The Beginnings of Falco

Around 1980 Vienna was a gray city. New wave culture changed that forever – and turned bass guitarist Johann Hölzel into the global star Falco

Michael Snoj

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s certainly true of this one particular picture – although words do play a part as well. “Wien du tote Stadt” (“Vienna you dead city”) proclaim the white capital letters written on the back of a black leather jacket.

Michael Snoj, alias Kodak, took the legendary black-and-white photo of a Vienna punk rocker at the city’s Naschmarkt marketplace. It reveals everything that a witness of the period’s subculture could pack into the proverbial thousand words. It says that life in the Austrian capital at the end of the 1970s felt just like its portrayal in the TV crime series Kottan Ermittelt11Kottan Investigates: gray on gray, sleepy, bleak and dull. Far from a metropolis of the Western world, Vienna felt more like the last gas station before the Iron Curtain.

New wave culture changed this forever. It flicked the neon light switch in Vienna and covered the city in splashes of color that continue to shine to this day. Following punk’s “do-it-yourself” philosophy, the local music scene flourished. It gave rise to independent record labels, new media including the lifestyle magazine Wiener, hip record stores like Ton um Ton and Dum Dum, and new venues like U4 and Blue Box, which would later feature in the video for Falco’s global hit “Rock Me Amadeus.”

Falco - Der Kommissar

In this fast-moving period, Vienna experienced a leap in modernity that touched the worlds of fashion, art and cinema. Falco described the new feeling succinctly on the B-side of his first hit “Der Kommissar”: “We’ve got the right worldview, we’re right in the thick of it now… We can see the future, we’re the heroes of today.”

Thomas Kramar, arts editor of the daily newspaper Die Presse, sums up the cultural significance of punk in late 1970s Vienna: “Punk was about speed and light. Before that, venues like Gärtnerinsel, Café Wienzeile and Jazzspelunke were dark, smoky caves where the centerpiece of every table was an empty wine bottle with candlewax dripping down the sides. Everything was quiet, hardly anyone would talk, and when they did it was real slow: “Pfoah, I waaß need, wos moch ma?”22Pffft, I dunno, what are we gonna do? People were buying Indian scarves and incense sticks and listening to their friends talk about disappearing to India. The turning point was when people suddenly wanted to escape to Berlin instead.” The band Blümchen Blau translated this feeling into song: “The sweetest thing in Vienna is the express train to Berlin.”

Unlike in other major cities, the punk imported here from London by a handful of devotees from 1977 did not represent a radical alternative to hippie culture. Vienna was a city of smooth transitions, not sudden breaks; rather than a subcultural war of generations, it was shaped by alliances of convenience and mutually beneficial partnerships.

When Falco – who’d spent some time in Berlin himself – entered a recording studio for the first time in 1979 to record two songs for the sampler Wiener Blutrausch as the bass player in the band Drahdiwaberl, he found himself in the “Schmetter Sound Studio” in Bisamberg, run by the rather hippiesque political folk band Schmetterlinge. Drahdiwaberl themselves, the shock rockers fronted by art teacher Stefan Weber, were not a product of the new wave either. Founded in 1969, their roots actually lay in the counter-culture of the ’60s. However, it took the impetus of punk to finally get these veterans of subculture into the recording studio.

Wiener Blutrausch Schnazz-o-phone Records

Wiener Blutrausch turned out to be a curious mish-mash. Alongside Drahdiwaberl it showcased the jazz-rock band and Frank Zappa disciples Metzlutzkas Erben. On the other hand, it also included Vienna’s first punk band Chuzpe und die rotzige Mordbuben AG33Chuzpe and the Snotty Cutthroats Corporation. Somewhere in between them you could find the cool new wave romantics Minisex, whose singer Rudi Nemeczek was one of the instigators of the record. Just prior to that he’d been in a prog rock band.

Another contributor to the Blutrausch sampler was Eberhard Forcher, a teacher from East Tyrol who’d recently reinvented himself as a music critic for the young Vienna city magazine Falter – he penned the sleeve notes. “The groups you will hear on this record are not fully-formed collectives of musicians. They have grown together because of their own aspirations, because they are searching – far from the Alpine kitsch of Austrian pop radio – to bridge the gap between rock and today’s new musical currents, and to create critical, engaging content,” he wrote. Shortly after, Forcher became a musician himself, adopted the name Tom Petting and founded the new wave label Schallter with Rudi Nemeczek.

The other important indie label of the time was called GiG Records, founded by the journalist and record store manager Markus Spiegel and Wolfgang Strobl, an aficionado of Vienna’s punk scene.

Falco - Ganz Wien

Singles by local underground bands like The Vogue and Chuzpe achieved some initial success, then Drahdiwaberl’s debut album Psychoterror sparked an explosion of the scene that no one had seen coming. This had less to do with the band than its bass player, whose solo track “Ganz Wien” had been performed at concerts and was now included on the LP. “That Scene,” the English-language version of this drug anthem, may have been a flop. But the second Falco single “Der Kommissar” sold millions of copies, and the album Einzelhaft, co-produced by Robert Ponger, became a huge artistic and commercial success in 1982.

Falco was the zeitgeist personified, the figurehead of Vienna’s new wave scene throughout Austria and far beyond. He wasn’t exactly a young rebel, having been born in 1957, nor was he one of the Genialen Dilletanten. He was a classically trained musician who, aside from being part of Drahdiwaberl, had honed his stage presence and his skills as a bassist in the rock theater group Hallucination Company and the commercial pop band Spinning Wheel.

Hallucination Company, 1978; Falco at the far right Wickerl Adam

“In the run-up to our first concert together he went to the hairdresser every day for a fortnight and came back with a new haircut each time,” recalls guitarist Peter Vieweger, who had played alongside Falco in Drahdiwaberl and Spinning Wheel before becoming Falco’s bandleader. “Our rehearsals turned into a kind of catwalk show where we would all usually react with a ‘Hmm, maybe not.’” Then one day Falco walked in, his hair slicked back with pomade, real sharp, and we all knew right away – that’s it! But from that point he was the cool guy in the band.”

It wouldn’t be long before Falco started exporting his cool persona and unique take on Viennese charm around the world.

Falco, Austria’s most successful musical export and the face of Vienna’s music scene in the 1980s, would have celebrated his 60th birthday in February 2017. In memory of the new wave icon and Austrian rap pioneer, Red Bull Music Academy is hosting a special Bass Camp in Falco’s hometown, Vienna.

Under the banner of Junge Roemer (the title of Falco’s second album), his work will be illuminated, animated, remixed and - above all - celebrated live on stage. (To find out more about the events, click here.)

Gerhard Stöger is Music Editor of the Vienna city magazine Falter and – along with Florian Obkircher, Thomas Mießgang and Walter Gröbchen – author of the book “Wienpop” (published by Falter Verlag, 2013), which tells the story of Vienna’s pop music from the 1950s to the turn of the century.

By Gerhard Stöger on January 17, 2017

On a different note