20 Years of Wacken Open Air: Part Two - the End of the First Decade (1995-1999)

The rise of Wacken Open Air metal festival from almost nothing in 1990 to a reasonable festival five years later, heralded the beginnings of something really big. That 'really big thing' played out over the next five years of the festival, during which time it became known as the biggest outdoor metal festival in the world.

Wacken Open Air - the metal Mecca - started to face tens of thousands of punters every year. By the end of the festival's first ten years, it had gained 22 000 punters, who turned up to see a total of 81 bands, and who paid a mere 79 DM for the full three days.

During that tenth anniversary year, there was a huge spread of bands: including Amon Amarth, Cannibal Corpse, Mayhem, Crematory, Dimmu Borgir, Destruction, Enslaved, Napalm Death, Hammerfall, Immortal, and many, many more.

For some of us around the world, it is mind-boggling that a small rural village could cope with being overrun by thousands of metalheads every year. It may be the money that the festival brings into the town, or merely the interest factor, but whatever it is, those who live in Wacken who have contact with crowds during the festival seem to have a lot of respect for the metalheads running amok in their town - and for the mayhem that they bring with them. While we couldn't begin to estimate how much money this single event brings into the town, it would have to run into the millions of Euro over the course of that week.

 

Heavy Metal Village

In return for the respect headbangers are given by the townsfolk, the metalheads in return maintain a highly respectful attitude towards the villagers. There is almost no violence, no vandalism and no malicious destruction of private property. They are here to rock out, drink excessively and have a great fucking time, and if a few flower beds get trampled in the excitement, everyone knows it was unintentional.

Every house along the main street has something to offer - whether it's a makeshift beer garden down the side of one house, a camping supply store in the front of another, Jagermeister shots for 1 euro from this front window, hangover breakfasts served at yet another... Not to mention the established businesses. When the town general store opens in the morning, there is already a long line of customers out the front waiting to get in and buy supplies: everything from food to toiletries to medicines and of course, the ubiquitious crates of beer. Can't be bothered carting your purchases the kilometre or so back to your campsite? Just pay one of the enterprising village kids a few euros, they will take it for you in a go-kart or dragged behind a bike.

 

Wacken Village

 

And then of course there's what is left behind after the music dies down and the crowds disperse: beer bottles and cans numbering in the millions, waiting to be picked up and returned for recycling cash. Across the camping grounds, maybe a third of all tents are left standing, abandoned by their owners who don't want to carry them back to whatever country they came from - not to mention the gazebos and folding chairs sold by the camping store by the thousands, and no doubt recycled at the end of the festival for resale the next year.

A hand-drawn cardboard sign proclaiming "welcome metal heads" in the front window of a house is almost enough to bring a tear to the eye of someone from a social group more used to being reviled than accepted. This tolerance and acceptance is worn with pride by the town, to the point where the town's website notes that they are 'a tolerant and cosmopolitan community', a fact that is 'confirmed in August every year' by the 'thousands of visitors to the Wacken Open Air festival'.

 

Breakfast at W:O:A

 

The status of the village of Wacken as metal's mecca was recognised by the broader community much later - in 2007 - thanks to the vision of director Sung Hyung Cho. Cho's film Full Metal Village looks at the inhabitants of Wacken and what their lives are like, and how they react to the massive metal festival that happens in their town each year. Filmed over two years as the village prepared for the festival, Full Metal Village has become a key reference for allowing the public in general, and metalheads specifically, an insight into what goes on in the 'real life' behind the Metal Mecca. The ordinary lives of the villagers are juxtaposed against the excitement and enormity of the world's most well-known, and arguably most popular, metal festival.

 

W:O:A becomes the metal festival of the European circuit

The establishment of W:O:A as the mecca of open air metal festivals really occurred during the period 1995-1999. 

The first five years of Wacken Open Air saw it start to gain some serious momentum. But it wasn't until 1998 that the festival came to be known as the major event on the extensive European summer festivals circuit. Between 1995 and 2008, attendances at W:O:A grew from  5 000 to a staggering 20 000 - with the latter rating at double the number of punters from the year immediately prior. In that year, too, the list of bands grew as well, going from 41 to 71. In W:O:A's 10th year, a huge 81 bands were on the bill.

One could argue that the the growth of W:O:A is reflected in the growth of its line-up. In 1995, the majority (20 out of 33) were still German bands, but others from much further afield began to make their appearances for the first time. Australia, for example, was represented for the first time by Chalice; and other bands - such as Laberinto, Solitude Aeternus and Angra - travelled the distance from Venezuela, the USA, and Brazil, respectively. 

 

WOA

 

The inclusion of the magic (some would say satanic) number of 33 bands continued for another year. From 1997 to 1999, however, the number of bands started to grow again. 1998 saw 71 bands - a leap of thirty - and 1999 (the 10th anniversary of the festival) saw 81.

Yet all this time, W:O:A was not supported by any commercial sponsor: on posters for the festival in '98 and '99, the tagline read: Sponsored by nobody, supported by metal fans. It could be that this might be one reason for Wacken reaching the punters so successfully - it has had to in order to survive. The first corporate sponsor didn't come until much later in the festival's history - Beck's, in 2007.

 

The second 10 years...

Getting into the second ten years of W:O:A, there saw a greater recognition of the festival internationally. Not only had it become the festival of the European circuit, but it became the primary travel destination for metal heads worldwide, during the northern summer. But it was also during the second ten years that W:O:A became more than just the metal. It started to feature karaoke, gambling, a medieval market, a metal market, and pre- and post- festival parties.

Stay tuned for part three, in which we'll bring you more about the crowd and the additional activities surrounding this keystone metal festival.