25
Jan 10

EUROPE – “The Final Countdown”

FT + Popular110 comments • 7,259 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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Comments

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  1. 1
    Billy Smart on 25 Jan 2010 #

    Well, fair enough, Europe’s appearance and use of signifiers might make them first in a taxonomy of metal, but you could claim that ‘You Really Got Me’ or ‘Voodoo Chile’ or ‘Down Down’ function as well as rifftastic headbangin’ metal singles.

    This is fun! Best heard in the context of a Council municipal fireworks display, rather than as something you’d listen to on your own, perhaps.

  2. 2
    Tracer Hand on 25 Jan 2010 #

    There’s something sneery and bratty about the way he sings “countdown” that I’ve never really understood. It’s almost Axl-like. Was this a vocal leftover from punk that hadn’t quite died in the metallic afterglow of 1986?

  3. 3
    Steve Mannion on 25 Jan 2010 #

    This one I remember disliking which seems odd esp. as I did like one of their follow-ups (‘Superstitious’…ack). And being both a bit precocious and pedantic back then (UNLIKE NOW) I took umbrage with the “we’re heading for Venus” line – it’s a fiery sulphuric inhospitable world you poodle-haired bellends.

    These days I associate it first and foremost with the sight of Gob in Arrested Development, knife in mouth doing his hilarious dance, which is enough for me to warrant a 6. But as with many big fun well known Anthems, never something I really want to hear.

  4. 4
    Tom on 25 Jan 2010 #

    #1 part of my point about coalitions is that genres are (or were) determined by audience as much as function/style – those singles are HEAVIER than TFC but I dunno if they’re metal?

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 25 Jan 2010 #

    #2 Watch: A week for Erasure’s glorious and lovelorn ‘Sometimes’. They got their best moment in early, perhaps…

  6. 6
    rosie on 25 Jan 2010 #

    That B side – surely not a throwback to the early charts?

    (As I’ve never even heard of this one I’ll duck straight back into lurkdome.)

  7. 7
    Billy Smart on 25 Jan 2010 #

    Retunrning to this again, I sense an affinity with Roxette in that they don’t bother in even pretending to ponce around with verses at all, wisely knowing that all the listener will be wanting to hear is fanfare and FINAL COUNTDOWN! action, reworked in slightly different combinations.

    Such audience-pleasing showmanship and lack of tortued artistry is only to be commended, I think. Though I probably wouldn’t have thought so in 1986.

  8. 8
    Tom on 25 Jan 2010 #

    Oh it was produced by the guy who produced Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”, a song that seems to have a fighting chance of bunnification.

  9. 9
    Tom on 25 Jan 2010 #

    Always worth a link: http://www.takebackthehorns.com/

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 25 Jan 2010 #

    TOTPWatch: Europe performed The Final Countdown on the Top Of The Pops transmitted on 20 November 1986. Also in the studio that week were; Swing Out Sister, Erasure and Bon Jovi. Janice Long & John Peel were the hosts.

  11. 11
    lonepilgrim on 25 Jan 2010 #

    for some reason this seems more palatable because the band are Swedish. Just as the muppets could make any song vaguely appealing there’s something commendable and comforting about performers from Europe (see what I did there) singing this nonsense in a foreign tongue. Had it been a British or American act I’d be thinking, blimey is this the best you can do?
    Having said that I do enjoy a bit of metal – I liked Def Leppard’s Hysteria from this era and Hawkwind and Led Zeppelin from an earlier age.

    Also re ‘The first metal song to get to number one’, do Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ or Alice Cooper’s ‘Schools Out’ not qualify as metal Number 1s?

  12. 12
    Lex on 25 Jan 2010 #

    I hate this song so much…in no fit mental state to offer more constructive criticism but it’s just so horribly naff, I find it quite hard to think of it as music at all – it’s like the soundtrack to some awful British comedy skit. It doesn’t even sound triumphalist, it sounds like people taking the piss out of triumphalism. I basically cannot be in a room with this song and have been known to leave parties because of it. UGHHHH, in short.

    I fucking hate “Don’t Stop Believing” too.

  13. 13
    Tom on 25 Jan 2010 #

    #11 actually they probably do, well, Alice probably does, Survivor I think were just a rock band.

    #12 Lex what is your favourite metal track??

  14. 14
    koganbot on 25 Jan 2010 #

    My nephew Bobby says that he hates ’80s music, and this is the quintessential ’80s song, but he loves this song for being the quintessential ’80s song.

    Yes it’s metal, but it feels very disco, especially the fanfare, which is the sort of thing that disco did well but that other genres hadn’t quite tried, that I remember, anyway (though I can’t think of examples of disco fanfares at the moment; when I think fanfare these days I think of Young Jeezy’s first album, the slow, suspended, arcing sounds he was rapping over).

