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German festival keeps 'em rocking even after 25 years

Once a year, beneath the Nuerburg castle in Germany's Rhineland, rock music aficionados pitch their tents, sit back, relax and enjoy what has become an institution on the national festival circuit: Rock am Ring.

A singer, his hair flying through the air, dances to a huge crowd

Letting it all out at Rock am Ring

It started in 1985 as a modest plan for a one-off festival to celebrate the inauguration of a new version of the Nuerburgring race track. The organizers rented the track, booked a couple of bands and encouraged fans to come along and pitch their tents in the surrounding fields.

That is precisely what they did. 75,000 music lovers turned out to the first show, which was deemed such a success that it was staged again the following year. And the next one. And the one after that. Barring two years out in 1989 and 1990, Rock am Ring has now been going for a quarter of a century.

Singer Chris de Burgh at a microphone

Chris de Burgh, the original face of the rock festival

While these days the event is seen as a meeting place for fans of alternative, metal and electro clash, the headline act of that first festival was none other than the king of schmaltz himself, Chris De Burgh.

He was joined, among others, by Irish rockers U2, Foreigner and Huey Lewis and the News. Gianna Nanina bore her breasts on stage, prog rockers Saga ran over their allotted time slot and German crooner Marius Mueller Westernhagen called on the crowds to go forth and have plenty of sex.

Ch…ch…ch…changes

Although the music has changed since the opening event, many of the trimmings have remained the same. The 1985 blueprint of too many bands to realistically watch, muddy fields in which tents are notoriously hard to find in the dark, catastrophic sanitation facilities and expensive, watery beer has stood the test of time.

Despite all that, the festival still draws crowds of up to 85,000 every year, who come to spend three days and nights letting it all hang out with kindred musical spirits. They camp, they drink, they barbecue and they listen to rock in familiar surroundings. And it's not just the fans who enjoy the atmosphere.

Lead singer of the Toten Hosen, Campino, does the splits in the air

Lead singer of the Toten Hosen, Campino, in action

"It's like Boris Becker always used to say about Wimbledon: It's good to play in your living room," said Campino, lead singer with Dusseldorf band the Toten Hosen. "It feels really relaxed. We like the people; the people like us."

That's not all the people like. While the microphone is passed between bands, the crowds create so-called circle pits, which as the name suggests sees them running wild in massive circles. They also take part in what has become known as the Wall of Death, a ritual which involves thousands of people running towards each other from four directions.

Romp and stomp

The band Limp Bizkit

Limp Bizkit was among the acts headlining the festival last year

This kind of full-contact, semi-violent activity was not a feature of the festival in the days of the suave Mr. De Burgh, who preferred waxing lyrically about a lady in red rather than thrashing it out in a mosh pit. Perhaps if it had been, Rock am Ring would not have experienced the 1988 audience slump that forced it off the festival map for the following two years.

During the time-out, organizers took their concept back to the drawing board and when they reappeared in 1991, their new motto was: more event, more stages, more rock and more up-and-coming bands.

Since then, the festival has been on a roll. It has enjoyed such renown as a foot-stomping event that scientists have used it as a test ground in earthquake research. In 2007, the Berlin band "Wir Sind Helden" got 50,000 fans to jump up an down simultaneously in a bid to see whether such a mass impact could create an earthquake.

Three revellers coated in mud

Bring it on

The results showed that the vibrations could be felt a kilometer away, but were not strong enough to feature on the Richter scale.

No matter. Rock am Ring moves the earth for its fans year in and year out and the organizers hope to keep on cranking up the amps for the next 25 five years. After all, with too many bands to watch, terrible sanitation facilities, bad beer and the rain that makes this festival the down and dirty experience it often is, what's not to keep music fans from coming back? It's rock-n-roll, man.

Reporter: Uli Jose Anders (tkw)
Editor: Kyle James

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