25
Jan 10

EUROPE – “The Final Countdown”

FT + Popular110 comments • 7,172 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. 31
    swanstep on 26 Jan 2010 #

    Tom, does your talk of ‘coalitions’ work? In political systems like the UK’s only a few large parties can normally be electorally successful, so those parties tend to be broad churches, which we can think of as assembled-in-advance-of-elections coalitions. In other electoral systems relatively small parties can be electorally successful and coalition aren’t organized (or at least finalized) until after the election. In the first sort of system the coalitional stucture is intra-party and largely invisible to non-initiates, in the second sort of system the coalitional structure is inter-party and visible to all. [Google ‘Bawn Rosenbluth coalition parties’ for good academic papers on these matters.]

    Setting aside what the counterpart of electoral success is in your music model (I assume it’s just information, access to free music on radio stations, and the like, rather than chart success as such), the thing you seem to want to say is that genres in the 80s and 90s functioned like *large political parties* (that you joined, that had sub-wings, bitter internal divisions, and all the rest of it), whereas what we have now is a landscape of tiny parties with coalitions formed on-the-fly festival-by-festival, ipod playlist by ipod playlist. There’s more and more visible coalitional activity now than ever before on this view, what’s really changed is the underlying party landscape, hence the locus of that coalitional activity.

    At any rate, part of what restating your theses in terms of parties does is reveal the limits of the basic analogy. Genre-transcendence is close to the rule in the upper eschelons of pop surely. People who liked Elton John or Kate Bush or Jeff Buckley found it by hook or by crook regardless of labels.

    As for the song… it’s pretty damned irritating in my view (I’m not quite as opposed to it as Lex is, but I know where he/she’s coming from). Even the Darkness would probably turn up their noses at this one!
    Tom’s point about this having started life as a show opener is interesting, because I remember *lots* of bands in this period marching on stage to the Wagner from Apocalypse Now (with all the soldier chit-chat from the movie left in, thank you very much). TFC’s intro does feel exactly like that, and I’d bet that’s where this started. Bon Jovi’s first few hits (all the Bon J. anyone really needs or likes surely) are massively superior to this.

    I reserve a special kick for the vid. here. I’ve always found it odd that when a band steps out onto the world stage for the first time it should make a vid showing them with huge crowds, gold records etc.. Most of the people who ever see the vid. are going to be thinking ‘Who are you?’ And all you’re telling us about yourself is that you’re massive apparently (but for what?), you sure as hell don’t need my money. In other words, I hate ‘first’ videos that feel like they should be ‘third’ videos (at which point that massive audience would nominally be able to include us):
    3

  2. 32
    TomLane on 26 Jan 2010 #

    Great Hair Metal Cheese, one of those defining songs of that oft-maligned genre. As it turns out, it has aged better than we thought possible. Grunge supposedly banished these acts. But which do you prefer now? Peaked at #8 in the U.S. And that’s the grade I’d give it.

  3. 33
    Tom on 26 Jan 2010 #

    #31 I think it’s a thin but not useless analogy – maybe “unions” works better than coalitions but the collective self-interest is much looser! It’s to do with access to information anyway.

    In fact thinking about it the problematic word is “winning”: in politics the object of a coalition is access to government, the structure of power that exists above the party system. But in music – in culture generally – access to mass popularity ISN’T necessarily the aim of everyone, and it turns out to be a mixed blessing. (There’s also a difference between what coalitions mean here for the artists and for the fans, of course.)

    Maybe there isn’t a perfect metaphor for what I’m talking about – groups which put aside their differences for access to a resource (publicity/information/distribution) but which in doing so risk success. I read an interesting blog post by Nitsuh Abebe today, though, which identifies something like this dynamic existing at the heart of online culture: a thing created for a group becoming accessible to everyone outside that group. Perhaps pop in the 80s and 90s (and before potentially, not sure why I picked those decades specially) is a preview of the internet :)

  4. 34
    MikeMCSG on 26 Jan 2010 #

    18

    “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?”

