Today, August 24, marks an important milestone in heavy metal history. Twenty-three years ago today, on August 24 and 25, 1990, the very first Wacken Open Air festival was held on the farm fields of northern Germany. The two young men who organized it, Thomas Jensen and Holger Hübner, had no idea on that warm August day that they were beginning an epic tradition that would stretch over a quarter century, unite heavy metal fans from all over the globe and become possibly the single greatest institution in the history of the music.
The very first Wacken started out simply. Thomas Jensen, who had grown up in the village of Wacken, was tending bar and promoting a few metal/punk shows around the towns of Schleswig-Holstein, including Pinneberg and Wacken. He had previously played in a punk/metal band that he has often compared to Rose Tattoo, but which broke up in 1988. One evening in Steinburg, he and Holger Hübner were sitting around having some beers and the idea to do an open air festival came up. Here is how Thomas described it in the 2004 Wacken Open Air History commemorative book:
“While drinking a few beers we talked if it wouldn’t be possible to promote a festival, like doing one of those rock parties we had been doing for a while already outdoors, because Wacken had this hollow which was used by the local motorcycle club for their meetings. Those meetings were attended by about 3,000 people, so it was a pretty successful event…We agreed that if everyone wanted to do it and if we could find additional helpers we would just do it. We knew this would be a lot of work because it is much more difficult to do this outdoors than indoors.”
To make a long story short, Jensen and Hübner got some more friends together, put together a little money and invited some bands, most notably Skid Row, who was on the top of their game in 1990. Skid Row never answered, but several other smaller German bands did. The very first Wacken Open Air bill consisted of six bands: 5th Avenue, Axe n’ Sex, Motoslug, Sacret Season, Skyline and Wizzard. Skyline was the headliner.
With some promotion, a few T-shirts and a lot of word of mouth among the metalheads of North Germany, news of the outdoor metal party spread. Tickets were 12 Deutschemarks (about $8 US in today’s money). Paid attendance for the first Wacken: 800.
The main stage at Wacken 1990, built by Thomas Jensen, Holger Hübner and friends.
Despite the shoestring nature of the first festival–all the promoters and their friends built the stage themselves, handled all the logistics and did everything themselves–a surprising number of the traditions of the W:O:A that we know today began that first year. For example, the famous “cow skull” logo was designed in 1990 and appears on the first tickets, which are now collector’s items. The idea of music day and night, and camping on site, also began that year. In short, the vision of what Wacken Open Air would eventually become was set from the very beginning.
In my research I couldn’t discover who voiced the idea, after August 1990, of saying, “Hey, let’s do this again next year!” I presume it was either Jensen or Hübner. I believe that moment, whenever it was, was the true genesis of the “institution” of Wacken. The 1991 festival happened the same weekend, the third in August; the date of the festival was not moved to its traditional first weekend in August until several years later.
Wacken became a part of my life in 2000, a decade after the festival began. If I had a time machine, though, undoubtedly one of the first things I’d do with it would be to go back to August 24, 1990 and attend the very first Wacken Open Air festival. To have been there at the beginning would be, today, a set of metal “chops” that very few people in the world could ever match. You know what? I bet the first festival was every bit as much fun as it has been every year since.