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Wacken to the Jungle: How W:O:A became a world-leading metal brand

From humble beginnings, Wacken Open Air has grown into Europe's premier metal gathering. IQ learns about its history – and the unwavering devotion it inspires in fans

By Adam Woods on 23 Jul 2019

Avantasia proved hugely popular at Wacken 2011

Avantasia proved hugely popular at Wacken 2011

The Wacken 2019 poster says everything you need to know.

The festival name at the top of the poster is far bigger than that of any band, and the iconic bull’s head beneath it bigger still, glowering over a design that looks somewhat like a gravestone. Anyone could tell this was a metal festival, and looking at the sheer number of names, they’d know it was one of the big ones.

And then the band logos, like an insanely ornate roll call of heaviness: Sabaton, Demons & Wizards, Slayer, Parkway Drive, Powerwolf, Body Count, Within Temptation, Prophets of Rage, Anthrax and more than 150 more, gradually getting smaller as your eye scans down until they’re barely legible, like some sort of heavy metal eye test.

On the eve of its 30th edition, which runs from 1–3 August, it’s hard to find anything but goodwill for Wacken, whose founders Thomas Jensen and Holger Hübner have, over three decades, somehow created a global metal mecca in a small village in Schleswig-Holstein.

“Wacken is the originator and the ultimate festival for any metal act to headline or play at,” says X-ray Touring’s Adam Saunders. “They have the most dedicated and hardcore fans anywhere, and they’ve got mud. Fuck, have they got mud…”

Coda Agency’s Tom Taaffe agrees. “What Wacken have built is pretty special, and you’ll find it hard to see anything quite like it again,” he says. “You won’t find any hard rock or heavy metal artist who does not aspire to play that festival.”

Dominik Meyer at Cobra Agency calls Wacken “a special place for everyone who loves heavy metal music. If you want to understand what Wacken is all about, you need to go there. It is the biggest metal festival in Europe, but at the same time, it is so much more than that.”

“Wacken is the originator and the ultimate festival for any metal act to headline”

Hard core
Jensen himself combines a winning humility with an articulate analysis of his festival’s power. “For a dedicated group of people, Wacken is kind of their home,” he says at one point. “It’s not something we did on purpose but it’s the centre of the world for them.”

Clearly, Wacken is a one-off – a family gathering for up to 95,000 hard-rockers. Year after year, it lays on an extravagant banquet of metal, including side-by-side main stages and a legendary battle of the bands, lubricated by a mile-long beer pipeline from a local brewery. It is also supported by a village that mobilises obligingly around the festival, from front-garden snack shops to the Wacken fire brigade brass band playing rock classics for headbanging fans in the municipal pool.

“What we are doing, and the way we talk, sometimes might look to an outsider like Spinal Tap”

We’ve got fun and games
Wacken has a silly side, it’s true. “What we are doing, and the way we talk, sometimes might look to an outsider a little bit like Spinal Tap,” muses Jensen. But it also has something any festival would love to have: an entirely authentic brand that’s a magnet for fans who share a burning passion.

Jensen deflects much of the credit to his experienced team, to the bands and to the audience itself. “It has a life of its own,” he says. “Fans make friends with other fans, and they meet again at Wacken. There are stories we know nothing about.”

But there’s obviously something in Wacken’s approach that young festivals might do well to note. “We were trying to find an audience for our music,” says Jensen. “We weren’t thinking: what is the best music to put onstage at Wacken? That wasn’t the question. The question was: how do we get enough people to Wacken for this metal show?”

“If we didn’t do it ourselves, nobody was going to do it for us”

Appetite for distraction
It began with some bored, frustrated young rock fans in Germany’s northernmost state. “I was a regular north German metal fan,” says Jensen. “I was the bassist in a punk band that split up, because in the countryside, north of Hamburg, there were nearly no gigs. It was really teenage wasteland, I would say.”

Powered by what Jensen calls “our punk mentality: we know nothing, but let’s get started,” Jensen and friends began organising their own parties. “If we didn’t do it ourselves, nobody was going to do it for us,” says Jensen.

Jensen’s enthusiasm was more notable than his musical abilities. “I was the bass player, organising things. Some bass players are the musical leader of the group, like Steve Harris or Lemmy. That’s one kind of bass player. I was the other kind, who knows nothing.”

An early recruit to the embryonic Wacken cause was DJ Holger Hübner, a fan of Bruce Springsteen and U2 and a member of the Pogues fan club – a fact that accounts, according to Jensen, for a smattering of German bands playing Irish-influenced folk-punk on early bills. “They wouldn’t get away with it in Dublin, but in north Germany it worked.”


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