20 Years of Wacken Open Air: Part One - the First Five Years (1990-1994)

2009 sees the Wacken Open Air metal festival celebrate its 20th year. This article is the first in a series of four features that trace W:O:A's history and significance as the Mecca of metal festivals.




Written by contributors Goatlady & LeticiaS.


The European metalhead's social calendar is dotted with summer metal festivals - well over 100 different events in all, covering every imaginable genre and almost every European country. But most festival-goers would agree that for sheer size, reputation, and popularity, the granddaddy of them all is Wacken Open Air.


Held in the small town of Wacken, in Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany, 2009 will see W:O:A celebrate its 20th year. This sleepy village of 1,800 is transformed each year into the world's metal mecca as 70,000 black-clad, beer-swilling maniacs descend upon it from around the globe for three days of absolute metal mayhem.


All tickets for the 2009 20th anniversary festival sold out in December 2008 - nearly seven months before the event - following sold-out festivals in 2008 and 2007. The final lineup will include over 70 bands covering thrash, power metal, death metal, black metal, folk metal and every flavour in between.


However, festivals of this size don't just appear overnight. The story of Wacken is an interesting one that started with two friends who shared a love of metal, and grew into a full time operation employing a whole team of people and supporting an entire township.


One wonders if Thomas Jensen and Holger Hübner had any idea just what they were starting...


From humble beginnings

Way back in 1990, two good friends, Thomas Jensen and Holger Hübner came up with the idea of getting their band to play at an open air festival. It was a great idea, but the problem was that nobody had really heard of them; and when you're approaching festival organisers with your band, they aren't likely to say 'yes' to a band that nobody had heard of. So, rather than rely on other people, they started their own festival. 


That very first year, which was quite literally a small gathering of bands, of which most are now defunct (although one, the British band Saxon, has now been a household name for a long time), the 'festival' ran for two days: over the 24th and 25th of August. Of course, it's open to speculation why it took two days to host a mere seven bands, unless of course there was a whole lot more drinking going on back then - if that's possible. The festival was attended by a respectable number of punters: 800 of them in fact. Back in the day, entry to the festival cost a meagre 12 DM - which equates now to approximately six Euro.


The lineup in that first year consisted of 5th Avenue, Ax'n Sex, Motoslug, Sacret Season, Skyline (Jensen and Hübner's band), and Wizzard. While most histories do not mention Saxon, speaking only of the German bands at the first festival, according to Biff they did actually play there. In fact, Saxon has played Wacken so often now that the promoters of the festival are also Saxon's management.


Crowds during the day at W:O:A


The festival grows

Encouraged by their initial success, in 1991 they decided to do it all again. Another seven bands played to a moderately larger crowd of 1300, who paid a "premium" of 15 DM. Again, the lineup was mostly German - Skyline made another appearance, along with Kilgore, Life Artist, Shanghai'd Guts, Ruby Red, and an AC/DC cover band from Hamburg going by the name Bon Scott. Lending an international flavour were American prog-rockers Gypsy Kyss.


The middle years of Wacken's first half decade saw a leap in attendee numbers - from 1300 in 1991, to 3500 in 1992 and 1993.The latter year also saw the festival expand to cover three days. German metal queen Doro made the first of several Wacken appearances, as well as some bigger names - Fates Warning, Samael, and Gorefest. 1993 also saw Ax'n Sex make their third and final appearance.


By 1994, the festival had grown to such a point that ticket pricing for multiple days was introduced, instead of the flat fee ticketing that had covered even the previous year's three-day event. This year's attendance leapt from 3500 to 4500, and punters saw an even bigger range of bands, and included power metal heavyweights Gamma Ray for the first time. In the year that followed, 1995, the festival cracked 5000 punters and featured more than 30 bands. These first five years laid the foundations of what was to become the world's biggest metal festival.


And then...


From 1994 until 2009 is a long time - and no doubt Jensen and Hübner had little idea back then that they would eventually be celebrating 20 years of the festival. They were probably also unaware on the impact their little festival would come to have on their hometown itself! By 1998, Wacken had become THE major festival of the European circuit. 


Stay tuned for part two, where we'll cover the lead up to Wacken's first decade celebration and the phenomenon of the Full Metal Village.