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Obituary: Falco

Johann Holzel (Falco), singer-songwriter: born Vienna 19 February 1957; married (one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic 6 February 1998.

For a fairly small country, Austria has produced an incredible number of classical composers. Yet the land of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and Strauss has never made much of an impact on the pop charts. Falco bridged the two musical genres and had two world-wide hits in the Eighties with "Der Kommissar" and, most famously, "Rock Me Amadeus".

Johann Holzel, born in 1957, grew up in Vienna and was something of a child prodigy. When he was 16, he went to the Vienna Conservatoire but found the experience frustrating.

In the late Seventies, he played bass guitar in jazz and bar bands like Spinning Whieel. Under various pseudonyms (John Hudson, John DiFalco), he also appeared with Drahdiwaberl, an Austrian group whose shock tactics and stage antics were recently documented on Channel 4's Eurotrash.

He soon secured a guest spot featuring one of his songs, "Ganz Wien" (literally "All Vienna"). Ostensibly about heroin chic in the Austrian capital, it had a line, "All Vienna is on heroin today", which used to bring the house down, and he was approached to record it as a solo artist in 1981. He picked the name Falco because, "it sounded better. It means the falcon."

The song gained further notoriety and was, of course, banned by the Austrian authorities, thus contributing to its success. Falco then worked with the producer Robert Ponger to complete Einzelhalf ("Incarcerated"), his debut album. This featured the hooky, spooky "Der Kommissar" which became a major hit across Europe. The British rockers After the Fire (featuring Peter Banks, formerly keyboard-player with Yes) covered the song and stole his thunder, scoring a Top Five hit in the States in 1983.

Undeterred, Falco soldiered on with Jung Roemer ("Young Romans") and in 1985 hooked up with the Dutch producers Robe and Ferdi Bolland for Falco 3. Needing a catchy single, he fell back on an idea he had had years before.

For a long time (even before Milos Forman directed the Oscar-winning Amadeus), he had been fascinated by "Mozart as a punk", by the idea of the mad, decadent star with the great talent and the miserable end. Add a few synthesisers, a sprinkling of Viennese cliches, a striking video (with his old pals from Drahdiwaberl) and you have "Rock Me Amadeus", an enormous global hit in 1986.

"Vienna Calling" and the anthemic "Jeanny", also from Falco 3, entered the charts too, but the pressure for a follow-up album was on. Eventually Falco fell back on another Austrian cliche and released "The Sound of Musik" and further played on his international playboy image with "Les Nouveaux Riches", both from the Emotional album.

This and further albums like Data De Groove, Wiener Blut and a 1991 remix collection were nowhere near as successful but the "Amadeus" royalties were still coming in to keep Falco in the lifestyle to which he'd become accustomed. He worked on pilots for a television series and, for tax purposes, set up base in the Dominican Republic. He was in the process of building his own recording studio there when his Jeep collided with a bus. He died later in hospital.

According to the musician Thomas Lang, a long-time Falco associate and collaborator, he will be remembered "not as the biggest Austrian pop star but as the only Austrian pop star. He made it out of nowhere and sometimes played up the arrogant, nouveau-riche rock star. But he was very intelligent, very charismatic, very entertaining."