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'Falco 3' Hits 35th Anniversary: How "Rock Me Amadeus" Conquered America
A couple of years ago there was a petition circulating online demanding that the Vienna International Airport be renamed after Falco. Although it failed to gather the required signatures for a name change to be even considered, its main argument was virtually indisputable from a Pop culture point of view, probably drawing inspiration from Liverpool's own John Lennon International.
Agreed, Falco's legacy and musical achievements are considerably less groundbreaking than the Beatles'; but the musician does remain the most notorious Austrian of the 20th century—at least if we only consider those with a good reputation—having contributed immensely to publicize Vienna abroad by romanticizing the city in a way that hadn't been achieved (or even attempted) since Strauss's waltzes took the European fin de siècle by storm.
In fact, Falco openly relied on Austria's own musical heritage and imaginary to build his own empire—something particularly visible in his third album, simply titled Falco 3: while "Vienna Calling" saw him using "The Blue Danube" as a referential prologue, hit single "Rock Me Amadeus" unashamedly embraced a revisitation of the Mozart craze while managing to propel its singer to the international stratosphere in a dizzying trajectory similar to the one followed by his 18th century counterpart—hadn't the flight been aborted shortly after launch, that is.
After all, lift-off had been more than satisfactory: in March 1986 "Rock Me Amadeus" became the first (and to this date, only) German-sung track to top the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for a solid three-week run; it also reached No. 4 on the Dance Chart, and No. 6 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Chart—a feat unheard of for a white artist. And even though follow-up single "Vienna Calling" failed to achieve such brilliant results, it still managed to climb to number 18, while Falco 3, the album both tracks had been extracted from, achieved a respectable third position on the Billboard 200.
Euphoria ensued. The musician was invited for a series of American TV appearances, including an interview on the CBS Morning News in May, where a visibly nervous yet charming Falco talked to Maria Shriver about the importance (or lack thereof) of the public understanding the lyrics in order to enjoy his songs. A two-song performance on American Bandstand followed, with the show's legendary host Dick Clark inquiring him about the possibility of a U.S. tour while a teenage audience enthusiastically danced to his hits in the background.
But what was the secret of "Rock Me Amadeus"? It's not like the world was exactly lacking hits in 1985. The language is hardly exotic enough, and even if the English-sung chorus unleashes an inevitable singalong, the German rapping seems much too uncanny (as another famous Austrian, Sigmund Freud, would put it) to properly allow us to fully identify with his music. But Milos Forman's multi-awarded 1984 movie had unknowingly paved the way for a renewed fascination with the composer, since it portrayed Mozart as the charismatic epicenter of a mania that would only find a similar parallel two hundred years later with the Beatles—the phenomenon is, after all, what the lyrics of "Rock Me Amadeus" are about. By narrating a celebrity cult taking place before fandom was even a word, Falco ended up creating a sort of replica in his own career by osmosis.
The magic behind Falco's hits can be compared to the alchemical compound that makes for the generalized fascination with French Touch, since both walk a fine line between disgustingly kitsch and full-blown geniality with admirable balance. Everything from the synths to the hooks and the seemingly simplistic lines (often repeated ad nauseum) seems meticulously calculated in order to provoke a specific reaction from the audience, which is comprehensive enough to see the so-called connoisseur siding with the nonchalant radio listener. It's this democratization that is compelling in Falco, and which he already had explored on "Der Kommissar" and "Ganz Wien," both from first album Einzelhaft, or even "Jünge Roemer," the title-track from his commercially underwhelming sophomore LP. But Falco 3 sees him reaching his peak, burning bright as he reached for the sun in an Icarus type of journey that would inevitably lead to self-sabotage.
In hindsight, this downfall seemed almost inevitable. Falco's musical style always rang as an odd mix of self-parody and arrogance, a combination he brings to the table on Falco 3 whilst relying on the over-theatrical, the sleek, and even a somewhat conservative look that vividly contrasts with the innovative blending of Neue Deutsche Welle, Eurodance, and Hip-Hop. The album emerges as much more than its singles—especially since a third one, "Jeanny," failed to chart in the U.S. and remained banned in numerous stations due to its controversial lyrics—, even including two very interesting covers, one of The Cars' "Lookin' For Love" (that appears reworked as "Munich Girls") and the other of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now Baby Blue"; but it's the humorous approach of the ensemble, visible in all tracks being credited as a remix of some kind (when in fact all songs except "Rock Me Amadeus" and "Vienna Calling" are exactly the same in the EU and U.S. versions), that really captures a certain jadedness, genuine or not, which is transversal to Falco's most compelling work, making it oscillate between self-importance and self-deprecation.
"Rock Me Amadeus" alone should have justified a broader conquest of the international market, and especially of the U.S., where it was met with an enthusiastic reaction that seemed to have been predicted by album track "America": "People there say 'Falco you are wonderful'/ I don't take it very seriously" sounds eerily prophetic if we remember the song precedes the phenomenon. So what happened? Numerous sources (including those consulted for the 2008 biopic Verdammt Wir Leben Noch) confirm the existence of concrete plans for the crossover, which was supposed to include collaborations with American producers and musicians. But Falco's increasingly self-destructive behavior, and his drug and alcohol abuse in particular, would dictate a rapid decline shortly after this fleeting first conquest; and a failure to replicate "Rock Me Amadeus"'s success when the underwhelming "Emotional" came out one year later only confirmed such big dreams would remain just that.