    Basically Steve their sales held up in a significantly declining singles market. We’re at the height of the CD boom here when people were re-buying old albums in the new medium and record companies were re-cycling their back catalogue instead of developing new talent. Also you had Radio One’s new playlist which alighted on random records without regard to fanbase or track record and cut off a vital source of oxygen for the likes of China Crisis, Howard Jones, Nick Kershaw, Paul Young, Frankie and Ultravox who all suffered major flops in this period. Spandau and Duran were diminished. Iron Maiden never got much airplay anyway relying instead on a fanatical following so they survived while others fell away. It wasn’t just metal acts either, any band who’d developed a following over time got nearer the charts without compromising their sound ; hence you started seeing hits for The Fall, Sisters Of Mercy, The Cramps and finally The Wedding Present themselves.

    “TFC” is the sole hair metal number one, Bon Jovi and Def Leppard never quite getting there. Has there been a more critically unloved genre over the past 30 years ?

    Pity the fans of Blackburn Rovers who still endure this on a regular basis !

  5. 35
    Tom on 26 Jan 2010 #

    I think for as long as I’ve been an ‘active’ critic – a decade or so – hair metal has had a pretty good CRITICAL rep! (Maybe that’s hanging out online with Maura too much tho!) The problem is it’s become a joke for the kind of next layer of the media, filed under “dumb things about the 80s”.

    I wish there had been more hair metal #1s!

  6. 36
    Erithian on 26 Jan 2010 #

    Somehow I’m reminded of how Hugo Speer’s character was recruited to the troupe in The Full Monty. “You don’t sing? You don’t dance? Hope you don’t mind me being nosey, but what do you do?” – “Well, there is THIS…”

    And that’s what the intro is. This great big proud erect ten-inch musical hook, that carries a fairly “meh” song and a solo that is little more than fretwank along with it. Once you’ve heard the hook there’s not much else selling the record, but that’s all they really needed. But what’s missing for me is any kind of heart or passion – the abovementioned Bon Jovi and Def Leppard tracks may be hair metal as well, but they have that in abundance.

    I love AndyPandy’s reference to 1972 upthread – we mentioned in the “School’s Out” thread that we missed out on the hairiest 1-2 in chart history when Hawkwind were held off at number 3 by “Seaside Shuffle”. Being three years older than Andy judging by his post, I was at a holiday camp disco that summer with the likes of “Silver Machine” and “Mama Weer All Crazee Now” bludgeoning the kiddies. The older lad up our street was introducing me to Purple, Sabbath, Wishbone Ash, Budgie etc, and so by the time the New Wave of British Heavy Metal came around, I thought it was pretty tame by comparison.

    Steve #18 – plenty of chance to discuss the Iron Maiden phenomenon in about four Popular-years’ time, but as I understand it it wasn’t so much that their sales held up as that the band and record company got their marketing down to a fine art several years ahead of the rest of the industry – they might not get the biggest sales but ensured that the fanbase all knew when the records and associated goodies were coming out, so got the highest chart position possible to try to draw others in. And it worked like a charm.

    Oh, and could one of our North American colleagues tell us just how massive “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was?

  7. 37
    will on 26 Jan 2010 #

    I was never able to take this record, or indeed any hair metal (as it was later to be christened) seriously. I think it was the haircuts that were so laughable. And the ridiculously widdly solos. But then I was brought up in the South East where you were either into soul/ funk or an indie kid.

    The following year, 1987, I started university in South Wales and remember being shocked at how many the local youth were into metal. Wandering around Swansea town centre on a Saturday afternoon you lost count of the Iron Maiden/ Leppard/ Saxon T Shirts.

  8. 38
    MikeMCSG on 26 Jan 2010 #

    # 35 Do we take it you weren’t a big Nirvana fan then, Tom ?

  9. 39
    Tom on 26 Jan 2010 #

    Loved lots of American alt.rock and never had much of a problem w/Nirvana – though a lot of the other grunge acts were (I thought) terrible, and have aged worse. My favourite 90s Seattle thing is Peter Bagge’s HATE, however!

