A Saturday night out in St. Pauli. On our way from one bar to the next, there’s always a reason to stop at the ESSO petrol station in the middle of the Reeperbahn, be it to fill up on cigarettes, grab a drink or just something to eat. It makes more money than any petrol station in Germany – while selling the least petrol.
Heading down Spielbudenplatz from there, we pass a small hotel, the famous Hundertmark store, and a sex shop, to finally end up in front of the blood-red facade of Molotow club. Above our heads, an impressive list of names: the ‘wall of fame’, assembling a large number of well-known bands such as The Killers, The White Stripes, Billy Talent or The Hives, who all started their quest for fame from this very basement with a capacity of just over 300 people.
Nils (23) still remembers his first time at the club: ‘One night I somehow ended up at Molotow, walked down the stairs; it was dark, I came in and the room was full of people. Some band was playing, everyone was having a great time, and after the band, a DJ came on. It was total mayhem! I stayed until the end, until 6 in the morning. Ever since then I kept coming back every weekend.’ That’s a couple of years ago now. Today Nils is a trainee in event management – at the Molotow office. He helps run up to 100 concerts, parties and readings per month. However, this could all be over in three years. The whole building complex stretching from Molotow to the ESSO petrol station, including about 100 flats, is in danger of being demolished. A Bavarian company bought the 60-year-old building and wants to replace it with new and more profitable housing and business space. This is why we met up with Nils and Fred, a booking agent at Molotow, to find out about their views of the consequences – both for the club and for St. Pauli in general.
Fred (26) began as an intern at Molotow in 2005, then completed a training program as an event manager at the club. He knew he wanted to organise concerts since starting to do ‘free beer parties’ in his rural hometown, age 14. ‘When I first came to Hamburg, there were about five other clubs with a similar program,’ he remembers. All of these are now gone. Molotow, which has been around for 20 years, remains one of the last places for alternative club culture. ‘If Molotow was gone, I wouldn’t know where else in Hamburg our 300 shows a year should take place’, Fred points out. Without the basement club and its upstairs bar, the city would effectively lose two important stages, and a big part of its appeal to international tourists, many of whom come to Hamburg precisely to see a show at Molotow.
But it doesn’t stop here. ‘Demolishing the ESSO houses would change the entire face of St. Pauli,’ says Fred. This change is already happening. Rents are rising all over the city and in St. Pauli especially: here they have increased by 16% in the past year alone. Nils is concerned about this change, as fancy new apartments pop up all over the quarter: ‘Walk along these newly built areas at night, and you’ll see they are dead. There’s no one there.’ In his view, the city administration is destroying the tourist magnet St. Pauli: ‘They are building fences against the homeless because they allegedly disturb tourists. Next thing are the sex shops and prostitutes.’ Even bands coming from the US, he says, recognize that the quarter’s cult status is in acute danger.
Local politicians have repeatedly acknowledged the cultural importance of Molotow in public, but thus far, no specific promises have been made. However, they don’t have a lot of influence on the matter because the building is private property. Fred is uncertain whether the building company actually cares about the cultural importance of Molotow because they obviously have a different point of view as an international corporation. ‘We are talking about two completely different dimensions of money,’ Fred says.
With Molotow gone, many bands won’t be able to play in Hamburg because of the lack of a venue that fits their needs and that is willing to give talented new artists a stage to perform on. Yet, as Fred points out, it’s not only the space for up and coming artists that will be deeply missed, but also a social structure, developed over the course of twenty years. Between the staff – be it doormen, sound engineers, janitors, caterers or DJs – as well as the guests, it almost feels like a family, says Nils. As patrons, we share his view: Molotow has become a kind of second home to us, where we’ve found a lot of friends over the past years. Fred says he can’t imagine moving Molotow to another location, for people love the venue as it is now and its special flair, which is unique to the basement on Spielbudenplatz, can’t be reproduced anywhere else. That certain feeling you get, standing in front of the stage, directly facing the band without any kinds of barriers between them and you is what makes going to gigs here a very special and intense experience that keeps you coming back for more.
So how likely is it for the Molotow to remain at this site? ‘The building company said a renovation would be possible’, Fred replies, ‘but rebuilding it completely would be more economical for them.’ Residents of the building block have formed an initiative to protect their homes and the businesses located on the complex. They met up with the company in early November to discuss the issue, but as of now the business concern holds on to the planned demolition. While negotiations continue, we can only hope for the preservation of this characteristic building, for the loss of Molotow would be a loss for the whole of Hamburg. ‘It’s an important refuge’, says Nils, ‘both culturally and socially’.
Michael Nolte & Danja Prahl