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Photographer Mark Mawston reflects on 20 years of Meltdown Festivals

Grace Jones at the 2007 Meltdown Festival by Mark Mawston

This June sees the return of the South Bank's prestigious Meltdown Festival and this year the event is curated by international music, film and fashion icon, Grace Jones. Kicking off on 10th June,  the ten day festival with see performances from artists from across the globe including Skunk Anansie, Peaches and Baaba Maal.

To mark the occasion we spoke to longtime Meltdown photographer Mark Mawston about his recollections from the Festival over the last 20 years.

Johnny Marr at the 2019 Meltdown Festival by Mark Mawston

When did you first start shooting Meltdown? The first Meltdown I shot was Scott Walker's festival, way back in 2000. I didn’t shoot all the acts but the experience whetted my appetite and from the seed, at that event, the rock tree grew, to the point where I became known at the Royal Festival Hall as Mr. Meltdown.

Lee 'Scratch' Perry at his 2003 Meltdown Festival taken by Mark Mawston

What is it about Meltdown that makes it so special? It’s the wide range of acts you see. It’s far more eclectic than most festivals. You get to see and hear the famous curator’s tastes and what shaped them as artists, being introduced to new sounds through their choices, which can be very left-field.

As it’s seen as a great compliment to be asked, many artists and bands come out of retirement or do a one-off special show so you get to see and photograph bands you never thought you’d get to shoot, such as The New York Dolls, Nancy Sinatra, Devo, Rock Erikson, Lee Hazelwood. I could go on.

Basically, it lets me tick off many of the artists on my most wanted list in one week in June, one’s I never thought I’d get to shoot. It’s a wonderful experience and the Royal Festival Hall's becomes my second home. It also preserves some of the older artist’s shows for posterity. It’s a great privilege to do that.

Pete Doherty performing at Jarvis Cocker's Meltdown in 2007 taken by Mark Mawston

Do you have a favourite Meltdown? Jarvis Cocker's in 2007 is by far and away the one that really nailed it. I mean John Barry and Iggy Pop on the same bill? It really was wonderful. Morrissey’s was great too as was Ray Davies and Patti Smith’s and the one that seems to grow in importance as time goes on is Anthony’s, which I appreciate far more now in hindsight.

Yoko Ono onstage at Patti Smith's Meltdown in 2005 taken by Mark Mawston

Do you have a favourite photograph that you have taken at Meltdown? It’s the stories behind them more than anything. Due to a photo I took of John Barry, one of my heroes, I became friends with him and his family and my photo of him at Meltdown was given to him at Christmas by his wife. After taking that shot I was asked to take some rare family pictures and on leaving the rehearsal before that nights show, on the summer solstice, I saw a ticket on the ground as I was crossing the bridge for the London Eye. It was, incredibly, ticket number 007 (Barry is synonymous with sound tracking James Bond) and as I looked up smiling, walking towards me was a Bond girl, Rosemond Pike aka Marana Frost! I kid you not!

The shot of Yoko Ono led to me being interviewed by the BBC for the 25 Years of Meltdown radio show and the Fierce Woman doc on Yoko. I really should have Jarvis Cocker's intro to me on that radio show as my voice message: “Here’s Mark Mawston, He’s seen it all”! Yoko signed the pic for me and she took one which I believe she has up in the Dakota Building, so that’s a thrill.

You then have others such as The Voluptuous Horror Of Karen Black who came on stage naked and stood on her head and had her band crack eggs into her lady parts while singing, so that was one of the memorable ones but the one of Grace Jones may be my favorite as that’s been used a lot in relation to key points in her ongoing amazing career.

Elvis Costello performing at Richard Thompson's Meltdown in 2010

What are you most looking forward to at this year's Meltdown? Again, probably Grace Jones herself. Every show of hers has always been incredible to both shoot and witness and it’s great that this year, which celebrates 60 years of James Bond on screen that a Bond villain is headlining. As in a record itself, what goes around….. Details of this year's Meltdown Festival can be found on the Southbank website 

You can see the full collection of Mark's limited edition prints here

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