    The, er, “first grunge #1” makes Europe look like paragons of total authenticity though so I’ll save a lot of this discussion for 1994 :)

  10. 40
    swanstep on 26 Jan 2010 #

    Swedish metal band does knowing me knowing you
    Yngwie Malmsteen does gimme gimme gimme
    In general, metal Abba is hair-metal I can get behind! :)

    @erithian, 36. Didn’t NWOBHM sound at least a lot faster? I’m no expert but my general sense is that things quickly went utterly bonkers on the speed and abrasiveness front with obscure NWOBHM bands as inspiration. By 1988 people like Napalm Death were around doing insane ultra-heavy hyperspeed songs that were only 30 seconds long. And John Zorn’s more jazzy/artsy end of the spectrum had things down to just 10 seconds by the mid-80s. And *all* of those people claimed to be building on NWOBHM bands not on Sabbath, etc..

  11. 41
    thefatgit on 26 Jan 2010 #

    TFC enthralled me and repulsed me in equal measure. A change of pace at the top of the charts, with A HEAVY METAL RECORD!?! You coulda knocked me dahn wiv a fevva Guv! But this is no “Reign In Blood” or “Master Of Puppets”. The “balls out” rocker analyses this example of Swedish heavy metal and find that it’s lacking in weight. The heavy metal fan listens and sneers from behind his sleeveless denim jacket at this example of Swedish hard rock and finds it somewhat floppy. The rock fan who is open to other genres and owns a couple of ABBA records listens to this example of Swedish poodle pop and finds it lacks bite.
    It’s a song that wants to be an anthem for the end of civilisation, but it’s more end of the pier unfortunately. It falls between too many stools to be representative of anything other than Europe’s biggest hit. As a pop record, it stands up well. Memorable tune, check. Silly but quotable lyrics, check. Lead singer has sex appeal…er, check-ish?
    I can hear hundreds of people saying “I don’t like heavy metal, but I like this!”
    And today it’s filed under “ironic student disco favourite” alongside “Don’t Stop Believin'” and The Baywatch Theme.

  12. 42
    Rob K on 26 Jan 2010 #

    Popular sing along at school for the Indie kids versus the Metal Boys

    We’e heading for Venus
    and still we stand tall
    You’re just a big penis
    with very small baaaaaaaaaalllllls YEAH

    As a card carrying metal boy this was all a bit embarrasing really. Not least because Joey Tempest really did look he should be called Josephine. Still, it was part of an undeniable surge in metal popularity and for every TFC there was a Livin on a Prayer or a Dude (Looks Like A Lady) or a Gimme All Your Lovin’ or further on Paradise City. I may be wrong but i suspect the reason behind this was because if you rejected the weak, often insipid, usually dull, winsome indie bollocks that the NME were pushing ad nauseam there wasn’t that much else around.

    For me it looks like the Metal movement has proved to be more enduring. These days the aforementioned Indie kids I grew up with like nothing better than to crank up Sweet Child Of Mine and warble along but you’ll never find The Mighty Lemon Drops anywhere near my turntable.

  13. 43
    Steve Mannion on 26 Jan 2010 #

    good sensible points Mike and Erithian thx

    re lack of hair metal #1s…Alice Cooper of all people would come very close with ‘Poison’.

  14. 44
    MikeMCSG on 26 Jan 2010 #

    #39 Definitely with you on that 1994 one Tom;at least Europe didn’t inspire Tommy Iommi to blow his brains out !

  15. 45
    swanstep on 26 Jan 2010 #

    So, what’s the comical, first grunge #1? I checked and none of the obvious, big bands got to #1 (I was a little shocked that none of teen spirit, jeremy, today, black hole sun, them bones, doll parts got to the top – this stuff felt inescapable at the time) – so that just leaves various acts I’ve never even heard of before like Doop and Stiltskin.

  16. 46
    LondonLee on 26 Jan 2010 #

    #41: “I don’t like heavy metal, but I like this!”

    I always filed ‘Black Betty’ by Ram Jam under that too, another I guess “ironic” favourite.

    It’s not exactly Motorhead heavy is it though? That big synth riff sounds more like Prog to me, I can imagine Rick Wakeman playing it wearing a cape.

    Hated it at the time and thought I’d like it more now, but I think I’m just indifferent to it which is an improvement of sorts.

  17. 47
    Elsa on 26 Jan 2010 #

    #36: “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” as a single hit US Billboard #30 in summer ’68; the album #4.

    “Whole Lotta Love” was a US single in ’69 and very nearly topped the charts – #4 Billboard; #2 Cashbox.

