David Bowie’s Meltdown Revisited
On the night of Saturday 29 June, 2002, David Bowie stood on stage at our Royal Festival Hall and launched into ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, yet another song in the extended encore of his New Heathens Night.
It was already long after curfew, but then as Fiona Sturges wrote in The Independent, ‘It's not as if anyone's going to pull the plug on him. This is David Bowie, after all’.
The New Heathens Night was the final concert of our tenth Meltdown festival, curated by Bowie. The two-week long festival of live music across the Southbank Centre had also featured comedy, an art exhibition entitled Sound And Vision and a month-long run of films specially selected by Bowie, screened at our neighbours, the National Film Theatre (BFI Southbank as it is now known).
This would be Bowie’s last appearance on one of our stages; his first having come way back in 1969. In November of that year it would’ve cost you as little as 5 shillings for the privilege to see David Bowie performing ‘Space Oddity’ at our recently opened Purcell Room.
Three years later, Bowie was back again. This time in the Royal Festival Hall to headline a special Save the Whale benefit gig with a set that included a guest appearance from Lou Reed. And then… nothing. For three decades our venues remained Bowie-less, until he returned in 2002 as the tenth curator of Meltdown.
Though his film selection had run at the NFT from the start of the month, Bowie’s Meltdown actually kicked off properly on Thursday 13 June, when the London Sinfonietta performed Philip Glass’ ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’ Symphonies (from the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno) in the Royal Festival Hall.
Two nights later came the opening gig, and a somewhat eclectic choice to get things moving as Daniel Johnston supported The Legendary Stardust Cowboy in our Queen Elizabeth Hall. Though relatively unknown in the UK, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, had been long admired by Bowie, as he later explained in an online chat on his BowieNet site “When I first joined Mercury Records, he was one of the only other artists they had. And they gave me his entire catalogue, which at the time was three singles. I immediately fell in love with his music”. Indeed Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust is inspired by the performer.
From there Bowie’s Meltdown rumbled on through more familiar names; The Waterboys performed an acoustic set on the festival’s second night, with The Divine Comedy in the Royal Festival Hall the day after. Other performers in the festival’s first week included Television, Asian Dub Foundation and, er, Harry Hill, who performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the first Wednesday. Footage of the wider festival is frustratingly hard to come by, though audio of Suede’s 23 June Royal Festival Hall gig has recently emerged online, including this performance of ‘The Beautiful Ones’.
Looking back at Bowie’s Meltdown bill you get a glimpse of acts at very different stages of their career apex. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs had only one 5 track EP to their name at the time of the festival, but the justified industry buzz about them was enough to earn them a gig in our Clore Ballroom on the festival’s penultimate night. In comparison, Saturday 22 June saw Coldplay play the Royal Festival Hall. Just one week later they would deliver an iconic headline set at Glastonbury.
Though this was Bowie's festival, the bulk of the opening week’s gigs – owing to Bowie’s fear of flying, and a delay to his trip back to the UK aboard the QEII – happened without the curator’s presence. Indeed several acts performed at Bowie’s Meltdown without ever meeting the man himself, including Badly Drawn Boy (Damon Gough), who performed two nights in our Queen Elizabeth Hall.
‘I did however get to meet another hero,’ Gough recalls, ‘the wonderful Robert Wyatt. He was sat in his wheelchair in the front row at the first of my two shows. He came backstage and we chatted for hours after the gig’.
‘He was so lovely and enthusiastic, and said he wanted to come again to the second night… and there he was again in the front row. I was flattered and amazed. It’s a moment I cherish to this day.’
Thankfully Bowie did finally make it across the ocean for the second week of Meltdown. Especially as over the years it has become an unwritten rule that the festival is closed by a performance form its curator. And so on Saturday 29 June, the Royal Festival Hall was packed to the rafters for David Bowie’s The New Heathen’s Night.
Having been warmed up by The Dandy Warhols and, a DJ set from Jonathan Ross (yes, that Jonathan Ross), the audience were treated to an epic concert from Bowie in which he first played his 1977 album Low – including hit tracks ‘Sound and Vision’, ‘Breaking Glass’ and ‘Always Crashing in The Same Car’ – in its entirety, before then giving the same treatment to his recently released Heathen album.
‘In the first half of the show Bowie performs Low in its entirety. The experimental 1977 album was initially rejected by his record company. More fool them. It's an exceptional album [and] it still sounds as vital and fresh as it did 25 years ago.’
After performing Heathen, Bowie returned to the stage for that encore; five further tracks that would take the gig long past the Royal Festival Hall’s curfew. ‘Fame’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ and ‘I'm Afraid Of Americans’ wrapped up the show, but kicking off the encore was a nod to that 1972 gig with Lou Reed; The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light, White Heat’ performed with the support of The Dandy Warhols.
‘As you can imagine, it was a highlight of our lives. David Bowie was our friend. We will miss him immensely.’
To give you a fuller flavour of Bowie’s festival we’ve compiled a special playlist featuring all bar one of the musical acts that compiled his bill. Settle in and enjoy the summer of 2002 all over again.