‘The Final Countdown’ by Europe is a Classic Heavy Metal song that needs no introduction- it’s instantly recognizable from the moment you hear that iconic keyboard lick at the start.
The Hawk did often wonder though, when the song first hit the airwaves, where had this band even come from? I mean, the video released with the single shows them playing to a packed arena, but who had even heard of them up until that moment? Some people, obviously, but they’d been at least a little obscure up to that point. Well, The Hawk is here with a light to shine on that particular Classic Heavy Metal mystery, so let’s dive right in.
Not Universally Popular
‘The Final Countdown’. A song which turned Europe into:
‘…this teeny-bopper, bubblegum band…the spandex, poodle-rock type of thing.’John Norum
That’s according to none other than the band’s guitarist at the time, John Norum, who walked out in protest at this unwanted musical direction to pursue a solo career. ‘I was more into the heavier, guitar-oriented stuff, and it just seemed like the keyboards were taking over, and we were becoming more and more commercial.’
That’s right – we’re in Classic Heavy Metal SELLOUT territory yet again, with the culprit as usual being the poor old keyboard.
In the interest of full disclosure, Classic Metal Hawk has to confess that the one and thus far only time in his life he has ever participated in Karaoke, the chosen song was The Final Countdown. So, the Hawk didn’t hate the song, and indeed, after crucifying it in front of an audience of friends and colleagues, probably gained a newfound respect for Europe singer Joey Tempest’s ability to perform it.
So anyway, where did Europe spring from? They first formed in 1979 in Sweden, at about the same time that acts like Iron Maiden and Def Leppard were kicking off the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) – and although there was no titled equivalent in Sweden, it has always been a country with a big appetite for rock and heavy metal music.
The new band called themselves ‘Force’, and to begin with it was a case of a few friends having a bit of fun jamming together. They contented themselves with having a go at rock covers to begin with – at least until they could maybe play a bit better. At some point, they decided to take the plunge into writing their own material, and try to make it to the next level as an act. Tentative first attempts were made, with lead singer / band heart-throb Joey Tempest as the main ideas man.
Now with some original music under their belts, Force struck forth. They looked the part, and were on their way to sounding like it. There wasn’t too much initial interest though, at least not from the local Swedish record labels, who told them to cut their hair and sing in Swedish to be in with any chance. Kinda like the local equivalent of the punk revolution on Britain then – record companies wanting to throw cash at short haired, local interest bands, but with no interest in investing in an unknow heavy metal band.
The band plodded on anyway, sticking with their preferred style of music, just like so many of their British peers. One early line-up change brought in John Leven on the bass – he must have been good, because he was almost immediately poached by no less a figure than cult guitar hero Yngwie Malmsteen. But a personality clash between the 2 quickly brought Leven back into the Force / Europe fold.
Kings of Sweden
A lucky break was on its way when Tempest’s girlfriend entered the band into a Swedish national talent contest – a sort of national level Battle of the Bands. Against all the odds (and fighting off about 4000 other bands) they won first prize, playing two numbers ‘In the Future to Come’ and ‘The King Will Return’. The prize for winning the contest was a recording deal – and so armed with that and their new name of Europe (apparently inspired by the Deep Purple album ‘Made in Europe’), they were away.
(Have a listen to one of those tracks – it’s no ‘Final Countdown’, that’s for sure, but we all have to start somewhere.)
Lucky break or hard work? As always, a combination of both was in play – the band had to be good enough to complete against all those other line-ups, sure. But if nobody had thought to enter them in the competition, the world might still be rubbing along without ‘The Final Countdown’.
First up under the new deal was an eponymously titled album in 1982 which had some success in Sweden (naturally enough, so soon after their competition success), but also in Japan. That was followed a year later by a second studio album ‘Wings of Tomorrow’, which made enough waves that CBS Records now offered them an international recording deal.
(There’s no actual connection, but The Hawk couldn’t help but be reminded of the title of ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’, the second studio album from Judas Priest which really established their heavy metal credentials in the UK. A massive stride forward second time around by both groups.).
Anyway, with their new and improved status as an internationally signed band, Europe set to work on a third album, and here they were to make their mark in the way we all now know.
The famous keyboard riff for ‘The Final Countdown’ had been written some years earlier by Tempest, and he now hauled it out of cold storage and resolved to use it in a song.
The lyrics were inspired by David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, and you can see the connection:
Interestingly, Bowie is often credited with being a major influence behind the emergence of Glam Metal, what with his make-up and tin-foil outfits. So maybe Joey Tempest already had it mind to go down ‘poodle rock’ route that so infuriated John Norum at the time. Keyboard main riff. Bowie inspired lyrics. Job done.
‘The Final Countdown’ was included on the new album of the same name – but the band still harboured a few doubts to begin with due to the massive prominence of the keyboard on a rock song. They wondered whether to keep it simply as the show opener on the next tour, and some band members thought that the more guitar-oriented ‘Rock the Night’ would be a better choice as the first single to be released. The record company pulled rank, however, and the rest is history.
What about that arena video? It was recorded during 2 shows the band played at the Solnahallen, in Solna, Sweden. So, yes, a local crowd, but still a demonstration of the sales firepower the band had already accumulated by that time. And of course, when the single was an international smash, sell-out shows in many other countries followed.
Best and Worst?
John Norum was not by any means alone in his negative view of the song though – Blender listed it as their 27th worst song ever. And the mix of reactions can probably be summed up by VH1, who have had it as their 16th ‘Most Awesomely Bad Song Ever’, and also 66th on the list of Best Hard Rock Songs of All Time. Go figure.
It’s certainly been a financial nest-egg for Europe though. As well as it’s chart success all over the world, the song is widely used at events – anything from sporting spectacles to high school proms, where it’s always certain to get crowds in the mood. It was one of the last songs played over the radio in communist East Germany before German re-unification. (They were on the final countdown to reunification – geddit??). It’s been used as entrance music for pro-wrestler Bryan Danielson, and as the theme for the Greek men’s basketball team’s win at a European tournament.
So, quite the legacy. The band went on to many further adventures (although they never managed to come up with any other songs with quite the same impact as ‘The Final Countdown’). The band took a break in 1992, 6 years after their moment of triumph.
Burying the Hatchet
Eventually though, the old chemistry meant that a reunion was always going to happen. Europe made a triumphant mini comeback for the New Year’s Eve 1999 celebrations in Stockholm, Sweden, to see in the new Millennium. ‘Rock the Night’ and ‘The Final Countdown’ were played, with (checks notes) one John Norum back on guitar. Like most people, with the passing of a certain number of years, he had found it more acceptable to accommodate different styles of music after all. (Fess up, Norum – you secretly liked it all along, like the rest of us, right?)
Nothing much happened immediately after that cameo, but sure enough, when the band announced a new album and world tour in October of 2003, it was to be with the ‘Final Countdown’ lineup, John Norum and all. Norum’s replacement in the band, Kee Marcello, claimed he didn’t want to be a part of the full reunion anyway, because ‘musically, I want to go in a different direction than the music of Europe stands for.’ Yeah, you tell yourself that.
Classic Metal Hawk invites readers to make up their own minds. Anyway, post reunion, Europe have to date released another 6 studio albums, with many more successful shows. The Hawk isn’t sure whether any of those gigs have omitted ‘The Final Countdown’ but has his doubts. I for one would feel totally conned now to leave a Europe gig without that memory in the bank.
Had you heard of Europe before they took the world by storm with ‘The Final Countdown?’ And if so did you agree with John Norum’s view on it? What about its ubiquity ever since? Good or bad for heavy metal?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.