Hamburg’s St. Pauli Fischmarkt is a busy street, but on the night of February 21 it lay unusually quiet.
Standing on the sidewalk and facing out across the harbor you can hear cars splashing through the wet, boats tooting their horns and the wind gusting through dock cranes. Tucked under a pedestrian bridge stands a small, shabby shack with an angular roof. This is Golden Pudel Club, the crux of Hamburg nightlife.
In normal circumstances, Joy O and Barnt would be playing back-to-back as part of weekly Sunday night party MFOC (Music For Our Children), but today’s event has been cancelled. Just a week ago a fire broke out in the club, leaving the dance floor silent, singed and swamped with water from fire hoses.
“It was really traumatic,” says Katja Ruge, a regular at Pudel for longer than she can remember and the unofficial in-house photographer for over a decade. She describes standing inside the ashy venue for hours, stoically taking pictures of every detail with memories flashing back in every nook and cranny. “I kept thinking, I’ve pretty much shot every artist in every single corner of the place,” she says, giggling as she holds back tears.
The fire comes at a suspicious time. The building was due to be foreclosed on April 20 as a result of an ongoing conflict of interest between the owner of the for-profit café housed upstairs and the club downstairs. For many, it hasn’t come as a surprise that the police are investigating the fire as arson. The club, for its part, refuses to speculate on the possible culprit.
Though no one was hurt during the fire, all of the club’s equipment was destroyed, including hundreds of records belonging to Ralf Köster, who organizes the renowned Sunday night parties. Köster is a man of unknown age with a ring of white hair and the dry sense of humour typical of Hamburg residents.
“I guess for a while now my DJ sets will contain a lot of really old records, since the rest of them are gone,” he jokes, gesturing at a half-empty Expedit shelf in the living room of his apartment. The walls are covered with posters, one of a smiling poodle drawn by Alex Solman, the illustrator of Pudel’s lauded MFOC flyers (and FACT’s weekly mix series). When I meet with Köster he is visibly under a lot of stress, yet determined to fight on. “The worst shock is over, but immediately we knew that we have to keep going, that this can’t be the end,” he says.
Originally a barber by trade, Köster and his long-time friend and collaborator Tim Lorenz (Superdefekt) started organizing parties in the early ‘90s at various locations around Hamburg. “Back then all you had to do was find an empty building and pay a guy a 200-mark and the place was yours,” says Köster.
“It’s always been a place where you feel everyone really listens”Call Super
The decline of the city’s sex industry in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s led to an abundance of such spaces, and dive bars and punk clubs sprung up throughout the working class neighborhood of St. Pauli. It was in this environment that Golden Pudel Club opened, in a building that was originally built in 1872 as a prison for smugglers. The club became the stomping ground of the so-called ‘Hamburger Schule’ (‘Hamburg School’), a style of rock music pioneered by bands like Die Goldenen Zitronen and Die Sterne, characterized by German-language lyrics that incorporated social critique and critical theory.
In the mid-90s, musicians Schorsch Kamerun, Rocko Schamoni and Norbert Karl, the club’s original owners, invited Köster and Lorenz to move MFOC to Golden Pudel Club. The equipment for DJs at the time consisted of a single turntable and a microphone taped to a whisky bottle. “It was the Dial Records guys and Mark Schneider who finally said, ‘Well, that’s fun guys, but I think you need a second turntable’,” notes Köster.
This year marks MFOC’s 20th anniversary, and much has changed since its inception. Köster recalls having to look up labels’ fax numbers printed on vinyl sleeves. “It took ages before we’d even get someone’s phone number,” he remembers, “and at the time it was really unusual to invite someone to Hamburg to play an out-of-town set.” Köster has slipped into the role of in-house booking agent at Pudel, though he sees himself more as “an A&R manager”. He characterizes the club’s mission as giving “unrepresented forms of music a platform, so that they won’t be forgotten”.
The musical community surrounding Golden Pudel Club has made it a major breeding ground for local talent, nurturing a new generation of artists including Helena Hauff, Nika Son/Nikae, RVDS, Nina, Black Sites and Circuit Diagram, to name a few. The Pudel is a space where it’s okay to make mistakes and try things out, and this approach, coupled with an open-minded crowd, has attracted DJs from all over the world, many of whom forego high booking fees to play the club.
