Chapter I: A Composer Is Born
“Rock me Amadeus!”
Such words are etched into our very brains; the infectious chorus of 1986 hit, well, ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, which went on to become the only number one on the Billboard Hot 100 spoken in German. It became an international hit, climbing the charts of countless nations and showing that, no, you didn’t need to be English to be worth something.
Sadly, the man behind the hit went on to become relatively obscure on both sides of the Atlantic; embarking on a tumultuous journey even in his homeland of Austria. His name was Falco, and the image of sharp suit and slick-back hair already set him apart from the glam rockers and post-punks of the late 80s. He was a singer; a rapper. A gentleman, a womanizer; he hated garden gnomes and loved chaos. He was honest, plain, but one in a million.
I confess that, in the writing of this piece, I ran through half a dozen potential titles. ‘The Forgotten Amadeus’, ‘The Guy Behind ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, ‘Viennese Blood’ (The English translation of a later hit), and ‘Charisma Commander’. But all of them just seemed… wrong, somehow. They didn’t convey the full story. In truth, ‘Scandal Calling’ is far from perfect. While Falco was a controversial figure throughout his life, personally and artistically, he was also a talented singer, a gifted songwriter, and a man of wealth and taste. This is the story of Falco – a story with more chapters than you’d think.
Born Johann ‘Hans’ Hölzl on the 19th February 1957, Falco – as he would later be known – grew up in the opulent capital of Vienna, Austria. But Falco would receive no such decadence, Austrian palaces and rich cuisine. His father left when he was young, and while he started his journey in private education, he soon found himself at a public school. Falco was also the only of three children to survive a multiple birth; a tragedy which followed with him for the rest of his life. He would claim to feel his lost siblings at times, and the sorrow would consume him.
But, tough as life could be in a place of work and little money, Falco did not entirely suffer. From a young age, he learnt to keep in time with the drumbeats in songs. He was given a piano and a record player, and his love for music swelled like wildfire. It would be glib, perhaps, to liken him to a younger Mozart, but both found themselves enraptured by music at an early age. Whereas Mozart went on to pen symphonies, however, Falco would dominate the Austrian electro-pop scene. Which is niche, granted, but impressive nonetheless.
Chapter II: From Incarceration to Indifference
By the late 1970s, Falco was engulfed totally in the Viennese nightlife, one which applauded chaos, satire and non-conformity. This devil-may-care attitude would go on to punctuate his later musical career as synth’s biggest bad boy. Falco played in a variety of bands; often donning the bass, before at last, in 1981, he got his break. His characteristic blend of smart style, iconic voice and short hair – a hangover from his military service days – earned him a record deal, and that same year, the B-side to his first penned song wound up at the top of the charts in no less than four countries. It was called ‘Der Kommissar’ (English: ‘The Commissioner’), and it’s mix of native rap and simplistic chorus landed Falco a successful debut single.
Following a lukewarm English cover of the song by British rock band, After the Fire, Falco released his first full LP, Einzelhaft (‘Incarcerated’). Contrary to its dark title and cover, however, its tracks prove a deliciously contagious mix of guitar-laced pop and electro pop. Perhaps no better is this showcased than one of the album’s later singles, ‘Auf der Flucht’ (‘On the Run’) – with its incredibly 80s talkbox, energetic drumbeat and excessive use of synth. It’s a reminder that even back in 1982 – four years before ‘…Amadeus’ – Falco was an artistic force to be reckoned with. This is also present in the title track itself, ‘Nie mehr Schule’ and ‘Helden von heute’ – a homage to Bowie’s ‘Berlin period’; and its shining moment, Heroes.
The album did well in his homeland and the Netherlands, but Falco was yet to break the US or UK market; a challenge he would wrestle with for years to come. Once again teaming up with songwriter Robert Ponger, the two struggled on a sophomore record that would repeat the same European success of Einzelhaft. On June 1, 1984, Junge Roemer (‘Young Romans’) was released to almost international indifference. The album only charted in Austria, but nonetheless there it reached the top spot. The title track is a funk number, bolstered with graceful strings and some of Falco’s softer vocals. The rest of the album is an eclectic mix of new wave, with tracks like ‘Tut-Ench-Amon (Tutankhamun)’ and ‘Nur mit dir’ proving highlights. But it wasn’t enough.
Falco needed to change. His second album was regarded as a disappointment, critically and artistically. Ponger was out, and in his place were the production pairing of Rob and Ferdi Bolland (perhaps most famous for writing future Status Quo hit, ‘In the Army Now’). Falco also tried to appeal to the western market; shifting from his mother tongue to English for much of his next effort. It would prove a move that, fortunately, paid off.
