It is housed in a converted former church building that dates from the nineteenth century and that was used until 1965 as the meeting hall for a liberal Dutch religious group known as the "Vrije Gemeente" (Free Congregation). It is located on de Weteringschans, bordering the Leidseplein, one of the nightlife and tourism centers of the city. The main concert hall in the former church interior has high ceilings and two balcony rings overlooking the stage area, with three large illuminated church windows above the stage. The acoustics are rather echoey, but improvements have been made over the years. In addition to the main concert hall, there are two smaller cafe stages, on an upper floor and in the basement.
Paradiso was squatted by hippies in 1967 who wanted to convert the church to an entertainment and leisure club. The police ended the festivities the same year. In 1968 the city opened Paradiso as a publicly subsidized youth entertainment center. Along with the nearby Melkweg (Milky Way), it soon became synonymous with the hippie counterculture and the rock music of that era. It was one of the first locations in which the use and sale of soft drugs was tolerated. From the mid-1970s, Paradiso became increasingly associated with punk and new wave music, although it continued to program a wide variety of artists. Starting in the late 1980s, raves and themed dance parties became frequent.
In recent years, the venue has settled into an eclectic range of programming, which, besides rock, can include lectures, plays, classical music, and crossover artists. Long associated with clouds of tobacco and hashish smoke, Paradiso banned smoking in the public areas in 2008 in accordance with a nationwide ban on smoking in public venues, and the venue has a 'smoking room' near the entrance, but still inside Paradiso itself.
Artists who have recorded or filmed concerts at the Paradiso include ADELE, The Rolling Stones, Joy Division, Johnny Thunders, Chic, Joe Jackson, Chris Isaak, Kaizers Orchestra, Duran Duran, Willie Nelson, Phish, Arcade Fire, Nightwish, Bad Brains, Kayak, Loudness, Nirvana, John Cale, The Cure, Soft Machine, Emilíana Torrini, Jalebee Cartel, Link Wray, Lenny Kravitz, Omar & the Howlers, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Electrosexual, Beth Hart, Dayna Kurtz, Dave Matthews, Smoosh, Suzanne Vega, Amy Winehouse, Milow, Fiction Plane, Epica, Editors, Motorpsycho, Pain of Salvation, Deftones, Riverside, Lamb, Live, NITS, Jamiroquai, and The Roots.
On 26–27 May 1995, The Rolling Stones played two semi-acoustic concerts at the Paradiso. Scalped tickets reportedly sold for many thousands of dollars. Recorded tracks from these concerts were released on the Stones' Stripped album later that year. Keith Richards said that the Paradiso concerts were the best live shows the Stones ever did.
Other acts who played in Paradiso include Level 42, George Clinton & the Parliament-Funkadelic, The Fixx, Florence and the Machine, Patrick Wolf, Within Temptation, Adele, Garbage, The Gathering, Nine Inch Nails, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arctic Monkeys, James Brown, Bo Diddley, The Bangles, Eric Burdon, Bad Religion, Van Halen, Europe, Radiohead, Stereophonics, Prince, UB40, Guns N' Roses, David Bowie, Thirty Seconds to Mars, The Police, Rob Eberhard Young, The Velvet Underground, Rollins Band, Golden Earring, Herman Brood, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dr. John, Muse, Rory Gallagher, Foo Fighters, Fugazi, Curve, U2, Pearl Jam, Lana Del Rey, Burning Spear, Simple Minds, The Ramones, Cocteau Twins, Human League, Autechre, Orbital, Plaid, The Tragically Hip, Metallica, Faith No More, Faithless, Pink Floyd, Porcupine Tree, Ozric Tentacles, Primus, Tool, The Pretty Things, Tracy Chapman, Captain Beefheart, The Jam, Coldplay, Billy Idol, The Killers, Keane, Robbie Williams, Grace Jones, MF Doom, Emilíana Torrini, Eels, "Weird Al" Yankovic, The Real McKenzies, Patti Smith, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Heather Nova, Todd Rundgren, My Morning Jacket, Phish, OFWGKTA, Prince, Foals and De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig, Adam Lambert, Goldfrapp, Pentatonix.
In the 1990s, the future of Paradiso became something of a political issue in Amsterdam, since there was some political resistance to the continuation of the subsidies that allowed the venue to operate in its central city location. More recently, supporters have successfully argued that the Paradiso subsidy is reasonable in comparison with subsidies given to other performance venues.
- Converted Churches. Tectum Publishers, Antwerp, Belgium 2007, 178-183. ISBN 978-90-76886-44-2
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- Paradiso (Dutch)