Rock solid: Molotow
When the Beatles first left England to grace this earth with legendary music in 1960, the initial spark was a 48-night rockstar bender two blocks down from Hamburg’s venue, Molotow. The Reeperbahn's historic nature of driving visitors to debauchery was no exception for four Liverpool moptops: the overindulgence of sex and drugs, arson arrests for burning condoms, and George Harrison's eventual deportation is just scratching the surface.
“Every fucking band playing in the Molotow, as soon as they drop their guitar cases they ask, where did the Beatles play? Where did they walk? Where did they hang out?” says Molotow owner Andi Schmidt. “This is where they started their career.”
Fifty years later Reeperbahn's sinful reputation continues to generate the classic raw and gritty body rock 'n' roll lives to penetrate, and for the Europe rock scene, Molotow is an essential organ. Standing since 1990 in a virtually lawless district of Hamburg, Molotow mirrors its streets by providing a forum to rock without curfews, drinking limits or smoking bans.
“Germany is crazy and strict with everything, but Hamburg is like an outlawed place," says Schmidt, who has lived in Hamburg since almost 40 years. “You can't say, ‘Fuck your law’. The way we handle it is to say, ‘Yes I know the law but I can't check everything’.”
In essence, Molotow’s fusion of perspective with placement makes a gristly yet harmonious blend of luscious attraction for band performances. Yet Molotow is a musician’s haven because it follows the principles of a good venue: unique character, a solid sound system, and genuine kindred spirit to the rock scene.
Butts and bottles
A small, dark basement with maximum capacity of around 300, soundproof walls emit the wreaking stench of Beck's beer and St. Pauli cigarettes. The low ceiling suffocates skin pores as the air thickens with sweaty, damp humidity. Sandwiched between bars in the front and backroom is the frenzied heat of the stage, where the crowd and band merge into a giant ball of sound and body explosion. Bands love it.
“There’s a lot of action on stage because you’re so close to the audience. Our frontman climbed around, people stage dove; it was sweaty and loud,” says Frederik Mohrdiek on performing at Molotow with his former band The Sissies. “It’s tight and focused on the stage, but it’s company rock ‘n’ roll enjoyment.”
However, complimenting Molotow’s unembellished exoskeleton is sound of near-perfect acoustics, not to mention ambitious employees who know how to work a venue well enough to evoke approval from all forms of rock.
“Plus the place is very open-minded and willing to book bands they’re convinced of even if they know they might only pull 20 people from it,” says Hamburg-based DJ Andreas “Baze.djunkiii” Rathmann who spins with Lars “Das Audiolith” Lewerenz as Plutonium Pogo at Molotow. “Amongst DJs and musicians in indie and rock, the reputation is high; everyone seems to know the place all over.”
“It's definitely more important for us to have good bands and good music here, not the money. As silly as it sounds some venues just don't care about it, many don't even have their own PA system,” says Schmidt. “Here you can hear every instrument and vocal; there's no feedback, and if there is there's a guy right on the spot taking care of it. That’s the way it should be.”
Bands and Fans
Molotow's fame rises from its underground reputation of acting as a launch pad for some of rock's most famous additions over the past 15 years. Proudly resting above the entrance is a long list of prominent alumni, from The White Stripes to The Killers, The Rakes to The Black Keys, Billy Talent, At The Drive-In and about 130 others.
“Molotow was The Hives first sold out show of their career, and in their first music video they rebuilt our entrance on their set in Sweden. They held up a sign in front of some place saying Molotow and it had a huge queue. When they come to town they always come by,” says Schmidt.
A pile of signed guestbooks collects dust on a bookshelf at Molotow’s office. Inside are short blurps, long-winded notes, face illustrations and phallic doodles to name a few. Enon drew a rabbit, The Lawrence Arms “hearts Hamburg, hookers and sex”, while Piebald “occupied the building where this book lives and thank you for it. We like Molotow.”
“A lot of now famous bands with a big fan base played at Molotow long before they caught attention, and one can’t ignore that,” says Baze.djunkii. “Even if you are coming from an electronic music background, there is a lot of room to experiment because the people that go there are really open-minded.”
Molotow might be 28 stairs below ground, but the stage is a small step up from the crowd floor. For fiends of audience contact, Molotow dares to provide a band-fan connection stripped from platform barriers.
“I once saw Battery play there, and I jumped on stage and put the singer in a headlock. But it’s okay, some people want to go onstage and just be with the band,” says Mohrdiek, who still plays at Molotow with current band Bangkok Kash. “It’s good to be in touch with the audience if they’re going wild. It’s good to be on ground level; you have direct feedback.”
“We don’t have drunk jocks, drunk fights are not a problem. It’s all about having the right people at the door,” says Schmidt. “Some places hire karate guys with jackets looking for trouble. If you don’t do that, you’re kind of cool.”
Rock ‘n’ roll hospitable respect
The venue’s acquirement of distinctive quality, impressive performer history and an energetic audience is no fluke. Molotow’s resistance towards usual venue “norms” develops from experience on knowing where to draw the line between lifestyle and pure insanity.
“Although I like them a lot, I turned down Towers of London because they wasted and wrecked about every venue they played in,” says Schmidt. “I once sent home a Swedish band because they were totally drunk, and I couldn’t imagine them playing since they couldn’t even stand. It’s okay to be punk rock, but it’s stupid to wreck a place.”
This is not to say booked bands can expect rigid communication. In contrast, Molotow is a venue to offer not only a smorgasbord of food and drink to their performers but also accommodation: the office’s spare rooms are equipped with beds and blankets.
“Backstage there are snickers, M&Ms, bread with cheese and sausage, and one crate of beer,” says Mohrdiek.
“Tons of places you feel like a burden. In the UK you get a pack of crisps for the whole band,” says Schmidt, who has played in bands for about 30 years. “We treat bands nicely. We care for them, give them good food and a place to stay.”
Despite ongoing battles with keeping a punk rock environment in a stringent society, Schmidt has enough funding to keep Molotow alive for at least another three years.
“If you love sweaty basement clubs with nice stuff, good music and an ecstatic crowd then go. If you’re lucky enough you’ll catch some future legends on stage at the very beginning of their career,” says Baze.djunkiii.
The era of live Beatlemania might have ended decades ago, but it’s venues like Molotow that keep Hamburg standing as an arena offering a music subculture most European cities would die for. Check it out, but try to refrain from condom bonfires. Try.
- Audrey Sykes