History of Europe

Wacken:A provincial backwater becomes a metal Mecca

Last updated:2022-07-25

In 1990, with just 800 visitors, what is now the most famous heavy metal festival in the world began:the Wacken Open Air. A look at the first summer - and everything that followed.

Guitar riffs and tens of thousands of metal fans instead of church bells and tractor engines:Wacken Open Air has permanently changed the sound of a small town in western Schleswig-Holstein. It all started with almost 800 visitors on August 24th and 25th, 1990.

Wacken - an almost typical village

Wacken near the Kiel Canal - a village like many others in the northern German provinces:There are more cows than young people, lots of greenery and silver weddings in the country inn. A village with 1,900 inhabitants that hardly anyone beyond the municipal boundaries would know. If it weren't for Thomas Jensen, Holger Hübner and some other metal fans.

End of the musical wasteland

Wacken, 1990:The friends Jensen and Hübner are in their mid-20s and love heavy metal. That's her problem too. Because apart from the village disco and brass band music, nothing is going on in the countryside. In a beer mood, Jensen and Hübner forged the plan to organize their own open-air festival - with music to their liking. "We were young, we were up for it, we wanted to party with our friends and we just did it," Hübner remembers years later.

Six bands for twelve marks entry

The location for their festival is quickly found:a sandpit near the village. Together with friends and family, the two organizers build the stage from a beer tent and truck. Six local bands accept - Thomas Jensen himself plays bass in one of them. On August 24th and 25th, 1990 it takes place:the first Wacken Open Air.

The idea of ​​the guys from the village is well received:in the first year, 800 metal fans make a pilgrimage to the sandpit. Admission costs just 12 marks, but there is hard music, lots of beer and a family atmosphere:"I played with my band, tapped beer on the side and was able to put the proceeds in my pocket," says Jensen about the early days. At the time, nobody suspected that the foundation stone for one of the biggest heavy metal festivals in the world would be laid in August.

Soaring high and landing hard

Jensen and Hübner want to continue and organize the next Wacken Open Air. They now work under the name "Stoned Castle Rock Promotion" - as a homage to the district of Steinburg, in which Wacken is located. After a successful second edition with 1,300 visitors, the first quantum leap for the festival follows in 1992:the organizers manage to engage the British heavy metal veteran Saxon. 1992 becomes a successful year:3,500 fans, 20 bands on two stages and 35 marks per ticket - Wacken is growing.

1993:fateful year for the WOA

The 1993 line-up:A festival poster from that fateful year.

"Over the years, it takes a lot of staying power, after all, we've often been thrown in the face," explains Holger Hübner in retrospect on the WOA website. 1993, for example:the organization of the festival was already under a bad star. Hübner has a serious traffic accident and a death in his family complicates Jensen's preparations. From the hospital, Hübner finally booked the bands for the festival, with the US metallers Fates Warning as headliners for a lot of money. Overall, the organizers are investing significantly more than before - but with almost 4,000 visitors, the response from the fans is flat on the previous year's level. The Wacken Open Air 1993 turns into a financial disaster:Jensen &Co record a six-digit loss.

Full risk

Wacken Open Air is now at a crossroads. The risk is too great for many co-organizers and they drop out. But Jensen, Hübner and a few others put everything on one card:"Job quit and off we went," says Hübner. From now on he and Jensen devote themselves entirely to their festival. The families help, and the mountain of debt is partly paid off with early inheritances. In 1994, the organizers spend less money on the bands, still win some well-known headliners for their program and at the same time lower the entrance fee. With success:4,500 visitors come to Wacken this year and thus ensure the preservation of the Open Air.

Shortly before the cancellation - until the Böhse Onkelz come

In 1996 the Open Air almost had to be canceled - then the Böhse Onkelz were hired.

In 1996 things got hot again for the "Stoned Castle" crew. Advance ticket sales are so slow that the festival is about to be cancelled. But then the band Böhse Onkelz agreed. The notorious headliner becomes a crowd puller and saves the event:According to the organizers, 8,000 metal fans come and make the 1996 edition of the Wacken Open Air the most successful to date.

Success story Wacken Open Air

Since then, the festival has only known one direction:straight up. From year to year there are more bands, stages, visitors and of course beer. In 1997, according to the organizers, the Wacken Open Air broke the 10,000 visitor mark for the first time. Only to double this record next year with around 20,000 visitors. Rock and metal legends like Motörhead, Slayer, Ozzy Osbourne, Deep Purple or Iron Maiden have been handing each other a microphone on the Wacken stages for decades.

From provincial backwater to metal Mecca

Higher, faster, Wacken:the sand dug out of nowhere has now become 240 hectares of festival grounds. Instead of the 800 curious people at the first Wacken Open Air, around 80,000 visitors are now flocking to the northern German provinces. "I get scared on a lonely night," says founder Jensen. "But we don't do that much differently. […] We're just as stupid as we were then, only everything is a little bigger."

The Wacken Open Air - a lifelong dream come true for a few boys from the village. Which is far from over:"Stagnation is not what we want," explains Jensen. "We always want to develop further. And there are many directions in which we can still go." Wherever it goes:The name Wacken is now inextricably linked to heavy metal. What used to be a village festival has become the world's largest heavy metal festival.

Two WOA cancellations due to the Corona crisis

However, the Corona crisis ensures that things remain quiet on the Wacken site for two summers in a row. For the first time in 30 years of festival history, the organizers are canceling the event for 2020. Instead, there is a free online offer for fans with live acts such as Kreator, Blind Guardian and Sabaton. And hopes for 2021 are also dashed:Wacken Open Air is canceled again. But it should work again in 2022:From August 4th to 6th, Slipknot and Limp Bizkit, among others, are supposed to perform in Wacken.