Falco had several international hits, "Rock Me Amadeus", "Der Kommissar", "Vienna Calling", "Jeanny", "The Sound of Musik", "Coming Home (Jeanny Part II, One Year Later)" and posthumously, "Out of the Dark". "Rock Me Amadeus" reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1986, making him the only artist whose principal language was German to score a vocal number-one hit in the United States (Bert Kaempfert reached No. 1 in January 1961 with the instrumental "Wonderland by Night"). According to his estate, he has sold 20 million albums and 40 million singles, which makes him the best-selling Austrian singer of all time.
Falco was born Johann Hölzel on 19 February 1957 to Maria Hölzel in a working class district of Vienna. Maria would later recall that she had been pregnant with triplets. As it was a dizygotic pregnancy, she miscarried the identical twins during the third month and Falco, who was conceived via a separate egg, survived. Falco mused that "three souls in one breast sounds a little over dramatic, but I do sense them sometimes. In my moodiness. I'll be really up and then right after I'll be really down."
In 1963, Hölzel began his schooling at a Roman Catholic private school; four years later, at age ten, he switched to the Rainergymnasium in Margareten. Falco's father left the family while he was still a child, and he was raised by his mother.
Falco began to show signs of unusual musical talent very early. As a toddler, he was able to keep time with the drumbeat in songs he heard on the radio. He was given a baby grand piano for his fourth birthday; a year later, his birthday gift was a record player which he used to play music by Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, and the Beatles. At age five, he auditioned for the Vienna Music Academy, where it was confirmed that he had absolute pitch.
Falco wanted to be a pop star from a very early age. At age 16, he attended the Vienna Conservatoire, but was frustrated and soon left. His mother insisted he begin an apprenticeship with the Austrian employee pension insurance institute. This too only lasted a short time. At seventeen, he volunteered for eight months of military service with the Austrian army.
In late 1970s Vienna, he became part of the Viennese nightlife, which included not just music but also striptease, performance art and a general atmosphere of satirizing politics and celebrating chaos. He played bass guitar in a number of bands under various pseudonyms, including "John Hudson" and "John DiFalco." One such band with whom he appeared was Drahdiwaberl, an Austrian group that employed shock tactics and stage antics. It was around this time he began performing under the stage name of Falco. Despite being closely tied with the Viennese underground club scene, Falco looked uncharacteristically clean-cut. In contrast to shabbier fashions, he had short hair (due to his military service) and wore Ray-Ban sunglasses and suits. His distinct style, coupled with his singing performance of the song "Ganz Wien" (That Scene) led to manager Markus Spiegel offering to sign Falco in 1981. Ironically, it was at a concert for drug prevention and "Ganz Wien" has a line proclaiming "All Vienna is on heroin today."
Once Falco was signed as a solo artist, he continued composing his own music and hired lyricist Robert Ponger. Falco brought his intended first single "Helden Von Heute" (1981) to manager Horst Bork, but received a lukewarm reception. Bork felt that the b-side, "Der Kommissar" was much stronger. Falco was hesitant, since the track is a German-language song about drug consumption that combines rap verses with a sung chorus. Though beginning to break through in America, rap was still quite rare in Western Europe at the time. Bork insisted and the song became a number-one success in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Japan, while charting high in several other nations.
Though "Der Kommissar" failed to break through in the U.K. and U.S., the British rock band After the Fire covered the song with new English lyrics. This version charted at number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. That same year, American singer Laura Branigan recorded a non-single version of the song with new English lyrics under the title "Deep in the Dark" on her album Branigan 2. The album on which "Der Kommissar" appeared, Einzelhaft, also topped the charts in Austria and the Netherlands.
Falco and Ponger returned to the studio in 1983 to record Falco's second album Junge Römer (Young Romans). It was a difficult project, as the two artists felt immense pressure to match their previous success and the recording process was plagued by delays. Junge Römer was released in 1984. Even though the music video for the single "Hoch wie nie" (Higher Than Ever) was aired on prime time TV in Austria, it failed to ignite interest internationally.
Junge Römer, the album, only charted in Austria where it went to number one. The title track and main single "Junge Römer" (Young Romans) failed to repeat the success of "Der Kommissar" (outside of Austria and Spain, where the single topped the charts). As a reaction, Falco began to experiment with English lyrics in an effort to broaden his appeal. He parted ways with Ponger and chose a new production team: the brothers Rob and Ferdi Bolland from the Netherlands.
