In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There’s a theme that runs through all pop music: Musicians who thought they were too good to be making pop music. For many of those strivers, classical music has represented something loftier — an escape from the bubblegum trenches. In the early ’60s, pop producers who aimed for sophistication piled strings all over their tracks. Burt Bacharach forged a hugely successful career by making his arrangements as tricky and fussy as possible. In the ’70s, prog rock bands went even further, writing long symphonic opuses with multiple movements that would take up entire LP sides.
But there’s something primally satisfying about how the #1 hits that most blatantly reference classical music are among the silliest, most disposable chart-toppers in Hot 100 history. First there was Walter Murphy And The Big Apple Band’s “A Fifth Of Beethoven,” which translated an 1808 Ludwig Van symphony into a giddy disco party. And then there was Falco, the peacocking Austrian whose ode to Mozart somehow elbowed its way onto pop radio and became the biggest German-language hit in American history.
In Fred Broson’s Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits, Falco explains the idea of “Rock Me Amadeus”: “If Mozart were alive today, he wouldn’t be making classical music; he’d be an international pop star. And I felt it was time to write a song about him.” Falco had gotten the idea, of course, from Amadeus, Miloš Forman’s 1984 Mozart biopic. In the film, Forman depicts Mozart as an obnoxious, flamboyant, self-destructive genius whose talents drive his lesser peers to insanity. You can see why an Austrian new waver might find that image appealing.
Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” lyrics are almost entirely in German, and yet you can get the basic gist even if you don’t speak the language. Certain terms transcend language: “superstar,” “rock idol,” “punk.” And thanks to the Forman film, Americans had a pretty good idea what Falco was describing. Amadeus had been a huge hit, a Best Picture winner that was also the #14 movie on the 1984 year-end box-office list. Also, “Rock Me Amadeus” has a huge, ridiculous singalong chorus. It could’ve been gibberish, and it would’ve hit the same.
Falco’s brief moment of American stardom was a weird little fluke, but he’d been a big deal in Europe for a few years before he showed up on MTV in that pink wig. Johann Hölzel came from Vienna and fell in love with pop music as a kid. As a teenager, he spent a year studying at the Vienna Conservatory, but he left to play in bands in West Berlin for a little while. Upon returning to Vienna, young Falco fell in with the city’s arty underground club scene and made the debut single “Ganz Wien,” a track with a hook that translated to “all of Vienna is on heroin today.”
Falco’s second single was the one that broke him in Europe. 1981’s “Der Kommissar,” a bouncy new wave song with some quasi-rapped vocals, was a smash all around Europe and also in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. In the US, “Der Kommissar” made the Billboard club charts but missed the Hot 100. A year later, though, After The Fire, an English prog band that had switched to new wave, recorded an English-language cover of “Der Kommissar.” Apparently, America just wanted to hear the song in English, and After The Fire’s cover of “Der Kommissar” peaked at #5. (After The Fire’s version isn’t as good as the Falco original, but it’s still a 7.)
In 1983, the German group Nena scored a massive global hit with the apocalyptic dance-pop jam “99 Luftbalons.” Nena didn’t wait around for anyone to pull an After The Fire on them. Instead, Nena recorded “99 Red Balloons,” their own English-language version of the song, and they took it to #1 in the UK. In the US, though, the version that hit was the German-language one, and “99 Luftbalons” peaked at #2 early in 1984. (“99 Luftbalons” is a 9.)
Maybe the advent of MTV and synthpop made Americans a little more susceptible to continental glamor. Also, both “99 Luftbalons” and “Rock Me Amadeus” hit when Falco’s fellow Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger was on his way to becoming the world’s biggest movie star, so maybe we were getting used to hearing those accents. With that said, I have no idea how two different German-language songs became American smashes in the mid-’80s. It’s some weird shit.
After “Der Kommissar,” Falco struggled to come up with a follow-up hit. He stopped working with producer Robert Ponger and instead moved on to the Dutch brothers Bolland & Bolland, who produced and co-wrote “Rock Me Amadeus.” I’ve seen “Rock Me Amadeus” referred to as a novelty rap, which would put it in the same category as “Rappin’ Duke,” the 1984 single where one Shawn Brown imagined John Wayne rapping, or Rodney Dangerfield’s 1983 curio “Rappin’ Rodney.” But I don’t hear “Rock Me Amadeus” as being even tangentially a rap song. Instead, Falco’s delivery is a hiccuping sing-speak deadpan that reminds me of musical theater stars like Rex Harrison. Lots of new wavers adapted that vocal style — a way of signaling that you were above the music you were making.
If “Rock Me Amadeus” was novelty-rap, it wouldn’t work. It does work, so it’s not novelty-rap. If anything, “Rock Me Amadeus” sounds like the kind of leftfield synthpop jam that couldn’ve broken through a few years earlier. The song’s power comes from its towering fuck-off chorus and from the way its keyboard riffs crash headlong into one another, like waves in a storm. Falco dances over that groove, but when the hook lands, he gets out of the way. As the verses end and the song rides out, it gets even bigger. The key change at the end just crushes.
And then there’s the video. We see two different versions of Falco in the “Rock Me Amadeus” video. First, he struts into a fancy courtesans’ ball, looking dapper in a tuxedo. Later on, Falco is dressed up like Mozart, and he’s hanging out with a group of rowdy Mad Max-looking bikers who truthfully don’t come off all that intimidating. (Did Austrian bikers listen to new wave in the ’80s? I feel like I need to know.) The bikers and the fancy aristocrats end up partying together. The video’s whole time-vortex clash doesn’t make any sense, but it’s fun, and it grabs your eye.
After “Rock Me Amadeus,” Falco reached #18 with “Vienna Calling,” his follow-up single, and then he never charted in America again. In the decade after “Rock Me Amadeus,” Falco remained a consistent hitmaker in Austria and, to a lesser extent, in Germany. He also developed serious problems with alcohol and cocaine. In the ’90s, Falco moved to the Dominican Republic and lived there as a tax exile. In 1998, Falco crashed his SUV into a bus on a highway near Puerto Plata. He died at the age of 40. Falco lived four years longer than Mozart. He probably didn’t rock as many people as Amadeus, but he rocked more than anyone could’ve predicted.
BONUS BEATS: In a classic 1996 episode of The Simpsons, Phil Hartman’s Troy McClure character stars in a Planet Of The Apes musical, and it includes a “Rock Me Amadeus” parody about Dr. Zaius. Here’s that absolutely perfect scene:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tech N9ne flipping “Rock Me Amadeus” in the most hilarious, obvious way possible and turning it into the 2002 track “I’m A Playa”:
(Tech N9ne’s highest-charting single, the 2015 2 Chainz/B.o.B. collab “Hood Go Crazy,” peaked at #90.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Adam Sandler enthusiastically singing along with “Rock Me Amadeus” in the 2008 movie Bedtime Stories:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the long-running industrial group Front Line Assembly’s video for their 2019 “Rock Me Amadeus” cover, which features Mindless Self Indulgence singer Jimmy Urine:
THE NUMBER TWOS: John Mellencamp’s muscular, euphoric nostalgia-reverie “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A. (A Salute To ’60’s Rock)” peaked at #2 behind “Rock Me Amadeus.” It’s an 8.