‘The Final Countdown’ Was Always Silly. ‘Arrested Development’ Figured Out How to Make It Hilarious
Some songs get winnowed down to their essence by the culture. A spectacular riff. A memorable hook. A catchy chorus. What the song means beyond those basic elements fades away — an earworm is more elemental, more primal, more direct. But this sonic reduction can be so extreme that, years later, when you go back and listen to the whole song, it can be shocking: Wait, it’s more than just that riff?
This is my roundabout way of asking: Do you have any idea what “The Final Countdown” is about? Sure, you know the keyboard bit. Of course you can belt out “It’s the final countdowwwn!” as well as singer Joey Tempest. But you probably did not know that a human being named Joey Tempest sang “The Final Countdown.” You maybe didn’t remember that he was the frontman for a band called Europe. And you may be surprised to learn that the song is about a group of people leaving Earth on their way to Venus — if the Venusians will have them.
None of that really matters, though. “The Final Countdown” was a Top 10 song in the U.S. in the late 1980s, mostly because of a synthesizer and the way Tempest wailed that chorus. That’s all we needed to know. Those simple musical building blocks suggested something epic, maybe even ominous. And then, decades later, Arrested Development made it hilarious.
As you might guess from their name, the band formed in Europe — Sweden specifically. Over the decades, the group has primarily consisted of five members: lead singer Tempest, drummer Ian Haugland, bassist John Leven, keyboardist Mic Michaeli and guitarist John Norum. Tempest first got the group together when he was only a teenager. “Since a very young age I was always interested in writing songs, so I was a little ahead of the (other) guys,” Tempest recalled of Europe’s early days. “They were practicing their instruments but I was already interested in songwriting, and I started very young. When I was nine or 10 my mum said I would scribble down words and I had chords, so that was my love and I’ve always had that.”
Initially, they played under the name Force, but Tempest (a big Deep Purple fan) was inspired by that band’s 1975 live album Made in Europe to change his group’s moniker. “It was really funny when I told the guys, John Leven and John Norum, about my idea of the name for the band that night,” Tempest said. “I had to get a few beers in them!”
Winning a record contract as part of a talent competition, the Swedish band put out two albums, 1983’s Europe and 1984’s Wings of Tomorrow, filled with undistinguished arena-rock and pop-metal tunes. Their heroes were acts like Thin Lizzy, but Europe could have been easily confused with Kansas or Journey. It wasn’t until they went into the studio to record their third disc that they’d gain the world’s attention.
Like a lot of people, Tempest loved David Bowie. In particular, he was obsessed with “Space Oddity.” In 2018, he enthused, “That song in particular sounds so fresh and it was so well written and orchestrated, and the guitar and the drums they used sound perfect. … (T)hat was the first single I ever got, so it really mesmerized me and the lyrics stayed with me.”
“Space Oddity,” which many fans probably think is called “Ground Control to Major Tom,” is a mini-drama about an astronaut named Tom embarking on a space odyssey. The 1969 track captured the optimism, uncertainty and excitement of the so-called Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Tempest wanted to do something comparable. In that same 2018 interview, he said, “(W)hen I wrote ‘The Final Countdown’ lyrics I remember having that as an idea of leaving Earth and floating in space.”
But just as “Space Oddity” articulated a late-1960s mindset, “The Final Countdown” reflected its era, both musically and culturally. In the 1980s, rock bands were increasingly embracing synthesizers, artists wanting to give their material a vaguely “futuristic,” high-tech sound in order to stay relevant. “I was in college and keyboards had started to make their way into rock music,” Tempest said. “I thought that could be a good idea, and so I borrowed this keyboard from the only guy in school that had a keyboard. I went home and tried a few sounds on it and I came up with (the ‘Final Countdown’) riff. I thought it was very special and I kept it in the drawer until we did the third album many years later. By then, there were some other bands experimenting with keyboards, like Van Halen with ‘Jump.’”
Invariably, every iconic song has a backstory involving one of the band members being unsure about this new musical direction. And in the case of “The Final Countdown,” that was Norum. “When I first heard the demo, it was about six minutes long,” the guitarist once said. “I was very much into heavy hard rock and heavy guitars — still am — and I was like, ‘We can’t put this song on the album. There’s no way. Just listen to the keyboard intro; this is too poppy.’ I was like, ‘Are we becoming Depeche Mode?’ Even though I like them a lot, I hated them in the 1980s, but I like ‘em now.”
But Norum came around pretty quickly, and the band worked with Journey producer Kevin Elson to give the song an epic, interstellar vibe. Much like Eddie Van Halen’s undeniable keyboard riff on “Jump,” Tempest hit upon something that was immediately striking. That opening synth line on “The Final Countdown” summons up a cinematic scenario — maybe a titanic showdown between combatants in the ring, or blast-off in a sci-fi spectacular. But there was also a bit of tension and a whiff of unease in that riff. Whatever was about to happen wasn’t to be undertaken lightly. Lives seemed to hang in the balance. The riff seemed to announce, “It’s go time.”