    #2. Tracer, I’d thought “Plant” rather than Axl, whom I hadn’t heard yet (Plant had something of a… not sneer, but a knowing twist), though Plant hardly precludes Axl. I remember an article in the U.S. press about Europe being biz know-it-alls’ pick to storm the U.S. in ’87. Turns out that no band stormed the U.S. in ’87, but by mid ’88 it was clear that Guns N’ Roses and Def Leppard were to be the bands.

  15. 15
    koganbot on 25 Jan 2010 #

    #9 Speaking of umbrellas, when I saw the P-Funk Allstars in the early ’80s I remember lots of the audience were throwing metal horns.

  16. 16
    Lex on 25 Jan 2010 #

    #13 I don’t think I hate this for the reason I don’t get most metal, which is a huge huge blind spot of bafflement for me. I’m not really baffled by “The Final Countdown”, I just hate it. My favourite metal track is Tricky’s cover of “Black Steel”.

  17. 17
    Tom on 25 Jan 2010 #

    Yes that’s why I was interested – I mean I’m guessing a lot of metallers hated TFC too, the guitarist basically quit the band over it. I wondered if there was, er, ‘less false’ metal that you did like more.

  18. 18
    Steve Mannion on 25 Jan 2010 #

    re #14 I figure the notorious Axl ‘whine’ was itself inspired by Plant.

    I was enjoying all kinds of things in the charts in ’86 but my reactions to (hair) metal were pretty random and as affected by visual signifiers as anything (obviously it was an incredibly strong medium visually and many of the bands took to the MTV-orientated agenda with seeming relish). To 8 year old me the sight of Bon Jovi flying around the stage on strings in the ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ just made the song seem even more spectacular. Van Halen’s ‘Why Can’t This Be Love’ sounded similarly, joyfully euphoric. Despite all this (and vivid memories of jumping up and down on the bed with a tennis racket to Def Leppard’s ‘Animal’ the following year) I don’t recall ever feeling a big urge to pick up a guitar, but then they seemed such distant, exotic objects (more than keyboards where at least you could start off with a cheap crappy version and work your way up). Maybe it’s just that dance music was just about to push all this to one side (for me personally at least), tho not to be completely disregarded.

    What’s interesting as far as metal in the charts at this point goes is how Iron Maiden went from routinely peaking between 11 and 30 in the mid 80s to repeatedly going straight into the top 10 a couple of years later and regularly from the on. What changed for them between 86 and 88 in terms of the fanbase and their approach to buying IM singles, if anything?

  19. 19
    taDOW on 25 Jan 2010 #

    if survivor counts foreigner does (foreigner don’t). cooper clearly heavy metal but not hair metal, at least not at the time of his #1 (sweet and slade and maybe even t. rex otoh…). impossible to think of anything but gob when i hear this song now (they even sorta snuck it into his sesame street appearance). VERY similar to eye of the tiger though – almost all intro and very aware that the intro is all it’s got going for it; eye of the tiger makes more of an actual effort to build a song around it, final countdown seems satisfied just treading water in between appearances (fc does have the much better solo though right?) – not sure what’s the better option really. somewhat atypical hair metal track – neither the stones/springsteen roots of g’n’f’n’r or cinderella or bon jovi or the straight glam of poison, and despite the journey producer it doesn’t feel like the high sheen boston residue of hysteria either (it is funny to think that this and taylor swift share dna beyond hair crinkle though). some hybrid of prog and video game music, it seemed clearly a joke at the time (not that we didn’t love the hook – it is undeniable), and not the ‘laughing with them’ kind like warrant or poison (til they ditched glam for stones/springsteen and became very much ‘laughing at them’), more the mix of revulsion and amusement that would accompany white lion and reach it’s peak with nelson. 5 for me.

  20. 20
    taDOW on 25 Jan 2010 #

    horns @ p-funk possibly due to ‘never buy texas from a cowboy’? ok prob not

  21. 21
    Kat but logged out innit on 25 Jan 2010 #

    Hundred Reasons used this as their curtain-up music. I have been to more Hundred Reasons gigs than was strictly necessary and got rather sick of it in 2001 as a result. But that ridiculous guitar solo gets at least an 8!

  22. 22
    Conrad on 25 Jan 2010 #

    It’s obviously a memorable riff, though I’ve never been able to take it seriously, as that mind of major key, almost Mozart-ian kind of melody, just puts me in mind of a rock/classical crossover of spinal tap proportions.

    So, #12, ‘naff’ is a pretty fair summary.

