Konrad was such an enigma. Well, at least until he wasn’t.
Konrad (no known last name) exploded on the pop music scene in 1979, seemingly out of nowhere. The handsome Austrian, of indeterminate age and with a deep tan and aquiline nose, favored tailored suits, slicked-back blonde hair and opaque aviator sunglasses, which he never removed. Konrad’s music was a Central Euro-variant on the synthpop that was taking the world by storm. His live performances (including a still-talked-about appearance on Saturday Night Live in November) typically featured the artist alone on stage, singing (or mostly talking) over pre-recorded tracks while various lighting and smoke effects created a chilling ambiance. The music, almost robotic in nature, emphasized the sterile tone of Konrad’s minimalistic lyrics. His debut album, Selbstbeobachtung (trans. “self-observation” or “introspection”) screamed up the charts, primarily on the strength of the lead single, “thermonukleare Kettenreaktion” (trans. “thermonuclear chain reaction”)—which became popularly known by the acronym “TNCR” and was an instant dance floor and radio hit.
Konrad rarely granted interviews, but when he did, invariably he was accompanied by Horst, his manservant and bodyguard. Konrad never would answer a question directly; rather, he would lean over, have Horst whisper the question into his ear, straighten to think (sometimes for what appeared to be an unreasonably long time) and then return to whisper into Horst’s ear, at which point Horst (also Austrian) would respond to the question (usually in English, but sometimes in German or even French, depending on who was asking). This unusual behavior only added to Konrad’s mystique. Fans were curious why he understandably titled his album and songs in German but sang almost exclusively in English (except, strangely, for speaking German when counting numbers and saying “yes” or “no”). Very odd, but also intriguing.
Everyone assumed that Konrad was some sort of multi-instrumentalist and studio savant who wrote his songs and recorded all of his music solo, maybe in a secret alpine lair. (Konrad did not disabuse his fans of this belief.) He rarely was seen behind a keyboard, but on one occasion when he had no option but to “play something” for the assembled press, he surprised the gathering with a new improvised song (which Horst later told them Konrad called “E”) that consisted of the artist holding down a note (which happened to be E) on the synthesizer for precisely two minutes, twelve seconds. (“E” was never released.)
The apex of Konrad’s career would have been the 22nd Grammy Awards, at which he was nominated for both Song of the Year (“TNCR”) and Best New Artist. However, four days before the televised event in February 1980, a bombshell dropped.
The dropper was Horst (last name Kelheim). Rolling Stone magazine reported, in an exclusive, that Horst was in fact the mastermind behind the entire Konrad experience, including writing the songs, playing the instruments, and recording the output. He insisted that Konrad’s only contributions were “singing” the songs, appearing in public and, not insignificantly, “paying the bills.” It turned out that Konrad was actually Miles Pilfer, a 38-year-old former high school civics teacher from Kettering, Ohio who had been lucky enough to win the state lottery in 1977. Choosing to remain anonymous, he abandoned his former life and moved to Milan, where he underwent a radical physical and emotional transformation. (The plastic surgery bills were an extravagant luxury, but they inadvertently proved helpful in keeping his anonymity.) On a ski trip to Kitzbühel, Pilfer ran into (literally) Kelheim. Over compensatory schnapps at the lodge, somehow a conspiracy was hatched.
Horst was a frustrated musician who had songs and chops, but, unfortunately, a perplexingly high falsetto coupled with debilitating stage fright. Konrad, conversely, was not only used to standing in front of a moderately attentive audience (albeit of 9th graders), he also had a soothing—some would say somnolent—monotone delivery that would fit perfectly with Horst’s music. And so a musical con game of the highest order was launched.
It had a good run, resulting in millions for Pilfer’s thoughtfully-organized Swiss self-production company Betrügerin A.G. It was only when Horst realized that Konrad was about to receive the Grammy (or two Grammys) for work that was “99% Horst” that the Austrian decided to pull the plug on the venture. Konrad did not win a Grammy (although TNCR was still included for Song of the Year, with Horst substituted as songwriter—but also not winning). Konrad’s nomination for Best New Artist was substituted with The Knack, who did not win. (Band member and celebrity lawyer Geoffrey Fieger is still bitter about losing to Rickie Lee Jones.)
Following the disclosures, Konrad was remarkably ambivalent, figuring it was all part of some cosmic plan (not unlike when he picked his lottery numbers based upon his zip code plus the number 7). His personal relationship with Horst—who went on to form another hit act fronted by someone else (“Derek & the Dominatrix”)—remained strong, and the duo pooled their resources to open a summer luge amusement complex near Innsbruck. 40 years later, Nuklearebahn—featuring an early-‘80s synthpop soundtrack blaring for the