“Shackleton once said to me, ‘Ralf, I usually make much more money, but with you I know that 10 years from now I’ll still be able to play here’,” Köster recalls with a smile. He explains that some DJs playing for the first time at Pudel are understandably shocked when “Santa Claus on acid”, as he refers to himself, appears to pick them up from the airport, “but once they see that their music is appreciated and celebrated here, many of them become regulars.”
Artists such as Move D, DJ Stingray, Falty DL, Martyn, Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir and Ben UFO have all returned to play the club on multiple occasions. “It’s always been a place where you feel everyone really listens,” says Berlin-based DJ and producer Call Super. “It’s incredibly simple when you have a group of people who want to dance to music all night long and haven’t gone out with an agenda of expectations.”
The impulse that lures people to Golden Pudel Club and keeps them coming back is not just the sense of complete creative freedom, but also of radical inclusivity. It’s clear from the moment you come through the doors. Because entry fees are low or free on weeknights and never more than five euros on the weekend, anyone can afford to come. There is no restrictive door policy – if you’re nice, you’re welcome. As a kid growing up in Hamburg, Golden Pudel Club always felt like a second home – a group of familiar faces, freaks and music nerds who opened their doors to you and let you share the space and the music with them until the early morning.
“The idea is much greater than ourselves” Ralf Köster
Still, when I arranged to interview Köster, I’ll admit to being nervous. As such an important tastemaker during my formative years, he was slightly intimidating from afar – but he flatly rejects the notion of elite gatekeepers. “It would be so boring if the old bags insisted on defending their space,” he says.
Looking back at his own generation, Köster cites the nuclear threat of the cold war as a cause for his youthful rebelliousness. Today’s generation may have fewer direct threats to their existence, but the recent influx of refugees to Germany has been met with growing xenophobia in the country, shown in increased support for the anti-Islam movement Pegida and the far-right party AfD.
Pudel has always opposed this mentality. The club welcomes refugees; at the time of the fire an undocumented immigrant from Ghana was living on the terrace next to the club. Shortly after the venue was evacuated, he was arrested and now faces deportation. A week after the fire, 2.500 friends of the club gathered to demonstrate, not just in solidarity with the Pudel community but also against the government’s asylum policies. It was a peaceful event, with people of all generations holding banners exclaiming “You’ll never get our ruin!” and “The world is a Pudel”.
Should Pudel reopen after the fire, as it claims it will, its future is still less than clear. If it were up to Köster and the Pudel collective, the club would be passed down to the next generation and kept alive independently forever. However, there are serious roadblocks in the way of this goal, including the imminent foreclosure. The club has a lease until 2029, but Golden Pudel Club and the Park Fiction collective want to take the property off the market altogether and turn it into a non-profit foundation.
On their website they make it clear that any bidder who doesn’t support the idea of the property as a noncommercial cultural centre after the lease ends will face resistance from the Pudel: “The forced auction is not about a conflict between two owners, and it’s about a lot more than the Golden Pudel Club itself […] This space exists today because of years of struggle. The Golden Pudel is a part of Park Fiction and vice versa. It views itself as a living, organic alternative to the value-added chain of a greedy event culture in a city that gets increasingly commercialized. Motivated by this responsibility we and our supporters will not wait idly until the day of the auction.’” Whatever the final outcome, it’s clear that Pudel will not go down without a fight.
As soon as I heard about the fire I began recalling the countless happy moments I’ve spent at Pudel. Annual Christmas Eve parties with Smallville. Sharing the dance floor with Albert, the techno wizard. Skipping school on Mondays because the music was too good to leave. Meeting some of my closest friends. I asked my friends to share their most cherished memories of the place as well. Katja Ruge started a photographic project, sharing pictures she took of the club through social media. Alex Solman drew cut-out masks of the Pudel gang and published them online, offering a solution for fans yearning to replicate Sunday nights at Pudel at home. Seeing the outpouring of support and the emotional responses only confirmed how important Golden Pudel Club really is.
“The idea is much greater than ourselves,” concurs Köster. “Even people who have never been want this squeaky little Gallic village down there in the harbor to exist. Because it’s not just an idea in your mind, but a tangible place that you can share with people.”