Europe’s “The Final Countdown” has undergone a renaissance in the past seven years. The current wave of enthusiasm over the song began with the 1999 release of The Final Countdown 2000, a CD single featuring original 1986 versions of the song along with an updated dance remix that promised to launch citizens of Earth into the new millennium in style. What the marketers behind this cheap stunt did not realize is that the song itself is a dance anthem, and was way ahead of its time long before Y2K had everyone afraid of their own computers.
Fast forward a few years to the late television series Arrested Development, which featured GOB’s outrageous magic trick performances supplemented by none other than “The Final Countdown,” leading a new generation to discover and come to love the aging classic on its own terms. Now it seems everyone is a fan of the song, as it has become one of the more popular cell phone ring tones out there, especially for those who can make the best use of the polyphonic version.
This past November, the song’s legacy was forever secured when it was featured in the Playstation 2 karaoke game “SingStar ’80s” with other megahits from the decade, such as Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love is,” Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” and Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon.” The inclusion of “The Final Countdown” in this esteemed set of songs illustrates its widespread appeal and negates countless erroneous attempts to label it only a great “rock” or “hair metal” song. VH1 realized this by naming “The Final Countdown” not only the number one “Most Awesomely Bad Metal Song” but also the sixteenth “Most Awesomely Bad Song of All Time.” We all know how these countdowns work – the songs that really suck don’t even make the cut, and besides, it is common knowledge that VH1 is useless, save Hogan Knows Best.
“The Final Countdown” was not originally conceived as a legitimate song (To be fair, it still isn’t by some parties). Originally written by Europe’s lead singer Joey Tempest (born Rolf Magnus Joakim Larsson) as a stage-setting number the band could use to kick off their concerts, the song was a favorite among Epic executives and was chosen to be the first single off Europe’s 1986 album named, of course, The Final Countdown. As a device to launch both themselves and arena crowds into a guaranteed frenzy, “The Final Countdown” was a surefire hit, but few could have imagined the sort of success it would garner for the band before the year was out.
It is no secret that “The Final Countdown” is a song of epic proportions. With its spacey, apocalyptic though hopeful lyrics, minute-long instrumental launch, and blistering guitar solo, the song seems to have been destined for greatness. The elements of the song are introduced in waves of electronic sound effects, as if a rocket is being prepared for launch. First the thrusters fire up. Space-age lasers, fired perhaps by Ronald Reagan, shoot into the distance. The signature horn-synth riff enters, and is soon backed by powered-up brass synths. If you listen closely, you can hear the muffled voice that comes over the radio at 43 seconds, to count down from ten to zero. The drums hit and we’re off and running.
February 1986 was an ominous month indeed. Halley’s comet made its one-every-76-years flyby, reaching perihelion on February 8. On February 28, Olof Palme, the prime minister of Sweden (which the members of Europe called home), was gunned down walking home from the theater late at night. It was amidst these uncertain and historic events that Europe’s single hit the airwaves, leaving listeners to ponder if “things [would] ever be the same again.”
“We’re leavin’ together, but still it’s farewell. And maybe we’ll come back to Earth, who can tell?” These opening lines set the apocalyptic tone for the song with themes of leaving home and being hopeful in an uncertain future. It is clear from the start that Tempest, whose voice remains for much of the song far outside the range of would-be imitators, is not one for holding back. As Rolling Stone so lovingly put it, Tempest “possesses a voice as suited to heavy metal as to light opera, and he sings the former as if it were the latter.” Tempest idolized bands such as Led Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy, whose penchant for flair most certainly influenced Tempest to take up keyboards and craft songs that sounded like epic and ageless battles fought on the grandest of stages. For Zeppelin, this involved sinking to the darkest depths of Mordor. But Tempest’s battles, situated in the heart of a decade in which bombast reigned supreme and garishness was a virtue, are waged on a galactic stage.
By November 1986, “The Final Countdown” hit number 10 on the UK singles chart, one notch behind Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” The number-one single in the UK that week was “Take My Breath Away,” the runaway hit by Berlin that was propelled to the top of the charts due to its prominent appearance in the film, “Top Gun.” Then the impossible happened. In December 1986, “The Final Countdown” was the number-one single in all of the UK, from Belfast to Birmingham, from Cardiff to Canterbury, bumping Berlin to number six and leaving Bon Jovi to eat Europe’s dust at number five. Bon Jovi may have ruled the U.S. charts, where Europe still landed a top ten hit with song, but they could not keep up with Europe’s intercontinental appeal. While twenty years later “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “The Final Countdown” still vie for top billing at Princeton’s eating clubs every weekend, on this momentous occasion Europe reigned supreme.
“The Final Countdown” is a song of memorable, hedonistic moments, to be acted out at every opportunity. With only two verses and a relatively thin chorus, the song’s strength is in its ability to make you want to be Tempest, belting out those overly dramatic lines like the fate of the world depends on you doing so. While the background vocals that follow the lines “We’re leavin’ ground” and “With so many light years to go, and things to be found” inspire involuntary lip-syncing, it is the air keyboardists, drummers and guitarists in the room who will get the most pleasure out of this song. Beginning at 3:08, we go from Tempest’s soaring “Oh’s” to a rapid and rolling drum breakdown reminiscent of John Bonham’s in “Stairway to Heaven,” as it too gives way to a ripping guitar solo, the climax of the song. During the 30-second solo, guitarist John Norum plays his heart out, affirming Rolling Stone’s appraisal of him as “the sort of player who will never play two notes if he thinks there’s room for 20.” The song concludes with a final flourish at 4:35, in which Tempest nails a punctuated “It’s-The-Fin-al Countdown!” with the band following him every step of the way. This is where the real seasoned veterans of the song will score extra points on the dance floor. Be sure to keep an eye out.
Could the desire to live vicariously through Tempest in an epic post-apocalyptic moment alone have inspired such love for a song? Perhaps it was New Year’s fever; perhaps it was just that great a song, but on the twelfth month of a tumultuous year which saw a World Series victory for the Amazin’ Mets, the Chernobyl accident, and the release of The Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System, “The Final Countdown” was on top of the world.
What that world did not know was that the Cold War was on its last legs. In fact, the years following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan constituted a re-intensification of hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union, such that no one knew what to expect. “The Final Countdown” could have very well been the countdown to the last days of life as Earthlings knew it. But if that were the case, they were going to go out in style, or at least, with pseudo-operatic gusto. And what accounts for our newfound love of the song today? Perhaps the 80s revival that we are still in the midst of today has been brought about by similar fears for the future in a post-9/11 world. If so, it is no surprise that “The Final Countdown,” the ultimate play-along track, a song so overblown and un-self-consciously theatrical yet so full of hope and brightness, leads the pack.