Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.
The ’80s were a wacky time in music history. Bad meant “good,” Debbie Harry tried to rap and German-language artists had massive success on American radio. Sure, Nena’s “99 Luftballons” was a big hit on MTV, but it would take a different German-speaking musician to sit atop the pop charts. And his name was Falco.
Actually, his name wasn’t really Falco. He was born Johann Hölzel in Vienna, Austria, in 1957. As a boy, Hölzel developed a love for music – in particular the records of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and The Beatles. At only the age of five, he auditioned for the Vienna Music Academy and it was revealed that young Johann had perfect pitch.
After his tumultuous teenage years (which included getting kicked out of school for absenteeism and joining the army), Hölzel began getting seriously involved in music. Shortly after turning 20, he moved to West Berlin, Germany, and became part of the club scene as a jazz-rock singer. When he returned to Vienna, he began calling himself Falco – after the East German ski jumper Falko Weißpflog.
From there, Falco played bass in a few bands, including Austrian hard rockers Drahdiwaberl and the disco band Ganymed. In 1980, he signed a three-album deal as a solo act, leading to three top 20 singles in the next two years. His 1982 solo album debut, Einzelhaft, went to #1 in Austria, and also had some success elsewhere in Europe and North America – largely because of the pop/rap hit “Der Kommissar,” sung completely in German. The song went over big all over Europe, but only reached #72 in the U.S. (perhaps American audiences just weren’t ready for a German-language rapper in 1982). Rewriting English lyrics to the same melody and beat, a band called After the Fire would score a Top 5 U.S. hit with “Der Kommissar” a year later.
Although Falco’s second album, Junge Roemer (Young Romans), didn’t fare as well as his debut, the Austrian returned to worldwide prominence with his third LP, 1985’s appropriately titled Falco 3. In a move to expand his audience, Falco started writing some lyrics and English and began working with a new production team. In the process, he also was inspired by a certain Oscar-winning film titled Amadeus.
Falco’s tribute to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Rock Me Amadeus” was released as the lead single off Falco 3 and quickly became the singer’s biggest global hit, even though it was sung in German. Supported by a music video (in which Falco dresses up as Mozart, wears a rainbow wig and is carried around by a biker gang), “Rock Me Amadeus” went to #1 in many countries, including the Soviet Union, Japan and America. On this day in 1986, it began a three-week run at the top of the U.S. charts. To this day, Falco remains the only German-language artist to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In addition, “Rock Me Amadeus” also did well on the R&B charts, peaking at #6 and becoming the first major hit on the chart by a white artist since Blondie’s “Rapture” in 1980.
Although Falco had a few more hits in the wake of “Amadeus” (“Vienna Calling,” “Jeanny” and “The Sound of Musik”) and remained a star in Austria, he never again achieved such worldwide success. While planning a comeback in the late ’90s, Falco died tragically when his car collided with a bus in the Dominican Republic. He was 40 years old.
But Falco’s music lives on, not only in his hit singles and videos, but also in the many parody versions of “Rock Me Amadeus” that have existed over the years. There’s “Rock Me, Jerry Lewis” and “Rock Me, Donny Osmond,” not to mention The Simpsons’ “Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius.” As you might remember, that particular parody was part of an episode where Troy McClure stars in a Broadway musical adaptation of Planet of the Apes.