Revisiting Europe’s Big Moment, ‘The Final Countdown’
The synth riff that sold a thousand insurance policies arrived in U.S. record stores on May 26, 1986.
Though they were new to American audiences, Europe had been around in their native Sweden in one incarnation or another since the late '70s, when singer Joey Tempest hooked up with guitarist John Norum, bassist Peter Olsson and drummer Tony Reno to form a band they initially called Force. After building a reputation on the local live circuit — and swapping out Olsson for new bassist John Levén — they changed their name to Europe just before winning 1982 regional rock contest that landed them their first record deal.
"After Deep Purple did Made in Japan, they did Made in Europe, which is maybe not as good as Made in Japan, but we listened to both of them. And that’s where I got the name Europe from," Tempest told Fox411 in 2015. "It was really funny when I told [Levén and Norum] about my idea of the name ... I had to get a few beers in them."
The rechristened band's self-titled debut LP was a Top 10 Swedish hit in 1983, and the success of their follow-up effort, 1984's Wings of Tomorrow, attracted the attention of CBS Records, where the group signed an international deal for their third LP. As it turned out, the timing — and the band's next batch of material — was perfect.
Set up at the CBS affiliate label Epic for the third album, Europe were connected with producer Kevin Elson, who'd worked on a string of multi-platinum successes for Journey. Elson brought a similarly radio-friendly approach to the Europe project, which saw the group adding a slick '80s sheen to what had initially been a harder-edged approach. It was a shift summed up with the blaring, immediately memorable keyboard progression that kicked off what would become the record's leadoff cut, first single and title track, "The Final Countdown."
Watch Europe's 'The Final Countdown' Video
Loaded with the sort of sweeping, synth-assisted pomp and melodrama that every rock band needed to score a mainstream hit in the '80s, "The Final Countdown" blended Cold War paranoia with sci-fi overtones to imagine a future in which the human race leaves a ruined Earth in search of a new home in space — all set to a galloping beat and topped off with Tempest's vocals and that insistent synth riff.
"The Final Countdown" would prove to be the band's calling card — a worldwide hit that overshadowed subsequent singles and came to define Europe's career. But as Tempest later admitted, the song wasn't even written with radio in mind. "It was meant to be an opening for the live show. We were putting out our third album and we wanted a really grand opening for the show," Tempest told Rock Eyez. "I'd had that riff tucked away in a drawer since my college years and I took it out, found a tempo for it, wrote lyrics and it turned out to be a great opening for that album and for the show as well."
"The Final Countdown" kicked off a brief string of hits for the group, which embarked on a lengthy world tour that included an opening stint with Def Leppard while watching the LP go multi-platinum while sending follow-up singles "Rock the Night" and "Carrie" into heavy rotation at pop and rock radio. Unknowns in the U.S. at the start of 1986, they finished the year as a band on the rise.
But trouble was already on the horizon. Norum departed the lineup midway through the tour, replaced by Kee Marcello, and "The Final Countdown" proved a double-edged sword in more ways than one. "I didn’t really like the direction the band was going. We became this teenybopper, bubblegum band and I hated that whole image, the spandex, poodle-rock type of thing," Norum explained years later. "I was more into the heavier, guitar-oriented stuff and it seemed like the keyboards were taking over more and more, and we were becoming more commercial. So I decided to leave."
Norum's departure presaged a steep, sudden fall from grace for the group. Although they hit the Top 20 with their follow-up effort, 1988's Out of This World, it didn't contain a single with anywhere near the impact enjoyed by "The Final Countdown," and their next release, 1991's Prisoners in Paradise, failed to chart in the U.S. By the following year, they'd split, and would remain inactive for the remainder of the decade.
Yet even as the members of Europe struggled to build on "The Final Countdown," the song continued to enjoy a life of its own after the band broke up, becoming a staple at sporting events as that synth riff grew into a shorthand signal for drama (sincere as well as silly). After mounting a long-term reunion in 2003 with Norum back in the fold, the band opted for a more harder-edged sound than the one that made them famous — and even though more recent releases haven't enjoyed the same level of success, they've retained a sense of humor about their biggest hit.
That good-natured attitude paid off in 2015, when the band appeared in a GEICO commercial that made use of "The Final Countdown," sparking a sales revival that sent the track soaring to the top of the Billboard Top Commercials chart. As Tempest told Classic Rock Magazine, the song is an intrinsic part of the group's identity.
"It was the opening for us to go on our journey. It gave us that chance to be a touring band, and it gave us an opening to be here today," said Tempest. "It's been an interesting journey, and it's still with us. We play it live, and we love playing it live ... because that's where it belongs. It's a part of our history."