Chapter III: Man of the West: Falco 3
For many, a track like ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ would be the defining high point of an artist’s career – their revered debut single that failed to be replicated, or a last hurrah before fading out. In Falco’s case, ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ was just another case of getting that tricky third album spot on. Falco 3, released just a year after his Junge Roemer, would become the global breakthrough he was looking for. And, as one may expect, ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ was largely responsible.
Inspired (somewhat blatantly) by 1984’s Amadeus motion picture and its titular subject, ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ is a sweeping soundscape of epic choruses and quick-paced rap; shaping Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a kind of playboy; in constant debt, but the object of carnal, womanly desire. Not unlike Falco, really. Perhaps immortalized by its infectious refrain and big-haired video, the song would mark, for most, the pinnacle of Falco. It went platinum in the States, hit number one in the UK and propelled Falco 3 into the charts everywhere.
‘Rock Me Amadeus’ has also been released in over ten versions, from club remixes to extended dubs, American editions, Canadian edits and an eight-minute ‘Salieri Mix’. Longer openings, more drums, violin solos, synth and spoken details about Mozart’s life – If you can imagine it, it found a place in one of the nineteen official variants. The original album version, however – the ‘Gold Mix’ – is probably the most widely known.
But, while ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ was a huge factor in the success of Falco’s third album, it was far from the record’s only notable piece. Take ‘Vienna Calling’, for example, the second single to be released. It also did incredibly well (making the top ten in five countries); and remains another hearty slice of rock-influenced dance-pop, as Falco laments where the pretty girls of Vienna are (everywhere else, apparently).
But perhaps Falco 3’s most interesting song is ‘Jeanny’, an atypical ballad that sparked controversy across Germany. Falco argued it was the ‘musings of a stalker’, while feminist associations claimed the song glorified rape. One thing’s for sure; it proved a provocative hit. It took the top spot in Switzerland, Norway and Austria, and was another home run for Falco. The album claimed ownership of the curiously Parisian ‘Tango the Night’, high-octane ‘Macho Macho’ and satirical ‘Manner des Westens’, which idealized Americans as ‘so totally inter-cool’. The nightlife of Falco’s younger years was already playing a key part in the songs he wrote. And yet, all the while, he was the image of taste and style.
Chapter IV: Falco’s Emotional Years
George Harrison once sang, ‘All things must pass’, and that’s true. Especially when those things are international success and recognition. During the height of his success, Falco suffered heavily from the effects of addiction; when alcohol and cocaine were behind his increasingly unpredictable behaviour. He was a keen womanizer, and could prove abusive in the studio, even when producers Bolland & Bolland tried to convince him sobriety was the answer. Though those close to him would later maintain that the man held a deep insecurity, scared that someday he would be ‘unmasked’, on the outside, Falco seemed the epitome of cool, even jokingly confessing to his vices in various appearances throughout his career.
1986 marked Falco’s fourth release, Emotional; and perhaps aptly named given the quiet tumult of the Austrian singer when the microphone was off. But, despite drugs and debauchery, the album would turn out to be one of his most consistent, both thematically and sonically. Take its biggest single, ‘The Sound of Musik’; a German/English hybrid that borders on almost gospel, preaching the joys of music, no matter what genre, and no matter where it’s made. As Falco sings on the track, ‘Mr. President, we’re speaking the same language/ That language is called ‘music’’. It’s universal.
‘Kamikaze Capa’ references renowned combat photojournalist, Robert Capa, detailing his life in much the same vein of ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ – furthering the trend of Falco’s bite-sized documentaries into the lives of his idols. The album’s closer, ‘The Kiss of Kathleen Turner’ is another attempt by Falco to tap into something deeply American, with the swing of ‘Crime Time’ and nostalgic ‘Cowboyz and Indians’ (‘And may the force be with you when the Empire strikes’) doing just the same. Emotional is also home to ‘Coming Home (Jeanny Part 2, One Year Later)’, the second part in what would become Falco’s controversial trilogy – though perhaps not to the same effect as its origin.
At this time, Falco was also in a relationship, the father of a baby girl with Isabella Vitkovic. They married two years later, but it was not meant to be. Their union was a troubled one, ‘rocky’ being the most accurate word to use – particularly when Falco later found out the child wasn’t his. He would have other relationships throughout his life, to varying degrees of success.