Falco recorded "Rock Me Amadeus" inspired in part by the Oscar-winning film Amadeus, and the song became a worldwide hit in 1986. This time, his record reached No. 1 in the US and UK, bringing him the success that had eluded him in that major market a few years earlier. The song remained in the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks and his album, Falco 3 peaked at the number three position on the Billboard album charts reached number six in the Billboard Top R&B Singles Chart. Falco 3 peaked at number 18 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts. Ultimately, "Rock Me Amadeus" went to the No. 1 spot in over a dozen countries including Japan. Follow-up single "Vienna Calling" was another international pop hit, peaking at No. 18 of the Billboard Charts and No. 17 on the US Cash Box Charts in 1986. A double A-side 12" single featuring remixes of those two hits peaked at No. 4 on the US Dance/Disco charts.
"Jeanny", the third release from the album Falco 3, brought the performer back to the top of the charts across Europe. Highly controversial when it was released in Germany and the Netherlands, the story of "Jeanny" was told from the point of view of a possible rapist and murderer. Several DJs and radio stations refused to play the ballad, which was ignored in the US, though it became a huge hit in many European countries, and inspired a sequel on his next album.
After the success of "Rock Me Amadeus," there were talks of crossing over more permanently into the U.S. by working with American producers and collaborating with other American artists. These possibilities fell through, in part, due to Falco's personal problems. At this point in his career, he was dangerously addicted to alcohol and drugs.
In 1986, the album Emotional was released, produced by Rob and Ferdi Bolland (Bolland & Bolland). Songs on the album included "Coming Home (Jeanny Part II, One Year Later)", "The Kiss of Kathleen Turner", and "Kamikaze Capa" which was written as a tribute to the late photojournalist Robert Capa. "The Sound of Musik" was another international success, and a Top 20 US dance hit, though it failed to make the US pop charts.
In 1987 he went on the "Emotional" world tour ending in Japan. In the same year he sang a duet with Brigitte Nielsen, "Body Next to Body"; the single was a Top 10 hit in the Germanic countries. The album Wiener Blut (Viennese Blood) was released in 1988 but it did not get much publicity outside Germany and Austria.
In 1990, he wrote a song about Cindy Crawford and Tatjana Patitz, "Tanja P. not Cindy C.", which appeared on the album Data de Groove.
After 1986 there were a number of European hits, but Falco was rarely heard in the US and the UK. His 1992 comeback attempt, the album Nachtflug (Night Flight) including the song "Titanic", was successful in Austria only.
Starting in the early 1990s, Falco lived in the Dominican Republic, where he worked on his last album from 1995 to 1998. Out Of The Dark (Into The Light) was released posthumously on 27 February 1998 in Europe and worldwide in March. It charted at number one in Austria for 21 weeks.
Falco has been described by those who knew him as having a complex personality. He has been called ambitious, eccentric, caring, egotistical and deeply insecure. Thomas Rabitsch, a keyboardist who met Falco when the aspiring pop star was only 17 years old, said he was a quiet young man and precise bass player, but also arrogant and with a "very high opinion of himself." Markus Spiegel, the manager who discovered Falco, admitted that the pop star was, "an extremely difficult artist" and known womanizer. Peter Vieweger, a guitarist who knew Falco before his success and continued to play in Falco's touring band and on his albums, remembers Falco as being "scared he would fail or be unmasked and not be as good as people thought he was."
Through the 1980s and into the 90s, Falco became dependent on alcohol and cocaine. When under the influence he was unreliable at best and abusive at worst. Ferdi Bolland recalls that Falco was often so severely intoxicated that the writing process revolved around his "inability to be coherent, to even stand for a long time." Despite pleas from his manager and collaborators to get help, Falco stubbornly refused.