Nobody paid attention to the lyrics, but it was easy for a mid-1980s kid to hear “The Final Countdown” and assume it had something to do with nuclear war, an ever-present concern at the time. But, for the record, here’s what Tempest is actually singing:
We’re leaving together, but still, it’s farewell
And maybe, we’ll come back to Earth, who can tell?
I guess there is no one to blame
We’re leaving ground
Will things ever be the same again?
It’s the final countdown
The final countdown
We’re heading for Venus
And still, we stand tall
‘Cause maybe they’ve seen us
And welcome us all
With so many lightyears to go
And things to be found
I’m sure that we’ll all miss her
Why are they heading to Venus? Has Earth been destroyed? Are they astronauts? Is it a one-way trip? Even Tempest, when he was playing around with different lyrics that might accompany the riff he’d concocted, struggled to find something to match the music’s grandiosity. “I sang different things until I got to ‘the final countdown,’ which fitted it really well,” he said. “My thought was, the world is expanding and we’re leaving; we’re going up there in space.”
While the lyrics are mostly pretty dopey — if you even noticed them — “The Final Countdown” did speak to the weird mix of dread and euphoria that came from the possibility that we’d all be wiped out if some deranged world leader decided to drop the bomb. Perhaps no song other than “1999” so perfectly captured the “Fuck it, let’s party” nihilism of the 1980s. (Tellingly, Europe released a dance remix of “The Final Countdown” in December 1999 to cash in on millennium fever, which is when Prince’s hit also enjoyed newfound popularity.) Even the song’s video exuded this weird ambivalence, downplaying the off-to-Venus narrative for a more generic storyline in which the band members rock out in front of a hyped crowd while nondescript shots of aerial footage are interspersed. Is everyone celebrating the end of the world? Or are they just mindlessly enjoying what they think is an upbeat anthem?
Released in 1986, “The Final Countdown” hit No. 1 in dozens of countries, getting as high as No. 8 here. The album, also called The Final Countdown, went triple-platinum in the States, where Europe with their big hair and swaggering gyrations fit in perfectly around similar hair-metal groups like Bon Jovi. But Europe were suddenly huge everywhere, with Tempest remembering appearing on a German music program around that time alongside Billy Idol. “We did ‘The Final Countdown’ … at the soundcheck in the afternoon,” Tempest said. “We were set to open the show and Billy Idol was meant to be second. He did it that way in rehearsal, but during the actual filming he said, ‘No, I just can’t go on and follow that song.’ The audience had gone so crazy.”
But like hair-metal itself, Europe went from being a big deal to falling out of the spotlight by the early 1990s, largely due to the grunge revolution. (In 2010, Tempest said of Kurt Cobain, “I’m told that he wrote ‘Who the fuck is Joey Tempest?’ on a wall at Oakwood Apartments when we stayed in L.A. recording the Prisoners in Paradise album in late 1989. If it’s true, it’s kinda flattering. And very funny that he would take one second to even think of me.”) After Prisoners in Paradise dropped in 1991, its impact nonexistent in the U.S. (although, fittingly, Europe still charted across Europe), the band went on a break, with Tempest focusing on solo records for the next decade. The group wouldn’t put out new music again until 2004, but by that point, Europe were back in the culture already. And that’s thanks to Gob Bluth.
In early November 2003, Arrested Development debuted, telling the story of the spoiled-rotten Bluth family, whose corrupt patriarch George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) is sent to prison. One of his sons is the vain, incompetent Gob, an unsuccessful magician whose theatrical flair is as pathetically executed as the actual magic. But the comedic cherry on top is that his walk-on music is “The Final Countdown.”
“I actually didn’t know the song,” admitted show creator Mitchell Hurwitz, later adding, “(W)e spent a lot of time thinking, ‘What’s the right song?’ and Brad was the one who came up with ‘The Final Countdown.’” He’s referring to Brad Copeland, an Arrested Development producer who wrote “Storming the Castle,” the ninth episode of Season One, which was the first time “The Final Countdown” appeared on the show.
In the context of Gob’s empty peacocking, Tempest’s flamboyant keyboard seemed utterly absurd, the desperate act of a bad magician trying to inflate his unconvincing air of magnificence. Soon, “The Final Countdown” became one of Arrested Development’s musical running jokes, a character’s unofficial theme song in the same way that “Christmas Time Is Here” was for Michael Cera’s George Michael. Every time it played, the funnier it was — and the more viewers associated the song with Gob’s stupidity.
But the joke wouldn’t have worked so well if there wasn’t something already inherently silly about “The Final Countdown.” Even during Europe’s heyday, people didn’t take the band seriously. Sure, “The Final Countdown” was a big smash — another song off the same album, the strenuous power ballad “Carrie,” rose even higher on the U.S. charts — but Europe always felt like second-tier hair-metal, a bunch of anonymously photogenic dudes who copied the look, style and makeup of bigger acts. Tempest was asked in 2009 if he was ever embarrassed about the group’s 1980s fashion sense. “Not really, we were very young, we were MTV generation — we were one of the biggest bands on MTV,” he replied. “I just wanted to look like Robert Plant, to be honest.”