  18. 48
    Elsa on 26 Jan 2010 #

    It looks like Led Zeppelin were stopped at #2 in US Cashbox by Peter, Paul and Mary (“Leaving on a Jet Plane”). Those were the days.

  19. 49
    MikeMCSG on 26 Jan 2010 #

    #45 You’ve named the guilty party there Swanstep but I’d advise you to remain in blissful ignorance (same goes for the other one you mention which was widely touted as the worst number one of all time)!

  20. 50
    koganbot on 26 Jan 2010 #

    I always thought it was accepted that Heavy Metal/Rock started in 1968

    #25 Nothing is ever accepted, but 1968 seems right, as before then no one quite had the technical capacity to do Big And Lumbering, except I actually think Vanilla Fudge were horribly there by 1967. And the only thing holding back The Music Machine in ’66 was technical capacity.

  21. 51
    Rory on 26 Jan 2010 #

    “The Final Countdown” entered the Australian charts in February 1987 and stayed for six months, peaking at number two; no Aussie pop fan of the time could forget it, because it became the unofficial anthem for exactly what its title described. Countdown, the ABC-TV pop music showcase that had dominated teenage Sunday evenings since November 1974, went to air for the last time on 19 July 1987, bringing to an end a force that was instrumental in the success of not only many Australian acts but also such Popular titans as ABBA, Blondie and Madonna, all of whom owed key early hits to promotion on the show. It’s impossible for me now to think of Europe’s song without remembering the show that was pop music – which gives this bunch of Swedish hair-metallers an unfair advantage, really.

    Amazingly, no metal act – hair or otherwise – reached number one in the Australian singles charts in the 1980s, although Jon Bon Jovi made it in 1990 with “Blaze of Glory”, a few years after Slippery When Wet had spent six weeks on top of the album charts. Van Halen’s “Jump” reached number two in 1984, but that was also their least-metal song to date, with the same out-of-genre synths as “The Final Countdown”. Other than those, and this, the only artists who came close were more heavy rock than heavy metal.

    If I’d been a couple of years younger I might have helped their cause, but by 1986/87 I’d passed through my temporary fixation on Iron Maiden and Van Halen. Although Van Halen’s 5150 held some appeal and Def Leppard’s Hysteria held even more, most hair metal seemed like a pale imitation of whatever it was that I’d heard in metal in the first place. I didn’t know about Metallica yet in 1986/87, so the only band I still listened to who were unequivocally metal were Judas Priest, and even they were flirting with synths on 1986’s Turbo. Whether on that album, or in “Jump”, or “The Final Countdown”, synthesizers in 1980s metal too often sounded wrong, the spandex leggings to the electric guitar’s leather jacket.

    So although I can appreciate Europe’s accomplishment in producing an anthem that captures a certain kind of moment to perfection – that moment when a big game enters its final seconds and this comes blaring over the arena speakers – I can’t say it does a lot for me outside that limited context. 5.

  22. 52
    punctum on 26 Jan 2010 #

    No British rock band could have come up with something as unknowingly unapologetic as “The Final Countdown.” Imagine the Darkness tackling an anthemic song about imminent apocalypse; Hawkins would be gurning away in his unfunny falsetto, the guitar solo would be suffocated by the gigantic inverted commas enclosing and enslaving it, the night flight to Venus would be but a planet-sized eyebrow to ward off the blasted Cool Police.

    But Europe were Swedish, and thus had neither guilt nor guile. Their TOTP performance of “The Final Countdown” was a masterclass in 1974 Rock School bits of business, with their frontman Joey Tempest – I ask you, Joey Tempest!!! – with his magnificent sub-David Lee Roth mane of perm, dressed head to foot in leather but with his permed chest proudly on display, going through all the tricks; using the microphone stand as phallus, agonised hand pointing towards sky as he considers the end of Earth and the wisdom of rhyming “Venus” with “seen us,” even picking up and spinning the guitarist around mid-solo…meanwhile the defiantly 1974 synth lead melody (bargain basement Star Trek) affects its would-be poignancy as 1986 drums cascade like the motors of the rocket ready to convey Earth’s few benighted survivors to Another and Better Land.

