I remember clearly the first time that I heard it. Back in 1986, Cambridge United were in the old fourth division and I was a seven-year-old in thrall to the glories of their football. At half-time the PA system at the Abbey Stadium played the hits of the day. One desultory afternoon, there came over the tannoy a strange rumble, swiftly overlaid with a peculiar, elongated “dong”, before a dramatic and joyful fanfare burst into life. “The Final Countdown” was upon us.
Returning home I implored my parents to buy me the song for my birthday. I told my mother it must be good because even my dad – who only played classical music in the house – had been tapping his foot to the thundering beat.
Yet Europe ultimately came to represent the nadir of 1980s rock. They had big perms. They wrote oddly literal songs about rocket ships, ninjas and Cherokees. And they were from Sweden, which was, as far as the wider world was concerned, a pop territory: Abba preceded Europe; Roxette followed and eclipsed them.
Sure enough, their “Final Countdown” breakthrough was also Europe’s undoing. The shift towards the mainstream compromised the blues aesthetic beloved of lead guitarist John Norum, who departed at the end of 1986. Six years later, with album sales fading, the group called it a day.
But the idea that Europe were some sort of novelty act, singing silly lyrics over the noodliest of guitar solos, is unfair – if perhaps inevitable. After all, naffness is only ubiquity seen through the lens of passing years and changing trends. In any event, the entire 1980s became “naff” as soon as Kurt Cobain strapped on a guitar and gave the world a whiff of teen spirit.
Maybe the age thing is key, because Europe are not alone in this regard among the classic 1980s poodle-rockers. Along with my uni chum Mike, I made a promise to see the key bands in action, before they split up or became infirm. REO Speedwagon, Whitesnake, Journey, Foreigner, Blue Oyster Cult, Styx, Iron Maiden and Toto (three times and counting) have been to various degrees thrilling, musically faultless but above all fun.
Age also gives Europe’s 21st-century output an unusual perspective. A bunch of 50-year-olds rocking out shouldn’t, in the narrative of the mainstream music industry, have a great deal fresh to tell us. But the lyrics have a genuineness now which perhaps was missing 30 years ago, when life had not yet got hold of them. The guitars still predominate, though they are slightly less twiddly than they were back in the day. The riffs are bigger than ever, as are the drums. Above all, Joey Tempest’s voice (no, it’s not his real name) is remarkable: powerful, soulful and bluesy.
Musically, it is in this growing bluesiness that Europe have surprised since the comeback. In 1986 they would have been bracketed with Def Leppard and Bon Jovi. But now the influence of bands like Deep Purple, even Led Zeppelin, is more obvious. A song on 2012’s Bag of Bones album hears Tempest recount being told “boy, you’re not supposed to sing the blues, where you come from”. It seems, in fact, that he was supposed to do just that.
Reviews of the new album, War of Kings, have been mixed. There even seems to be disagreement over whether it marks a return to the heavier sound of 2004’s “Start from the Dark”, or is a more insipid version of the blues rock heard on “Bag of Bones”. There is an irony in this range of opinions. For Europe, once the most stereotyped of bands, now seem impossible to pin down.
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Their big hit may have echoed round the Abbey Stadium many times, but Europe had never played live in Cambridge – to their recollection – until last week.
The city’s Corn Exchange is not one of the world’s major rock venues and it wasn’t exactly packed to the rafters for Wednesday’s gig, which saw Europe sharing the bill with the Black Star Riders (led by Thin Lizzy’s Scott Gorham). The crowd was an eclectic mix: old rockers, standing quietly with pint in hand; thirtysomethings who grew up with the “Final Countdown”; a few students; and some dedicated headbangers nodding vigorously at the front.
Songs from the new album were greeted with warmth, an old man danced gloriously to 1988’s “Superstitious”. Then at last came that rumble… Five, four, three, two, one… Time to rock.
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