    I did start to take heavy rock seriously at about this point though. The Bon Jovi singles were great fun, and then The Cult went all AC/DC and delivered a memorable leather-trousered TOTP performance with ‘Love Removal Machine’ (title!)

    I think late 86 was probably the start of heavy rock’s most popular period, what with Run DMC resurrecting Aerosmith, and Guns n Roses and Metallica soon to follow Bon Jovi into enormodomes around the world.

  23. 24
    Ben on 25 Jan 2010 #

    Does the make Lordi the second coming of Europe then?

  24. 25
    AndyPandy on 25 Jan 2010 #

    I always thought it was accepted that Heavy Metal/Rock started in 1968 – Blue Cheer were on their 2nd album (even now about as heavy as you can get), Led Zeppelin formed, Steppenwolf recorded ‘Born To Be Wild’ (with its “heavy metal thunder” lyric), Hendrix and Cream were at their heaviest. I remember seeing an article to this effect in a “Kerrang” in (I should imagine 1988 – 20th anniversary? don’t know why I was reading it I think I must have seen a copy at work or something!

    And by early 1969 it was complete – Black Sabbath changing from heavy blues to their legendary sound, Deep Purple completing their change to heaviosity and countless other bands already working to the template.

    It’s a pity Led Zeppelin hadn’t released “Whole Lotta Love” in 1969 or Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” or Deep Purple’s “Black Night” hadn’t gone a couple of places higher in 1970 as then we’d have had a definitive answer to the question of the first Heavy Metal Number One. As it is you’d have to go for “Voodoo Chile” in 1970 wouldn’t you?

    Having said that I’ve always looked on 1972 as the LOUDEST ever year as far as the upper echelons (not Number 1s but maybe Top20 hits)in British pop charts history – this first came to me when I watched the 1972 edition of something like “Rock n Roll Years” – Top 5 hit after hit seemed to be blaring (not Heavy Metal but even blatant opo was just loud) everything from Slade, Gary Glitter, Alice Cooper, T Rex, Hawkwind, Sweet starting to rock it up,David Bowie and “The
    Jean Genie”, even the Osmonds with “Crazy Horses”, Blackfoot Sue and loads of other one hit wonders with the rock overwhelming the pop – whether power chords, screaming backing singers and bawling lead singers fighting against cluttered and cacophonous productions everything seemed to be turned up to 11 – for any year before or since at least as far as the top of the pop charts went anyway.

    I have memories of lying in bed aged 7 one summer’s evening whilst the White Hart pub down the road had what must have been a party/disco (probably before that word really existed)on don’t know how they got away with the sheer volume coming out of their windows that night but notwithstanding that I’m sure the reason the records all sounded so clear in my bedroom was because it was 1972 and everything was so bloody loud!

  25. 26
    tonya on 25 Jan 2010 #

    Not a number 1 in the US, and I think rightly now seen as a bombastic joke (music that adorable little girls would use in their Microsoft commercials): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssOq02DTTMU&feature=player_embedded

  26. 27
    byebyepride on 25 Jan 2010 #

    “people at school would buy Kerrang! or RAW or Metal Hammer”

    ahem.

  27. 28
    Tom on 25 Jan 2010 #

    Hello! It was S1mon W00lley though too so I decided not to name names :)

  28. 29
    JonnyB on 26 Jan 2010 #

    It has, can we agree, a great air guitar solo?

    Oddly, despite that, I’ve always thought that solo was a bit… knocked off? A bit ‘fuck it – it’s a little pop tune – I’ll do the hammer-on thing then go down the pub’. So it fits that the guitarist (John Norum, from memory?) wasn’t that into it.

    But I loved it when I was a kid.

    I started getting Kerrang, Metal Hammer etc, cos the interesting girls at school were into all that. But being too rubbish to speak to them, I just ended up being the geeky one who read the metal mags. I didn’t even particularly like the bands. Oh dear.

  29. 30
    Paulito on 26 Jan 2010 #

    #25 – lest we forget, 1968 was also the year of early HM behemoth “In A-Gadda-da-Vida” (Iron Butterfly) and of “Helter Skelter”, the first of two Beatle experiments with the emerging genre (“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” following in ’69).

    As for “The Final Countdown”: its all-conquering (albeit synth-based) riff, propulsive rhythm guitar work and wiggly, wailing solo just about qualify the song as metal – but of the soft variety, with strong Euro-pop inflections. Tom speaks of HM as a genre defined by its audience as much as its output, but I reckon the more, erm, discerning metallers (at least, those over the age of 14) would have been pretty suspicious, if not downright disdainful, of “TFC” at the time. And from the oh-so-sophisticated vantage point of 2010 it survives essentially as a dumb but likeable poodle-rock remnant, akin to contemporaries such as “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me”.

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