Jan 10

EUROPE – “The Final Countdown”

FT + Popular111 comments • 7,513 views

#580, 6th December 1986, video

The first metal song to get to number one, which more than anything else tips you off as to what a strange, broad, inclusive-despite-itself church metal is. And yes, this surely qualifies. “The Final Countdown” puts its fanfare riff atop a gallop of power hair and Valkyrie guitars and the result is impeccably pop – so much so it split the band! – but their roots were heavier, trading personnel with Yngwie Malmsteen, paid-up members in good standing of the Swedish Metal Scene.

My experience of metal in the 1980s was entirely vicarious – people at school would buy Kerrang! or RAW or Metal Hammer, and I would read them with an amused disdain I guess I’ve never fully managed to shake, even though I’m ashamed of it: metal is the most vocational of fandoms and it didn’t choose me. I later started reading the NME instead and felt myself much smarter for it at the time – but of course what strikes me now is how similar, and how precarious, both magazines’ worlds were.

In an environment where access to music was through specialist gatekeepers – radio stations and print magazines – genres became coalitions. Metallica were truer metal than Cinderella? Perhaps, but the economics of genre meant that gatekeepers had to pitch a product that would capture fans of both. And the very existence of the umbrella thus held over them would exaggerate the similarities as well as the differences. Even so the coalitions had to be policed – the very first issue of NME I ever bought agonised on its cover over whether certain bands (The Darling Buds, The Wonder Stuff) joining major labels meant disaster. To a great extent the story of popular music in the 80s and 90s is the story of these grand coalitions – hip-hop and dance music, too – forming, winning and facing the consequences.

Even to an outsider the world of metal seemed particularly split-prone, perhaps because the temptations were greater: the marketplace seemed unlikely to put the integrity of The Wedding Present under too great a strain. But metal bands had the chops and the stagecraft and the gumption to fit right into a stadium rock world – all they needed were the songs, and “The Final Countdown” is such a song. Not that Europe necessarily realised – the riff had been kicking around since the early 80s and Joey Tempest wanted to press it into service as a tour curtain-raiser, not as a single. You can hear exactly what he meant: but the label knew a monster when they heard one.

Is it much more than the riff, and the headlong charge of the rhythm guitar? Does it have to be? The lyrics are well-documented nonsense but Tempest puts in the yearning and abstract conviction they need to not spoil the record, and really they’re just placeholders to get you back to – “It’s the FIH-NAL COUNT-DOWN!”. And there’s a welcome crispness and space in the production which gives Tempest’s voice and keyboards room. It lessens “The Final Countdown”‘s heaviness but if you’re heading to Venus you don’t need too much ballast.



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  1. 91
    AndyPandy on 27 Jan 2010 #

    86: doesn’t the ‘ardcore/hardcore continuum refer to a nuum centred on hardcore as in rave music from the early 90s?

  2. 92
    AndyPandy on 27 Jan 2010 #

    70: Obviously “heavy metal thunder” wasn’t referring to a type of music but I have read that from the use of it by Steppenwolf (in a massive public-consciousness invading hit containing much that became to define the genre) onwards there existed a vague connection to a useful shorthand for hard rock.

    And of course it was just ONE of the signifiers (although signifying virtually alone) appearing in 1968 which when taken in context pointed to 1968 as the year when the ingredients that made up the metal brew all came together.

  3. 93
    koganbot on 29 Jan 2010 #

    apparently barry gifford (!) was the first to use it as a genre term

    #67 Don, are you sure? When and where? The earliest I know of in print is Mike Saunders in Rolling Stone in mid ’70 and in Creem in his May ’71 review of Sir Lord Baltimore – not that I’ve seen those reviews, just heard of them.

  4. 94
    taDOW on 29 Jan 2010 #

    acc. to wiki in some electric flag review for rolling stone in 68, describes them as “Nobody who’s been listening to Mike Bloomfield—either talking or playing—in the last few years could have expected this. This is the new soul music, the synthesis of white blues and heavy metal rock.” it sorta credits metal mike w/ cementing the term, bangs/creem w/ popularizing it.

  5. 95
    AndyPandy on 29 Jan 2010 #

    1968 seems to have been the “first” year for a few genres that never really died

    FUNK: although people often cite “Papas Got A Brand New Bag” in 1965 as the first funk track (but that’s almost like saying “You Really got Me” was heavy metal ie an extremely tenuous and abstract connection to the respective sounds the genres came to symbolise).
    But by 1968 we had the sound that dominated black dance music up until at least the mid 80s when after existing in tandem with hip hop for a few years until it finally died as a sound of young blacks.

    REGGAE: about as near as such things can ever be to one year indicating a definite starting point for a genre (as opposed to the ska and rocksteady that went before)

    RAP: a bit more controversial but the Last Poets are invariably cited as the first rap group and they began performing in 1968.

    re my 92: it should have read “although signifying virtually NOTHING alone”…don’t usually bother correcting my many typos but that one makes the whole thing complete gibberish

  6. 96
    Gavin Wright on 8 Feb 2010 #

    Re: #88, this sounds familiar – Nirvana were the key band in terms of my group of friends at school getting into music in a big way and their crossover appeal in terms of Kerrang!/NME meant that some of us went the indie route and some the rock (I was largely the former though partial to heavier stuff at times).

    Looking back it was perhaps a transitional era for the genre, the big names were those who had roots in thrash (about which me and my friends knew nothing) and who helped lay the foundations for nu-metal – bands like Rage Against The Machine, Fear Factory, Pantera and – later on – Sepultura’s Roots album and Korn’s first couple of records. I could never fully commit myself to the metal lifestyle – I never really liked the look for starters – but I admired it in a way and I always found myself annoyed at the snobbery displayed in the indie weeklies towards the music and its fans.

