Metal Valhalla at the gates of Hamburg

Wacken Open Air: the world is a village

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Nicely kept gardens, a church and plenty of wind at the back of the house – Wacken is a picture-book example of rural north Germany. At least until the beginning of August. That's when the village of Wacken, pop. 1,800, morphs every year into the biggest heavy metal festival in the world. And the residents? They just become part of it. We sent out our author Anne Kleinfeld to document Wacken's crazy metamorphosis.


Anne Kleinfeld

Anne likes things that have wit, music, and love, and she is fascinated by human peculiarities. She writes best late at night with a weird cat in her lap.

More from Anne

Photos: Kevin McElvaney

Indications of our destination are already evident on the motorway drive northwards – in gigantic letters made of masking tape on the rear windows of the cars around us: W:O:A, short for Wacken Open Air. It's the biggest heavy metal festival in the world – and a north German phenomenon. Because Wacken is not only a short week of camping, beer and the international metal scene, but also a perfectly ordinary village.

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The entire village is different this week: the little grocery shop only opens once a year – especially for the Festival.

From rural idyll to metal horns

We turn off onto the country road, pass reed-thatched houses, cows and croplands. We're still two villages from Wacken when kids start to greet us from the front gardens. With official Festival shirts and cheeky, gap-toothed grins, they sit on waste bins and walls and reach out to make horns for passing motorists: outstretched index finger and little finger, the rest of the fist clenched – understood the world over as the metal gesture. It's still fun for the mini-rockers, but they'll need a lot of stamina. 75,000 roaring music fans arrive from every corner of the planet in early August to shake up the whole of Wacken – and its economy. Hamburg Airport is expecting up to 5,000 visitors for the 28th Festival at its specially created “Wacken Airport”. And anyone coming from the south has to pass through here. The village sign comes into view. Welcome to Wacken! Let the insanity commence.

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Worlds apart together: metal party in the front garden.

Wacken: The world-famous rural rebel

Wacken's main street is turned on its head. Where tractors and family-sized vans normally doodle past one another on two lanes, a temporary pedestrianised zone is set up for the duration of the Festival. And it's black. Everywhere you look, happy metal fans are standing, sitting, strolling – united not only by a love of hard music, but by the dark dress code as well: lace-up boots, band shirts, leather jackets, patches, beards, long manes, tattoos and clunky jewellery. A kind of family uniform, which in turn means that you can spot the real villagers at a glance. But they're rarely sighted, because most are desperately busy. After all, the metal horde wants to eat, drink and even go to the toilet. And the people of Wacken are armed and ready.

The Wacken Wanderers 2017

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  • Joris (26) from Holland: "Wacken is a totally crazy place that only exists for a few days every year - one single mega Metal Valhalla".

  • Eugenio (26) from Chile: "I'm from the biggest seaport in Chile – so to me Hamburg always feels a little bit like home".

  • Javier "Jedi" (32) from Spain: "I'm pretty well acquainted with the Elbe Tunnel, St. Pauli, the Town Hall and Hamburg's history. For example, I know you have more bridges than Venice".

  • José (38) & Carmen (32) from Chile: "For us, Wacken was always a legend – the fact that we're really here now is like a dream come true. We love Hamburg, particularly the Night Light on the Reeperbahn. You always meet nice metal-heads there".

  • David (41) & Mayi (52) from Spain: "We've been married for two years now and this is our second Wacken together. We enjoy the music and like coming here".

  • Bert (25) from Belgium: "The best thing about Wacken is the sense of complete freedom. And the hot chili con carne, it's fantastic – and the price is right as well".

  • Marcus (31) from Canada: "This is my third time in Wacken. Just because you don't meet this many cool, warm-hearted people anywhere. Before we fly out again from Hamburg, we'll definitely go back to the Reeperbahn".

  • William (32) & Sabrina (26) from central Brazil: Lee (31) from China: "We're been planning our first time at Wacken for two years and now it's finally worked out. When we landed in Hamburg we even saw something of the city, for example the Reeperbahn and the Elbphilharmonie".

  • Rachel (30) & Lisa (28) from England: "It's much nicer and cleaner here than at other Festivals. Also, we thought Hamburg was super when we passed through, particularly the mix of old and new architecture - and all the sex shops. We'll definitely have to come again for a few days".

Rather than barring their doors, the residents become part of it. And transform their carports and front gardens into public Festival turf with mobile beer counters, Wurst stands, portable toilets and loud sound. Even the village kids outdo each other with their business ideas: while the big lads transport the visitors' purchases from the village to the camp by delivery bike, girls stand on the pavements selling home-baked muffins or plaited wristbands for 50 eurocents each. I buy one for myself and other one for the photographer with me. Business is booming. And the local shops have switched into Festival mode too. From garden gnomes with the place-name sign or watch collections with engraved skulls – no souvenir is too absurd to make it here.

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Flavio and Corrado from Milan buy muffins from a "Wackener".

The number one port of call, however, is the old Edeka supermarket, which opens once a year only, especially for the Open Air Festival. There's an established store – large and more modern – at the end of the village, but right now the turnover's being made here. Drinks, barbecue accessories and a few vitamins as well: the product range is based on experience, the big sellers are folding chairs and beer. José and Carmen from Chile are among those getting in a few purchases before the sound on the stages goes live. “For us, Wacken was always a legend. We love Hamburg, particularly the Night Light on the Reeperbahn. You always meet nice metal-heads there. The fact that we're really here now is a dream come true,” says José. It's pandemonium in the narrow shop, but the mood is amicable. That's confirmed next door at Wrage's bakery. Sales person Claudia tells us: “I'm glad to get to bed at night, but the customers are all really nice and helpful”. The traditional Wacken baker offers a special item during this week: a substantial Wacken loaf. And there are Funny Fingers as well – classic jam doughnuts in the shape of the horns.

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Author Anne gets a home-woven Wacken wristband.

“At last there's something going on here”

A few metres down the road a couple sits on a bench in front of the local ice-cream parlour – surrounded by black-clad figures. Elke and Klaus are around seventy, and in a pretty happy mood. “We live locally and just like to come here and take a look,” says Klaus. “There's something going on here at last, that's great!” And his wife adds: “We may buy ourselves a wristband next year as well. As long as we don't get our backsides wet, why not?” There are no downpours today, at least, so the part of our anatomy in question is in no danger. By the way, Elke asks us, isn't it time to get to the venue? The Wacken Fire Service Band will be playing its traditional opening concert on one of the eight big stages in ten minutes' time. What sounds like a clash of cultures is the perfect symbol of this surreal place. Wacken, the biggest heavy metal festival in the world, but a typical north German village at the same time. Without the one, the other wouldn't be the same.

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