CHARLIE CONNELLY profiles the Austrian singer Falco, a man never able to quite escape his demons.
Ilse Kraus might have been 75 years old but there was no way she was missing the funeral. She joined thousands of others in solemn procession to Vienna’s vast, sprawling Zentralfriedhof to follow the coffin, carried to its final resting place on the shoulders of members of the Outsiders Austria motorcycle gang. It was a freezing February day and the cemetery’s trees were skeletal against a featureless sky. The two long-stemmed roses Ilse carried in her gloved hands provided welcome splashes of colour among the grey.
“He was a great pop star,” she sighed, her breath clouding in the cold. “There was Beethoven, there was Schubert and there was Falco.”
It might sound a facile comparison but it’s one that stands up, especially if, like Ilse, you’re Viennese. While Beethoven placed Vienna firmly on the musical map of the 19th century, Falco did likewise for the 20th as the first Austrian to have number one hits in the UK, Japan and the USA. Like Schubert he burned brightly and died young after a short, hedonistic life that was frequently riddled with crippling self-doubt. All three men lie in the same cemetery.
Falco died a rock star’s death, killed in a car crash in the Dominican Republic when his vehicle collided with a bus a few days before his 41st birthday. In the cassette player was a copy of his posthumously-released album Out of the Dark (Into the Light), playing a song containing the line “Must I die then, in order to live?”, prompting in suitable dead rock star fashion rumours and conspiracy theories that his death may have been deliberate.
In a eulogy Helmut Zilk, a former mayor of Vienna, dubbed him “a musical genius, even when most people didn’t recognise it”. If Falco really was a genius it’s fair to say that in the last years of his life he became better known for his chaotic lifestyle than his music. His transition from jobbing Viennese musician to international superstar didn’t quite happen overnight but his rise was sufficiently meteoric to undermine a personality already battling with insecurity and low self-esteem.
“The alcohol problems, the cocaine, it all started with success,” he reflected. “When success grows faster than the soul can grow with it, well, then you have problems.”
When his 1982 single Der Kommissar became a surprise hit across Europe he could only rue, “it just makes me sad because I know that I will never achieve such success ever again”. When he didn’t just repeat that success but completely eclipse it with 1985’s global smash Rock Me Amadeus, turning Falco into one of the most famous people on the planet, that sense of ennui only grew, driving him deeper into the arms of addiction.
It was almost as if he’d been carrying a heavier burden than most from birth. Johann ‘Hans’ Hölzel was one of triplets born in a working class district of Vienna to Alois, a factory foreman, and Maria, but the only one of the three born alive. Like Elvis Presley, whose twin brother Jesse was stillborn, Johann was always aware of the loss he carried with him, knowing that as he grew up his mother could see the spaces where his siblings should have been.
He also carried the blessing and burden of immense musical talent, demonstrating from an early age that he had perfect pitch and reproducing songs heard on the radio on the small piano he was given for his fourth birthday. His father left when he was ten years old leaving him in the care of his mother and grandmother, women who doted on him and made sacrifices for his musical ambitions even when he wasn’t certain where those ambitions might lie.
By the time he was 17 he had immersed himself in Elvis, the Beatles and Bob Dylan and joined a band as bass player, persuading his mother to buy him a moped so he could attend rehearsals. A spell as a trainee clerk at an insurance company didn’t last long, neither did a period in the military, and a couple of semesters at the Viennese Jazz Conservatoire taught him only that he didn’t want to be a jazz musician.
Restless and unfulfilled he decamped in 1977 to West Berlin in the hope of running into David Bowie, by then two albums into his epoch-defining trilogy recorded in the city. But within a year Hölzel was back in Vienna, busking on the streets and playing whatever bar gigs he could find. Bowie had proved elusive and while Hölzel picked up valuable experience playing with jazz-rock bands on West Berlin’s avant-garde scene he couldn’t settle in the divided city.
He was playing bass with a pick-up band on the streets of Mödling, a few miles south of the Austrian capital, when Hölzel caught the eye of Wickerl Adam, a leading light of the Viennese music scene and front man of the avant-garde outfit Hallucination Company.
“I noticed how Hans was playing there on the street as if he were playing Madison Square Garden,” Adam recalled later, “like he was standing in front of thousands of people instead of literally nobody”.
Adam invited the posturing bassist to join his band and before long young Hans Hölzel, jobbing musician, had become Falco, global rock star in waiting.
He’d taken the name from Falko Weisspflog, an East German ski jumper, possibly because he just liked the name or perhaps there was something about the way Weisspflog earned his success by making huge leaps into the unknown. Whatever the inspiration he embraced his transition from busker to member of one of Austria’s biggest cult bands wholeheartedly.
“He was the epitome of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll”, said Adam.
The new identity seemed to provide Falco with an unprecedented focus. In 1979 he joined a covers band, Spinning Wheel, where he took on vocal duties for the first time. He began writing and performing his own material, songs so good they led to a three-album deal with a Viennese label. The 1982 single Der Kommissar, on which Falco raps in a hybrid mixture of German, Viennese street dialect and English, shot to number one in Austria then spread across Europe and beyond, topping the charts as far afield as Guatemala while a remix by Afrika Bambaataa became an underground hit on the New York club scene.
This success proved a mixed blessing, creating an intense schedule of touring and pressure not only to replicate the success of Der Kommissar but build upon it. Falco was sent on promotional tours of the US and Canada, alone, the monotony of endless radio interviews, personal appearances at clubs and lonely hotel rooms fostering his drinking and drug use. He spent too much time on his next album, part perfectionism, part fear of the heightened expectation. It was 1984 before Jung Roemer appeared and, while it sold in respectable numbers, it didn’t live up to the hype.
The next album, it was clear, would be make or break for Falco and reinvention was called for. He abandoned the leather jackets and sneakers that had defined his look in favour of designer suits, tuxedos and handmade shoes. He teamed up with Dutch producers the Bolland brothers at their studio in Hilversum, and it was there that they created the 1985 album Falco 3 and, crucially, the single Rock Me Amadeus.
Capitalising on the popularity of Milos Forman’s film Amadeus the previous year, the song cast Mozart as the original punk rocker with Falco rapping in his mixture of dialects in a style that was more Monster Mash than Run DMC. The single reaching number one in Britain in 1986 and later the same year became the first German language song to top the charts in the USA.
Attempts to establish Falco in America in the wake of the hit proved largely unsuccessful, including Body Next to Body, a 1987 duet with another European making a name for herself on the other side of the Atlantic, Brigitte Nielsen. Produced by another European, Giorgio Moroder, the song failed to make an impact on the charts. Two further album flops saw Falco, now living in the Dominican Republic, largely withdraw from public life until 1995 and the techno-influenced single that nodded wryly at his addiction issues Mother, the man with the coke is here, a version of an old Berlin cabaret song about a coal merchant.
At the time of his death Falco seemed to be slowly conquering his demons and was almost ready to release the appropriately titled Out of the Dark (Into the Light), the album that proved to be the last thing he ever heard and was playing over speakers as Ilse Kraus laid her flowers in the Zentralfriedhof.
Today the grass is worn smooth on the way to Falco’s grave in Vienna’s famous cemetery, just as it is to those of Beethoven and Schubert.