    I’m not sure what the early/mid-’90s equivalent of Europe-style pop/stadium metal would have been – Def Leppard and Bon Jovi still had hits around ’91/’92 but beyond that I’m stumped.

  7. 97
    CarsmileSteve on 9 Feb 2010 #

    early 90s pop/stadium metal you say?

    extreme, warrant, TIGERTAILZ (not that they got as far as a stadium, but deffo pop bless ’em)…

    debatable whether one could count thunder/quireboys/little angels/dogs d’amour as 90s pop metal, they were pretty much over once Nevermind came out…

  8. 98
    Steve Mannion on 9 Feb 2010 #

    What about RHCP and The Black Crowes? Not exactly metal but probably capable of filling some stadiums just before, around and still after the time of ‘Nevermind’. Depressing to think that RHCP were still some 10 years off their commercial peak at that point!

  9. 99
    Auntie Beryl on 1 Feb 2013 #

    The Wildhearts were the big mid 90s metal band in my shop.

    Amused at the Vampire Weekend inclusion in that list of US hair metal acts up there…

  10. 100
    DanH on 11 Jun 2013 #

    An alternate reworking of this song :-)

  11. 101
    hectorthebat on 20 Jan 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Spex (Germany) – The Best Singles of the Century (1999)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  12. 102
    Adam on 27 Mar 2015 #

    Ultimate example of the Joy of Schlock… can’t hear it without a vision of Gob Bluth, can’t consider it outside the context of Camp, love it anyway.

  13. 103
    Cumbrian on 5 Oct 2015 #

    Tom’s mentioned before that there’s generally not much opportunity to fit Popular to computer gaming – so I’m going to force fit one here, as this pops up on the recent Metal Gear Solid 5.

    The game itself is set in the mid-80s and one of the “collectibles” is a set of tapes that your character listens to on his Walkman, whilst infiltrating bases or doing various other terrorist activities (did I mention that this game has the odd premise of you playing a private military contractor/terrorist? It’m not going to sit here and say “makes you think” but it is a bit odd doing a bunch of stuff that is morally ambiguous as best, and at worst is outright facilitating Bad Shit). Anyway, there’s about 16 licensed tracks in the game, of which this is one, and it gives rise to one of the best moments in the game where you can chopper into a base to the strains of The Final Countdown. If someone on Youtube hasn’t scored the relevant scene in Apocalypse Now to TFC before now, it can surely only be a matter of time.

    Other tracks on the soundtrack are mostly well known pop hits (Kids In America, Rebel Yell and the like), though I hadn’t heard Midge Ure’s take on The Man Who Sold The World, which provides the opening theme music. It’s pretty effective in context.

    It’s the first MGS game I’ve played – it’s quite good – but the story appears as incomprehensible/batshit crazy as I was led to believe beforehand. I suspect I am missing some nuance here which might be mitigating that this guy appears to not only be building his own private army, but has, in the past, dabbled with getting WMDs. I’ve not finished it yet either, so there’s that. Still, if you’re into stealth and shooting stuff in computer games, you could definitely do worse. Best one of these games I’ve played in 20 years (i.e. since the original Goldeneye).

  14. 104
    Andrew Farrell on 5 Oct 2015 #

    It would strike me as a really weird soundtrack to Apocalpyse Now – too, er, apocalyptic.

  15. 105
    Cumbrian on 5 Oct 2015 #

    In the timeless words of Harry Hill: There’s only one way to find out!

    TFC would work well in a scene where Americans use music to try and scare the hell out of people – it would be an example of truth in movie making – they blasted Metallica at people when using rendition techniques during the most recent foray into Iraq. Metal strikes me as more likely to be scary as hell than Wagner.

    Mind you, I think TFC’s utter triumphalism and sense of apocalypse is probably why it would work better in a video game. Underscoring you running away from an exploding radar facility or whilst manning a minigun hanging out of the side of a helicopter, TFC is mightily effective.

  16. 106
    Phil on 5 Oct 2015 #

    I have very fond memories of playing a re-skinned version of Duke Nukem 3D set in Classical Greece while listening to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a combination which worked well for reasons you can probably imagine. The PC I was using back then was smart enough to play a CD and game sound FX at the same time – while also rendering the game – without any noticeable lag on anything. I’m not sure my current Mac could do it – or rather, I’m pretty sure it couldn’t.

  17. 107
    Tommy Mack on 6 Oct 2015 #

    Worms on the PC: if you took the game CD out after you loaded the game, it played the audio CD in place of the game’s background music. In retrospect, Different Class and Stanley Road were probably not the best soundtrack of choice for this…

  18. 108
    Cumbrian on 6 Oct 2015 #

    I never had a PC for gaming, so I have missed out on this. I have often wanted to be able to plug my iPod or similar into the USB port on the Playstation and for a game like GTA to recognise it and play things through the car stereo – I believe you can do this on PC, so it’s my own fault for buying a more limited box.

    I used to turn the music settings down on Metroid and run around ice planets to the sound of Violator by Depeche Mode. That was pretty good.

  19. 109
    Kinitawowi on 9 Oct 2015 #

    The Final Countdown was also comfortably the best thing about Lego Rock Band.

  20. 110
    Gareth Parker on 18 May 2021 #

    Again another enjoyable enough track at #1. I prefer ‘Eye of the Tiger’ to this, but still, a 6/10 from me.

  21. 111
    Mr Tinkertrain on 12 Apr 2022 #

    I’m appalled that there are people voting anything other than 10 here.

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