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.