar. Those whom they effected are still affected. Those who have never heard their music still outnumber those who love the music and were truly inspired by it. Their impact in the UK was such that a couple of kids wanting to form a band, after hearing Whispering Bob Harris refer to their set as “Mock Rock” on BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test, placed an ad in the musicians wanted section of a British Music mag and stated that they wanted “A whiz kid guitarist, no more than 20 and not worse looking than Johnny Thunders”. Steve Jones read it and The Sex Pistols formed.

Morrissey performs at his own Meltdown Festival 2004 © Mark Mawston. To buy a limited edition print of this photograph please contact Rockarchive at info@rockarchive.com


“The picture of Morrissey shown here is a favourite of mine, taken at his headlining gig at his own Meltdown Festival in June 2004. It was one of the shots chosen by Warner’s and approved by Morrissey for the cover of his Live At Madison Square Garden gig (even though it was taken at the Royal Festival Hall) which sadly never came out, although I do still have the mock up cover for it somewhere!

If most of the chart toppers of the time when The Smiths formed in 83 were nice sweet lads from next door, then Morrissey was the alien in their midst. Morrissey had the same effect on me as he did others on his first appearance on Top Of The Pops. It was the image of Morrissey, dancing round like some drunken uncle or the school science geek who couldn’t handle his drink with what seemed like a shrubbery or flower hanging out of his back pocket that made the impact."

Patti Smith performs at her own Meltdown Festival in 2005. © Mark Mawston. To buy a limited edition print of this photograph please contact Rockarchive at info@rockarchive.com

Patti Smith

“Patti Smith is that rare thing in music—an icon of the underground who is also respected by the upper echelons of the music industry as one of the most important artists of all time. An amazing feat for an artist who has yet to be recognized by a single gold disc or to have had more than one US top 20 hit (with a single written by Bruce Springsteen). Her standing is due to relevance not record sales [and] she is responsible for one of the most influential albums of all time, her 1974 debut Horses. This was the main reason why there was such a buzz around the fact that Smith had been chosen to curate the Meltdown Festival at the RFH in June 2005.

The line-up, all hand-picked by Smith, comprised of an extremely diverse array of actors, poets and musicians as well as full blown icons such as Yoko Ono, and obscure yet amazing artists such as the throat singer Yat-Kah. However, it was the show headlined by Smith herself that had crowds queuing round the block, as she was due to perform Horses for the first time on stage in all its ragged glory, backed by her ex Tom Verlaine of the band Television as well, as Flea and most of the original band. It was one of THE definitive Meltdown gigs.”

Grace Jones performs at Meltdown 2008 curated by Massive Attack © Mark Mawston. To buy a limited edition print of this photograph please contact Rockarchive at info@rockarchive.com

Grace Jones

“I was hoping that the chance I’d been given of photographing Grace in a rare UK appearance wouldn’t disappoint. It didn’t. Grace was one of the many national treasures, industry legends, heart throbs and bright young things who took to the stage for the now near legendary ‘Forest Of No Return’ Disney night as part of Jarvis Cocker’s Meltdown on the Southbank. Although she was mid-line up, Grace was easily one of (if not the) most memorable acts of the night, even though one group consisted of Jarvis Cocker, Pete Doherty, Shane MacGowan and Nick Cave!

Air canisters within [a] mini stage inflated her rather wonderful costume as she sang giving the impression she was flying. The dress [then] took on the look of parachute silk descending to earth with her attached as it rippled along with the music. It was simply wonderful. This shot appeared in the Observer Music Magazine as well as on the front page of The Telegraph a year or so later to celebrate her 60th birthday. The picture as well as the performance showed that Grace had lost none of her showmanship or ability to surprise. Of all the egos on stage the night many thought the biggest Diva would be Ms. Jones. Yet it was Grace who returned to the stage post gig to meet fans and sign things.

Lou Reed performs at Meltdown 2012 curated by Antony Hegarty © Mark Mawston. To buy a limited edition print of this photograph please contact Rockarchive at info@rockarchive.com

Lou Reed

Lou Reed changed the way rock and roll was perceived while part of The Velvet Underground, as they helped to shape lyrics into an art form to be taken as seriously as any article written as fact in the New York Times. I was able to shoot Lou (and his wife Laurie Anderson) several times up to his rather unexpected passing in October 2013. I endured tracks from Metal Machine Music to bathing in the sublime “Pale Blue Eyes”, and was fortunate to capture Lou’s last ever UK gig at Antony [Hegarty]’s Meltdown 2012. Pictures from this gig were used in several broadsheets' obituaries, but it’s strange that I heard the news of his passing just after listening to Lou’s version of Poe’s ‘The Raven’ read by Willem Dafoe which was in my Halloween set list on my iPod, the last words mirroring the sad reality: nevermore.”

To find out more about Meltdown Festival visit their website. And you can watch Reggie Watt’s performance, a mix of music, comedy, and surreality, from Yoko Ono’s Meltdown in 2013, below.

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