Playing With Life

Burning Out Like Hendrix, but Living to Look Back On It: Pop Star Hansi Lang, 1955 - 2008

News | Christian Cummins | September 2008

Fast Rock & Slow Club: Hansi Lang (Photo: Simlinger)

Hansi Lang, a multi-faceted musician who made his name in the Austrian New Wave in the 1980s, was born in Vienna in 1955 to an American GI father, who was stationed in the Austrian capital, and a Czech mother. Lang always said that he first set his heart on a life as a musician after seeing Jimi Hendrix in Vienna in his teens. He lived out the Hendrix ethos, becoming at times as widely notorious for excesses and drug addiction as for his music.

But that’s an injustice, according to Thomas Gratzer, director of Vienna’s Rabenhof Theater, a sort of Mecca of alternative culture in Austria, who called Lang "one of the most extraordinary figures in Austria’s cultural life of the past few decades."

Lang’s musical career was long and varied. While still a teenager he made his first public appearance as a drummer in an amateur pop band, soon turning from drums to singing - performing with several bands, including Plastic Drug. From there he went on a tour through Holland with the group Nostradamus in order, according to his homepage, to avoid being called up for compulsory military service.

He returned to Vienna in 1975 and joined the Hallucination Company, a group that featured a certain Hans Hölzl, who would go on to become Austria’s most internationally acclaimed pop star Falco.

In 1980 Lang embarked on a solo career, his profile boosted by a legendary concert at Vienna’s cult disco U4. A debut solo album called ‘Keine Angst’ (No Fear) appeared in 1982 and was followed by a second, ‘Der Taucher’ (The Diver) in the same year, which finally brought Lang commercial success with  ‘Ich spiele Leben’ (I Play Life).

While continuing to give solo concerts, Hansi Lang often rejoined his former colleagues from the Hallucination Company. In 1989, he also released an album in English by the same name, an unusual move in the contemporary Austrian pop scene.

At the same time Lang embarked on an acting career that saw him appear both in movies, (in Dieter Berner’s 1984 film Ich oder Du  - Me or You), and on the stage at the Theater an der Josefstadt in "Außer Kontrolle"  (Out Of Control).

However, even at the height of success, drug abuse and personal problems began to overshadow his creative output. In the 1990’s, as he struggled in what friends described as a "quagmire of drugs", the work dried up and his records stopped selling. A man who had believed in burning out like his hero Hendrix, seemed condemned to fade away.

Although he maintained a cult status among Austrians who saw him as a radical prophet in an increasingly straight-laced music scene. On his death many felt that Lang had never achieved the success or recognition he deserved. Lang himself, however, looked back without bitterness, saying in one of his last interviews, he "couldn’t have had a better time."

Lang has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. As he got older, he developed a taste and voice for soul, rhythm & blues, and funk; and at the time of his death he had just finished a new album, understood to be a continuation of a project called the ‘Slow Club" featuring interpretations of artists such as Nat King Cole and Billie Holliday, and produced by Falco’s former keyboarder Thomas Rabitsch and the electronic artist Wolfgang Schlögl, famous through his band the "Sofa Surfers." The album will be released posthumously.

The musician will also be remembered by many for his political and social engagement. In an age of growing xenophobia, he was a prominent anti-racism campaigner.  He played an important role in the charity SOS-Mitmensch, "Accepdance" clubbing event, as well as in the organizations "Austria for Africa" and "Austria for Asia".

Hansi Lang died in Vienna on the 24th of August at the age of 53. He had suffered a stroke.  The musician certainly died young, much too young, but, as the news of his passing broke, many fans looked back on an interview the heavy smoker and drinker gave 15 years ago, when he had just turned 38.  "I never thought I’d live this long," he said, "but we don’t all have it as easy as Hendrix."

Other articles from this issue