Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Man Who Rocked Mozart



I recently provided a guest spot on my friend, Shehanne Moore's blog, where I talked about the infamous song, Jeanny, by Falco. This led to a discussion with others - some who were aware of him and his music and some who weren't. Those who hadn't come across him before, clicked onto the links, listened and enjoyed, so I thought it was high time I provided a little background to the man behind the suave, sophisticated Viennese rapper, singer and musician, who called himself Falco.

Today, outside his native Austria, he is undoubtedly best remembered for the worldwide massive hit, Rock Me Amadeus (1985)but his first European solo hit had come four years earlier with Der Kommissar. This song went onto to develop a life of its own. Not only did Falco himself record a number of different arrangements, English language versions (not translations) were recorded by Laura Branigan (as Deep In The Dark) and rock band, After The Fire, who kept the original title, some of the German lyrics, and had their only US hit.

But who was Falco?


Born in 1957, the sole survivor of a triplet birth, Johann (aka Hans) Hölzel was raised in the Margareten district of Vienna. He began to show musical talent as soon as he could walk, and his fourth birthday present was a baby grand piano. At the age of five, he auditioned for the Vienna Music Academy. They were impressed with his musical abilities which placed him in the 'child prodigy' category. Comparisons were even made with the young Mozart, who became one of Hans's idols. The Academy also confirmed he had perfect pitch. 

A bright child, Hans attended a Roman Catholic private school, followed by the Rainer Gymnasium at the age of ten. His parents split up shortly afterwards and, from then on, Hans was raised by his mother and grandmother. He enjoyed a close relationship with both.

Hans wasn't interested in school and, at the age of sixteen there was little point in him remaining, as his absenteeism had reached unacceptable levels. His mother insisted he train for a 'proper' job, so he began an apprenticeship with the pension insurance institute - an occupation that was never going to hold his interest for long. He left, and entered the Vienna Music Conservatory at the age of seventeen but felt frustrated by its strictures. He lasted one semester. 

Following Austria's mandatory eight months National Service, Hans left Vienna briefly to live in West Berlin.There he joined a rock band and, by the time he returned to Vienna, was calling himself Falco (possibly in tribute to East German ski jumper Falko Weisspflog). He played bass guitar in a number of bands and began writing his own songs.

His solo career took off in Austria and Germany with his debut album Einzelhaft (1981), followed by another chart-topping album, Junge Römer (1984). Not content with purely domestic success, Falco set his sights on the American market and started to incorporate English lyrics into his songs. Rock Me Amadeus brought him his only UK and US Number One, with an iconic video, at least in part inspired by the film, Amadeus. The music world had never seen anyone like Falco. A white, Austrian rapper? Surely not. Moreover, one with slicked back short hair, dressed in a Tuxedo!

His album containing Rock me Amadeus - Falco 3 - became the first Billboard Top Ten R and B chart hit by a white artist since Blondie's Rapture (six years earlier). His follow up single - Vienna Calling - again mixed German and English (a combination often called 'Denglish' - Deutsch-English). The controversial Jeanny became the third single from the Falco 3 album and took mainland Europe by storm in more ways than one.

It topped the charts across Europe and raised a storm of protest, with radio stations in Austria and Germany refusing to play it. Why? To find the answer, you need to go to the lyrics. Falco was accused of glorifying rape and paedophilia. Personally I can't see that in the song at all. I do see an older man obsessed with a nineteen year old girl. Nineteen is hardly a child. And I don't think Jeanny went unwillingly with the man, although I think, judging by the newsflash, the police think she has been abducted. OK, that's my perception anyway. When asked, Falco himself is reported to have said it represented the musings of a stalker. He may, or may not, have been serious.

A year later, he released the second part of the planned 'Jeanny Trilogy' - a song that echoed its predecessor and was called, Coming Home (One Year Later). In this 'episode', the man has been away for a year (in prison?). He's returned, but will Jeanny still want him? Does she still think of him? We will never know...

Isabella, Falco and Katharina Bianca
Jeanny wasn't the only time Falco courted controversy with his songs. A number of them tackled difficult social issues - among them Mutter, der Mann mit dem Koks ist da ('Mother, the man with the coke is there'). What type of coke? Well, the video shows a coalman but ... and it ain't Coca Cola either! In typically unorthdox Falco fashion, he chooses to retain the services of members of the Vienna Boys' Choir to sing the chorus.

His personal life didn't always run too smoothly either. Falco became known for a lavish lifestyle which, in some respects at least, echoed his hero Mozart's in terms of excess. Problems with drugs, alcohol and an obsessive quest for perfection were supplemented by the discovery that Katharina Bianca - the child he had, for eight years, believed to be his daughter - wasn't in fact his. 

His stormy on-off relationship with her mother, Isabella Vitkovic, had culminated in a brief marriage, lasting only months - from 1988-89. When a paternity test confirmed his worst fears, Falco's world was shattered. He disinherited Katharina and insisted that she and her mother revert back to Isabella's former name. Today, Katharina - now in her late twenties and living in Styria - still regards him as her 'real' father. She said he used to teach her chess, they used to draw pictures together, and he would test her on her English vocabulary. 

Katharina Vitkovic
By 1996, tired of Austrian press intrusion into his private life, Falco established a base in the Dominican Republic. It was there, on February 6th 1998, that he drove out of a parking lot and into the path of a speeding bus. He sustained fatal injuries, ending his life at the tragically early age of 40. The bus driver served three years in prison. Falco's friend, Austrian Formula 1 champion, Niki Lauda, arranged for his body to be flown back to Vienna. He is buried in the city's massive Zentralfriedhof (the cemetery used as the setting for the famous last scene in The Third Man). It is well visited and the glass memorial there is outstanding.

Falco's grave in Zentralfriedhof, Vienna
Following his death, his music was repackaged and various compilations have been released. Perhaps the most interesting - and also the most recent - involves the discovery (thanks to a flood in his former recording studio) of some previously unreleased tapes.

The resulting album - released in 2009 - contains these remastered tracks plus other previously recorded material. The title of the album is taken from the track which Falco's former manager, Horst Bork, claims is the third in the 'Jeanny Trilogy'  - The Spirit Never Dies. This claim is hotly disputed as the song contains no references to Jeanny (unlike Coming Home). 



It is, however, a beautiful, arresting song and a fitting tribute to a musician who dared to be different, didn't always get it right, but was braver than many in that he wasn't afraid to try something new, different and, at times, challenging and controversial. 

We may have lost the man, but his music lives on.

 

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for such a thorough background on Falco. He was one of the alt-electronica artists I loved in the 1980s. I'm going to have to pull out one his albums out this weekend for old times' sake. :)

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    1. Thanks Elizabeth. I've been listening to a lot of his music recently and it's still fresh and different. I can thoroughly recommend 'The Spirit Never Dies'. Why on earth the record company didn't release the 'new' tracks on there when they were originally recorded in 1987 I'll never know. The title track and 'Sweet Symphony' in particular are among his best, imo. Thanks goodness they were found, even if it did take 21 years!

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  2. Ah Antonia. Such a great post I immediately reread it! I am so-oh glad I asked you to do that post now I see this one!. A simply... fabulous tribute, girl

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  3. Aw thanks, Shey. I'm glad you asked me too. I'd never have got myself up to date on the DVDs etc that have been released in the last few years. I've included loads of links here, so knock yourselves out Falco fans!

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