1988 also saw the release of Falco’s fifth album, Wiener Blut (‘Viennese Blood’), one of the man’s broadest offerings. It’s opener, the stomping title track, is a deeply vicious attack on corruption hiding at the dark heart of Vienna; one which was unlikely to do him any favours – though it did, still, reach no. 4 in Austria. It’s one of Falco’s catchiest songs put to record, with chanted refrains, blistering guitar solo and weird music video to boot. ‘Garbo’, yet another homage (guess to whom), is one of Wiener Blut’s gems, along with repetitive ‘Untouchable’. Heartfelt ballads in ‘Read A Book’ and ‘Walls of Silence’ are perhaps where the album falls short, however, and both this record – and previous Emotional – were unsuccessful outside of Austria and Germany.
The 1980s, as most things do, eventually came and went, as did another Falco album. His sixth at this point, Data de Groove would be his worst commercial venture yet. More of the same, it’s weaker dance numbers in the title track and ‘Charisma Kommando’ may have rung the death knell for this Austrian singer. The album’s opener, ‘Neo Nothing – Most of All’ is a decent start, but much of what follows is a far cry from ‘Vienna Calling’ (though, in the sake of editorial fairness, this is somewhat down to finding basically nothing of the album available online. The album is that memorable).
Chapter V: Positive Vibrations
You may have caught on to the fact that the last section of Falco’s life was, by far, the longest in this piece. But as one of the Beatles made clear earlier, all things come to an end; whether it’s success, or a creative lull. Falco was, if nothing else, a master of the comeback. In an interview with Dick Clark, Falco mused, ‘What we human beings want to do is climb mountains. And sometimes I think we forget that we have to come down from a mountain, before we are climbing the next, higher one’. Though he would fade into obscurity just as fast, he could rise like a phoenix when the need arose.
And the need was, indeed, arising. He hadn’t been on the charts outside of Austria for four years. Neither of his previous two LPs hit number one in his homeland. It was time for his resurrection. It was time for Nachtflug.
Nachtflug (‘Night Flight) is one of Falco’s most cohesive, in terms of sound. An up-tempo selection of dance-pop numbers, it’s opener, ‘Titanic’ landed a place on the Austrian, German and Slovakian charts – complete with the kind of guitar work that made Falco 3 an ambitious crossover of genres. The anvil-beating of ‘Dance Mephisto’ and hip-hop influence of ‘S.C.A.N.D.A.L.’ are packed nonchalantly against the likes of ‘Yah-Vibration’, in which Falco raps against a reggae rhythm. ‘Time’, the album’s eighth track, is another attack on those in charge – the businesses and corporations.
While Nachtflug didn’t throw him into the welcoming arms of the U.S., it charted somewhere at least (Austria & Germany), and for Falco, this could only be the beginning of a beautiful comeback, one which could even hail him as the Austrian Bowie.
Since 1990, Falco was living in the tropical heat of the Dominican Republic; something the Austrian papers took a liking to when the issue of tax and the singer’s finances came up. The matter came up time and time again in a series of interviews Falco took part in over the years with German late-night host, Harald Schmidt. While the singer maintained he was not bankrupt by the mid-90s, he let on that every rumour had some truth in it. By his next appearance on the show, he announced his situation was ‘horrible, horrible’. All the while, he was bombarded by the media.It seemed Falco had a love-hate relationship with the Austrian press. One that most assuredly favoured the latter (‘They have a very ambiguous relationship with me. I can do whatever I want, but nothing is good.’).
But it was also in the Dominican Republic where Falco was working on his seventh album and, if things turned out well, his second to ever break the U.S. and U.K. market. He felt the world was ready for another Falco 3. Another slew of ‘Rock Me Amadeus’’ and the kind of publicity ‘Jeanny’ brought, only without the criticism. It was to be titled, perhaps prophetically, Out of the Dark (Into the Light).
In his own words, it was to be ‘an album which will have all the desired characteristics; popular, successful, commercial, but still unorthodox’. It’s first single, ‘Mutter, der Mann mit dem Koks ist da’ packed the same, tongue-in-cheek playfulness of Falco’s early work; its title a clever use of wordplay (In English it translates to, ‘Mother, the Man with the Charcoal is here’, though ‘Koks’ can also mean ‘Cocaine’). With an ‘ambiguous’ meaning that Falco always admitted was only really about one thing, the song showed a change in direction; embracing the club scene of the 90s. The song has a harsh, techno beat, far from the pop rock of his previous venture, Nachtflug.