    Quite admirable in its way, and clearly appealing to those same neglected pop-metal punters who had bought “Eye Of The Tiger” and had lately picked up on the greased flag-waving of Bon Jovi (“Livin’ On A Prayer,” a #4 hit that autumn, was inescapable) but for whom Metallica and Slayer were perhaps a little too “progressive,” “The Final Countdown” did its Continental business. Whether Europe ever managed to reach Venus, however, is not recorded; their follow-up, “Rock The Night,” suggested that earthly pursuits maintained a greater pull.

    (I’d give this a 4 but for some reason can’t post my marks above)

  23. 53
    Tom on 26 Jan 2010 #

    (Yes, the mark adding plug-ins been disabled for behind-the-scenes reasons out of our control – hopefully we can get it going again.)

  24. 54
    Lex on 26 Jan 2010 #

    #35 – “The problem is it’s become a joke for the kind of next layer of the media, filed under “dumb things about the 80s”.” – I’ll unabashedly cop to dismissing it in EXACTLY this fashion.

  25. 55
    tonya on 26 Jan 2010 #

    36 and 47 – Smoke on the Water was a #4, if I have to think of a ubiquitous metal tune from my childhood, it’s that one.

  26. 56
    thefatgit on 26 Jan 2010 #

    One that stands out from my childhood is Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”.

    Anyone remember “Weekend World” with Peter Jay and later, Bwian Walden?

  27. 57
    AndyPandy on 26 Jan 2010 #

    Will at 37: that is so true – I also come from the South East and it seemed to be a pretty straight correlation working-class=soul/funk/hip-hop-any other music fans=indie. If you encountered any young heavy metal fans they were(generally) just a tiny sect of the same sociological group as the indie fans but generally pretty inconspicuous to say the least.

    However travelling to other parts of the country to watch football etc you’d be having a few beers on the way home (for obvious reasons maybe not in the actual place you’d been at the game!)in various small /medium sized towns and be surprised to see loads of obviously working-class heavy metal fans.I remember going to a game in Leeds and having a few drinks in Wakefield and actually chatting to some such lads and the town (well city but its town-sized!)seemed to be full of them.

    West Country market towns were full of them too (actually those type of
    places throughout the rest of England if they were more than about 40 miles* from London all seemed to be), I suppose I should have had an inkling of this as I had a part of my family down there and my cousins-working-class football and speedway-following mechanics/coachbuilders etc had been into Led Zeppelin/Deep Purple as far back as I can remember (probably 1972 again!)and although I was discovering Slade, Sweet etc these were just weird names that the oldest one used to have records by in his bedroom.

    And as I would later realise so different to the working-class culture
    of the south-east – I think there’s the makings of a decent essay there “MUSICAL DIVIDE:THE CHASM BETWEEN THE SOUTH-EAST AND THE REST OF ENGLAND”…

    *note for non-British readers 40 miles might not seem far but approximately about 20 million of England’s 50million plus population live in this area

  28. 58
    AndyPandy on 26 Jan 2010 #

    And of course along with Prince’s “1999” this had a second lease of life at the Millenium.

  29. 59
    Billy Smart on 26 Jan 2010 #

    I could say quite a lot here about the huge popularity of Iron Maiden and U2 amongst my Dulwich College mid-1980s peers, and the factors to which I attribute this.

    On reflection, though, these notions can wait until we get to 1988/ 1991…

    One thing that I do vividly remember about being at a London public school in 1986, was that most of the early-blooming musos in my year were really really excited by the rise of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, to an extent that I suspect only Melody Maker journalists were in the wider world. I think that this was due to a feeling of having missed out on the excitement of punk, and wanting to follow something similar. The next year, the same boys fell for the Beastie Boys in a big way, even being suspended from school for stealing the badges of Volkswagens.

  30. 60
    Mark M on 26 Jan 2010 #

    37/57: I remember there being a certain number of metal fans in my corner of suburban London, although obviously they were as of nothing compared to the massed followers of Luther. Certainly, there were dramatically many more metal heads per capita out in England proper…

    (Re assorted): I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the most disillusioning moments of my life was popping my head into the Kerrang office and hearing Belle & Sebastian on the stereo.

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