Falco and Isabella Vitkovic welcomed a baby girl, Katharina Bianca Vitkovic, in 1986. They married in 1988, but it was a "love-hate" relationship, as Katharina describes it. The marriage was short-lived. Falco believed Katharina was his biological daughter until a paternity test proved otherwise when she was seven. After this revelation, Katharina's relationship with her father became strained. Though they kept in contact, she took her mother's surname and claimed she was written out of his will. She was 12 years old when Falco died. She did not reconcile with his mother, Maria Hölzel, until a few years before Hölzel's death at the age of 87 in April 2014. Katharina published a memoir in 2008 called Falco war mein Vater (Falco Was My Father).
Falco died of severe injuries received on 6 February 1998, 13 days before his 41st birthday, when his Mitsubishi Pajero collided with a bus on the road linking the towns of Villa Montellano and Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. It was determined that Falco was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine. At the time of Falco's death, he was planning a comeback. He was buried in the Vienna Central Cemetery in Vienna, Austria.
In 1998, Rob and Ferdi Bolland (Dutch producers and co-writers of about half of Falco's albums) released the EP Tribute to Falco under the name The Bolland Project feat. Alida. The title track featured samples of Falco's music; the other tracks were "We Say Goodbye" and "So Lonely".
The film Falco – Verdammt, wir leben noch! was released in Austria on 7 February 2008, ten years and one day after Falco's death. This title is also the name of a posthumously-released album by Falco which translates to "Damn, we're still alive!" Written and directed by Thomas Roth, the movie features musician Manuel Rubey as adult Johann 'Falco' Hölzel. The end credits include the line "With love, Ferdi & Rob", his frequent collaborators the Bollands.
Falco's good friend Niki Lauda named one of the Boeing airplanes in his Lauda Air fleet "Falco" after the singer.
Although "Der Kommissar" saw nearly contemporaneous and fairly straightforward mainstream covers including the loose translation by After The Fire and the reinterpretation by Laura Branigan, both in 1982/1983, Falco's song "Rock Me Amadeus" has seen more frequent use. The track has been sampled by groups including the Bloodhound Gang, who also refer to Falco in their 1999 song "Mope", and by German rapper Fler in "NDW 2005" from Neue Deutsche Welle.
The restaurant Marchfelderhof in Vienna, Austria, maintains a permanent reserved table for Falco.
"Rock Me Amadeus" has been frequently used as a comedic source in a number of parody versions, films, television shows, commercials and internet memes. In 1985 a parody version of "Rock Me Amadeus" entitled "Rock Me Jerry Lewis" was credited to Bud Latour and fellow Phoenix, Arizona disc jockey, Mike Elliott. "Rock Me Jerry Lewis" climbed to Number 1 on The Dr. Demento's Funny Five chart and grew to a notoriety that prompted mentions and airplay on Casey Kasem's Top 40 Radio Show as well as a call from Jerry Lewis himself. Furthermore, Jerry Lewis would begin to use the song at his personal appearances and stage shows.
In 1986, "Weird Al" Yankovic included a portion of the song in the polka medley "Polka Party!", from the album of the same name. The song and clips from the video were portrayed in the animated series The Brothers Grunt. In The Simpsons episode "A Fish Called Selma" (1996), an offbeat variation is featured in a musical presentation of Planet of the Apes with the repeated tag of "Amadeus, Amadeus" transferred to "Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius". A similar usage appears in another satirical US cartoon series, Family Guy (season 4 episode 6, 2005). The Daily Show with Jon Stewart featured a parody, "Iraq Me Dave Petraeus", as a musical intro to a briefly recurring segment involving the US General's doctrine regarding the war in 2007/2008. The 1986 comedy The Whoopee Boys featured one of the main characters singing Rock Me Amadeus, in a scene involving a buffet dinner. In 2012, Boston Red Sox Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia used the song as his at-bat song.
A later episode of The Simpsons, "Behind the Laughter", features Willie Nelson saying, "Thank you, Taco, for that loving tribute to Falco," within another fictional tribute. Falco has been referenced in the US satirical cartoon series American Dad! and The Tick.
The 2009 film Adventureland features "Rock Me Amadeus" multiple times as part of an amusement park's background music, to the eventual disdain of its denizens. In 2014, German metal band Edguy included a cover version of "Rock Me Amadeus" in their album Space Police: Defenders of the Crown.**The Double A-side Single "On The Run/Maschine Brennt" peaked at No. 9 in US Hot Dance Club Play.
– indicates the song did not chart.
a blank box indicates that the song was not released.