Released under the pseudonym ‘T>>MA’, it hit the charts in Austria and Germany. A follow-up single, ‘Naked’, had more of the harder, dance-rock sound of old; though undeniably with a 90s rave spin. It’s video – which features full-frontal nudity – no doubt propelled the track onto the charts. Again, though, it was yet to break anywhere east of Germany.
Falco obsessed over Out of the Dark…, fussing over its track order, removing songs and inserting them elsewhere. At one point, he even considered a cover of The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, from Revolver (1966). Like any master of their craft, Falco meticulously took apart his album, checking that everything worked, shining pieces to a polish and putting it together again. Until finally, the finished cut was in front of him, ready to be unleashed.
He would not see its release in his lifetime. Johann Hölzl died on the 6th February, 1998, when his vehicle collided with a bus outside of Villa Montellano. He was just forty years old, in the midst of planning his comeback. He had tasted a life of opulence and success, and he watched it fade. He clawed his way back into the hearts of his homeland, but in one fell swoop, his life was snuffed out.
Chapter IV: Into the Light
Three weeks after his tragic death, Falco’s last album, Out of the Dark (Into the Light) would be released. The album’s first track, ‘No Time for Revolution’ is Falco meets the Beastie Boys, in a clattering piece straight out of The Matrix’s fight scenes. It was also home to a rewired ‘Der Kommissar 2000’, and thumping electro beat, ‘Cyberlove’. Falco, it seemed, had a penchant for the future of music, and all things science-fiction – echoing shades of Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk (1993). ‘Egoist’ (‘selfish’) is a humorous self-satire, as Falco sings of the whole world revolving around himself.
The title track itself, however, is home to the album’s defining moment. As Falco screams to crawl out of the dark (and into the light, surprisingly), there’s one line that stands out in particular – ‘Do I have to die in order to live?’. Ironically poignant to the last.
But did Out of the Light… do well? Was it the comeback Falco sought for so long? No, sadly. It didn’t make a dent in America, the United Kingdom or, even, most of mainland Europe. In fact, the untimely passing of Falco went largely unnoticed for the most part. But in his native Austria, the place he loved and hated for most of his life, Out of the Dark (Into the Light) was No. 1 for 21 weeks. It reached the top five in Germany and Switzerland – his best-selling album since Emotional, released over a decade earlier.
Over the next ten years, Falco would see two more posthumously released works, 1999’s Verdammt wir leben noch (‘Damn we’re still alive’) and 2009’s The Spirit Never Dies, which includes, supposedly, the third and final part of the ‘Jeanny trilogy’. Both albums provide an interesting look into Falco’s cutting room floor, with outtakes, demos and unreleased recordings. They would not hold a flame to what he released when he was alive, but nevertheless they prove a testament to the enduring timelessness of the Austrian rapper.
Prologue: The Legacy of a Mortal Man
Falco will, I’m sure, go down as one of those many one-hit wonders of the 80s; of a time when you could don a silly wig, make mention to a renowned composer and sing words nobody would even begin to understand. And, certainly, ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ will always be a classic. But I felt compelled to write this piece because, as with so many ‘one-hit wonders’, there’s a world behind it. While one man’s life can be confined to the history books or shrunk into a three-minute chunk of cheesy power pop, it was still forty years. It was a successful debut, a struggling follow-up, and a lifelong fight against the tastes of the public, against the Austrian press, against the haters and the musical formula. Falco took chances, he took risks. He adapted, he shed his skin at the turning of each waning decade, but he never surrendered. He always kept a part of himself. That catchy, unshakably Falco sound.
And maybe that’s why he was doomed to have one ‘global’ hit and shrink back into the shadows of obscurity. Indeed, after his death, the city of Vienna named a staircase in his honour. A staircase. Not a street, avenue or picturesque local park. The Falcosteige – ‘Falco staircase’. The man’s lasting mark on the world is a structure designed to simplify the process of traveling large vertical distances. Such is the legacy of an iconic man; immortalized in hurried pace evermore.
But I believe Falco made his mark, genuinely, and that just before he died, he ventured out of that darkness. And into the light. All the while being an everyman. He laughed, he was jovial, he smiled suavely in the face of danger and financial uncertainty. He was open about his promiscuity, his love of women, his adoration for rally cross and relaxation. He was smartly dressed, and he was a smooth talker. But it always felt like there was something else under there – a part of him he wanted to keep hidden, secret. His friends were right. Falco was insecure, and he craved to be everything people wanted him to be. Wild, hedonistic, popular. Exalted. In the end, to be fair, he was all those things.
But for the time he was alive, and the years since, he was a damn good singer, too. And even better company. To you, Falco, and your everlasting smile.