But even in their moment, Europe felt like poseurs chained to a musical fad, a sonic bubble ready to burst. They were patently ridiculous — we were just waiting for the excuse to laugh at them.
Not that everyone finds Europe or “The Final Countdown” to be a joke. The song remains big in hockey arenas — it was featured in EA Sports’ 2010 edition of its official NHL video game — and has been covered by the London Symphony Orchestra. Professional wrestlers like Bryan Danielson have tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to use it as their theme music. Tempest’s song has such an earnest, anthemic quality that you can understand why some people just get swept up in its gale-force pomposity. Even if the lyrics are about a treacherous journey across the solar system, it sure as hell sounds rousing.
Will Arnett played Gob, the role proving to be a career breakthrough after years of frustration trying to land steady TV gigs. He’s gone on to have further success with BoJack Horseman and The Lego Batman Movie, but he remains closely identified with Gob’s arrogant idiocy — which means also being identified with Gob’s signature song.
“I always look around to see if anyone is filming, trying to trick me into my Gob alter-ego,” Arnett said in 2011 when asked what goes through his head when he hears “The Final Countdown.” “Once while I was home visiting family I went to a hockey game in Toronto and they started playing that song. I was with my dad and I looked up and there I was on the big screen. I was kind of embarrassed so I didn’t tell my dad because he would have gone crazy. That song just makes me so self-aware; I don’t own it in any form, so I never play it, or try to attract attention to myself!”
How does Tempest feel about the song he wrote in homage to Bowie being turned into a sitcom punchline? “The way Arrested Development used ‘Final Countdown’ was really good,” he said in 2013. “It’s quite fun actually to watch it, and if they use the song like that then it’s great because it actually strengthens the show.” And it’s not like Europe hasn’t enjoyed leaning into the joke, playing themselves in a 2015 Geico ad in which the band perform the hit while a guy is quietly waiting for his food to finish reheating in the office break-room microwave. The spot only helped raise awareness for “The Final Countdown,” which spent several weeks on Billboard’s Hot Rock Digital Songs chart as a result.
It’s both a blessing and a curse when a song you write takes off, not just becoming a sensation but filling different needs in the culture. Call a song “The Final Countdown,” and it’s inevitable that it will turn into a shorthand for any looming major event. For years, when the Arrested Development cast was rumored to reunite after the show was canceled by Fox, nearly every story included some reference to “The Final Countdown” to indicate that the wait was nearly over. But the track was also borrowed for political campaigns — and by U.K. news services in the leadup to the country’s departure from the European Union after the Brexit vote. (Tempest actually put out a press release in 2019, saying he didn’t approve of the song “being used in any political context.”)
“The Final Countdown” remains Europe’s most identifiable song, although this century they’ve put out a slew of new albums, trying to prove that they’re more than that 1986 smash. “When we got back together we knew that it’d take maybe years to shake off the imprint of us being seen just as the ‘Final Countdown’ guys,” Tempest admitted. The song is a staple of their live shows, but in a 2018 interview, the frontman insisted that the band’s current sound doesn’t much reflect the hair-metal era that inspired “The Final Countdown.” “We love playing ‘Final Countdown’ a lot, but musically, yeah, it’s kind of an avant-garde song,” he said. “It’s kind of different, and in that way it’s similar to what we do today, but melodic-wise and the way it’s written we don’t express ourselves that way anymore, but we love playing it live.”
Even in the late 1980s, the song’s histrionic arrangement seemed to embody the decade’s synthetic, disposable consumerism. You could play it at a sports arena. It could be part of your workout mix. It was like an overwrought Hollywood blockbuster, except in song form. It was all shiny and flashy and big big big. “The Final Countdown” could be about the Cold War, or it could just be a way to get psyched up before giving that big presentation at work. Was it created by the same humans who did “Eye of the Tiger” or “You’re the Best”? No, but it wouldn’t have shocked you if it was. Was “The Final Countdown” a Poison song? Or Warrant? Nah, but you could be fooled into thinking so. It was a product of the tail end of a decade that was ready to shift musical focus, probably always destined to feel dated, if not entirely forgotten.
And yet, what’s funny about “The Final Countdown” is that there’s one aspect of the song that makes it timeless, despite how of its time it was. In the song, the characters are about to set off on their cosmic adventure, the outcome unknown. As Tempest bellows, “It’s the final countdown!” we realize the ending of this story has yet to be scripted. We never get to zero in “The Final Countdown” — we never find out what happens if we do.
The song is about the anticipation of something, which is often more thrilling that what ultimately transpires. Even today, we live in a society where we’re constantly excited (or fearful) about what’s to come. The future is always uncertain, unwritten. In its bombastic, hair-metal way, Europe seized on our perpetual state of anxiously waiting for something on the horizon. It’s easy to laugh at that cheesily epic keyboard riff, but we all respond instinctively to what it symbolizes. We never know what’s coming — but if it’s Gob trying and failing to pull off another illusion, we’re sure to be happy.