Meltdown festival: backstage pass

Wednesday, June 10, 2020 - 12:59

There’s no week at the Southbank Centre quite like Meltdown festival. Ten straight days of performances across each of our venues, a mountain of equipment and itineraries to keep on top of, across incredibly long hours. And all of this juxtaposed with excited joyous crowds and the chance that at any moment you might find yourself in a lift with Nile Rodgers, or holding a door open for M.I.A.

For the thousands of you who join us by the Thames each year for this much-loved annual festival – whether you’re out dancing on our terrace, or inside a sold-out Royal Festival Hall headline show – the Meltdown experience, complete as it is, never strays beyond stage front. But what happens behind the scenes? How does it all come together? Well with our own archives sadly off limits to us at present, we’ve scoured the internet to pull together the following clips and moments to help paint you a picture.

And the best place to start is undoubtedly with To Fail Is Art’s mini documentary filmed around Nick Cave’s 1999 Meltdown festival. Or as Cave himself described it ‘a collection of assorted nutcases from the music and acting and spoken word worlds’. The remarkable documentary includes short interviews with other artists as well as clips from rehearsals, and other backstage moments.

Nick Caves Meltdown 1999

As Cave explains in the video, the starting point for Meltdown, once we have a curator secured, is – in very simplistic terms – to ask said curator to write down who they would love to see perform, or perform with, at their festival. And then we see whether we can make that happen. Cave however, decided to test the mettle of our programming team. 

The first people I put down, was a test to see if they were serious about going out and really trying to get people. So the first names I put down were JD Sallinger who’s been a recluse for years now, Charlie Manson, Jim Morrison, who’s dead.
Nick Cave on curating his Meltdown festival

In 2018 it was Robert Smith’s turn to curate Meltdown; the 25th edition of the festival. In the midst of the ten day run our Senior Contemporary Music Programmer, Bengi Unsal, and the festival’s producer, Rhodri Jones, somehow found the time to appear on our own Think Aloud podcast. In conversation with presenter Harriet Fitch Little, the pair offered a fascinating first hand insight into how a Meltdown festival comes together, including how the curator is chosen and dealing with the unexpected once the festival does get underway.

Meltdown: Backstage pass by Southbank Centre: Think Aloud


As was intoned in that podcast, in the year prior to Robert Smith the festival’s curator was rapper, artist, producer and activist, M.I.A. Taking the festival in a different direction M.I.A. had promised to platform ‘new outlaw musicians from everywhere, who have contributed to keeping things weird, exciting, opinionated, loud, emotional and brave or off the grid’. Hers was a bill that included, Soulwax, Young M.A, Afrikan Boy, Mykki Blanco, JD Samson, Yung Lean, Princess Nokia, MHD and many more. And wrapping it all up was M.I.A. herself.

To give a flavour of backstage in the lead up to a big gig, M.I.A. allowed a videographer backstage at our Royal Festival Hall to produce this intimate short video of the performer getting ready to take to the stage.

M.I.A. backstage at Meltdown


Incidentally, if you’re wondering what it’s like to be on stage, looking out at a packed Royal Festival Hall then this additional first-hand video from M.I.A.’s Meltdown gives you an idea. On the festival’s opening night Young Fathers delivered a memorable performance with a set that included the band being joined on stage, first by a choir of young singers and musicians, and then latterly by the audience themselves. Among the choir was singer Kelly Dante, who shot this understandably wobbly video.

M.I.A's Meltdown Festival 2017: Behind The Scenes Vlog


Of course, backstage at Meltdown isn’t solely a jumble of excited choirs, limbering dancers, panicking producers and contemplative Australian singer songwriters. Eventually, when all is sung and done, it’s also where the afterparty begins. Unfortunately (or thankfully depending on how long a party they turned out to be) we don’t have a great deal of footage or photos from these moments, but it does exist, such as this brief glimpse of David Bowie backstage following The New Heathen Night that brought his 2002 Meltdown to a close.

David Bowie@Meltdown Festival, London, on June 29, 2002

Yep, that was Bono clinging onto Bowie there, and he wasn’t the only star to be found celebrating backstage after that gig. Among other people packing our Royal Festival Hall corridors and dressing rooms were future curator Robert Smith, as well as Paul Cook, Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, Kylie Minogue and Brian Eno.


‘It's pretty amazing to be able to programme a whole week like this, to get some of your heroes on and get to meet those people as well,’ Jarvis Cocker told The Observer of his curation of the festival in 2007. So let us end this peer backstage with the culmination of Cocker’s amazing week. Via Motorhead and Iggy Pop, Devo and John Barry, Jarvis finally wrapped up his Meltdown in one of our upstairs bars with a rendition of Andy Williams’ ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. Meltdown; ‘there’s nothing else to compare’.



The show must go on(line)

Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social channels.

follow us on Twitter
follow us on Facebook
follow us on Instagram

As a charity, we rely on ticket sales for a huge chunk of our income. But now they’ve stopped. And it's a huge worry to us, and the people we work with. We all need the escape of art and culture; it can inspire and unite us. So please – if you can afford to – consider a donation to the Southbank Centre today, to help us be there for you in the future.

by Glen Wilson

more from our blog