Click on “smackdown” in the tags below the title of this post, and you can wander back through the Hymie’s archives to read past battles of record store nerd-dom. Follow the bloody trail far enough and you’ll find the first ever “smackdown”: Boston vs Chicago. It was the only time we allowed two bands to represent their hometown, in part because we never found a band lame enough to lose to Baton Rouge, but mostly because these conflicts of geography inevitably become larger and larger. Eventually, it all leads to…
America vs Europe
If you’re struggling to name a second song by either of these groups, we don’t blame you. Both bands were major players in their respective eras, only to be forgotten by successive generations of record collectors. When Neil Young sang “It’s better to burn out than fade away” in 1979, he started a discussion that’s never really been resolved, although many of those who joined the fray in have done one or the other. So long as there are places like your friendly neighborhood record store here, “rock and roll can never die” (to quote another line from Young’s song “Hey Hey, My My”) since there are going to be shelves busting at the seams with one-time favorites like America and Europe, and as we shall see at the end of this post, another band largely ignored by record collectors…
While Europe started their career in 1979 as Force, America never went by another name. The trio, founded in London, chose their name with pride — all three were the children of American GIs. The group eventually relocated to California (hence the Bay area image they pushed with albums like 1975’s Hearts). Even at the height of their success, Europe was eternally routed in the Scandinavian metal tradition — the band might just as well have named themselves Sweeden. America can’t win this round — their name is essentially a marketing ploy, even if it’s logo-fied version was something you were more likely to draw on a your jean jacket or notebook cover in ballpoint pen.
America spent years being mistaken for Neil Young after “A Horse with No Name” was certified gold in 1972. People still come into the record shop once in a while and ask which of his albums has the song (they’re usually seem a little disappointed when they find out it was on an album in their dad’s collection). “A Horse with No Name” is a great song, almost entirely in spite of itself. Dewey Bunnell’s description of the desert fumbles for imagery (“There were plants and birds and rocks and things,” “The heat was hot”) while the trio’s harmonies hold the dry, minor key tune together. The song was good enough to knock ol’ Neil’s “Heart of Gold” out of #1.
At over forty years old, “A Horse with No Name” is still a classic rock staple, as well as a song often heard in commercials, television, film and video games. It has appeared in The Simpsons.
“The Final Countdown” topped the charts in twenty-five countries, but not the United States, where didn’t get higher than #8. Technically it probably sold a lot more copies than “A Horse with No Name,” it was just a lot harder to top the American charts in 1986.
The synthesizer introduction to “The Final Countdown” is ubiquitous stadium fare, finally entering retirement after decades of rallying the crowd behind the home team. Not a lot of people jam to the rest of the song, at least as far as we can tell by its lukewarm reception here in the shop, where folks snicker when they hear the opening (probably remembering it from some sporting event) and shrug their shoulders when they remember the rest of the song. Wikipedia tells us its lyrics were inspired by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,”and it deserves to be a list of all-time awesome rock and roll songs about space travel (maybe between Bowie and Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin'”) but for all its use at football games it has never appeared in The Simpsons.
America ties it up by winning this round.
Most Obscure First Album:
America’s self-titled debut was released by Warner Bros. in 1971 to a modest reception in England. The following year the band jumped up the charts with “A Horse with No Name,” a stand-alone single that was quickly added to a re-issue of the album. Having sold fairly well without the hit single, original copies do show up in the shop pretty often, and most folks might not even notice the difference between copies with or without the hit single. It’s actually a pretty good folk-rock relic either way.
Europe’s first three records, on the other hand, were issued on the Swedish label Hot Records. Each was welcomed by Scandinavian hard rock fans (and the Japanese), but wasn’t a hit in America. Once in a blue moon we see a copy of their second record, Wings of Change, but rarely will you find a copy of their self-titled first record, or the soundtrack that was their third album. Europe handily wins this round — folks in Minnesota who loved hard rock were much more likely to pick up punk and new wave albums from the continent in 1983, making this an uncommon import in the collector’s market around here.
Most completely ignored recent album and how cheap is it on Amazon:
America’s Here & Now, released in 2007 was the last new studio record the group has made. In spite of a slew of guest artists (Ben Kweller, Ryan Adams, the guy from My Morning Jacket) it spent only a week on the album chart, stalling at #52. You can buy a used copy online for about six and a half bucks, but it should be noted there are a couple different versions of this album.
Europe Bag of Bones 2012 was certified gold in Sweeden, and about as successful as America’s Here & Now in their native England, but sold sluggishly everywhere else on Earth. You can get a CD for about six bucks on Amazon, but you’ll have to pay about four times that for an LP. Europe wins this round, if anyone cares — at least their home country still loved them.
Best Record Collector Surprise:
Producer George Martin (of Beatles fame) remixed songs from the first three America LPs for the compilation History: America’s Greatest Hits. Several songs benefit from the changes, notably “A Horse with No Name,” which takes on a heavier, bass-drive feel. Complete-ists are compelled to own the collection, and the re-mixed versions have replaced the originals in FM radio play.
Europe doesn’t re-mix songs. They’re too busy rockin’ the fuck out. At the peak of their fame, Europe did an unannounced gig at the Whiskey A Go Go as Le Baron Boys. The widely bootlegged disc of the same name does not, unfortunately, contain a recording of the show, just a bunch of scuzzy demos that sound like a watered-down Bon Jovi. America wins this round.
Best Cover Art:
America’s 1975 “best of” compilation History (above) featured cover art by their manager’s brother, Phil Hartmann. You may have seen his art on other albums (most of Poco’s catalog for instance), or recognize his name, with one fewer “n,” from film and television. Phil Hartman was much mourned after his death in 1998 by fans of Saturday Night Live, News Radio and of course The Simpsons, where he played the roles of attorney for hire Lionel Hutz and actor Troy McClure. He is also remembered by record collectors for his successful first career as an artist.
On the other hand, The Final Countdown shows Europe in what appears to be the “Phantom Zone,” Krypton’s extra-solar prison presented in the Superman films as a sort of giant two-dimensional pane of glass. One can only imagine what would have happened if the Man of Steel would have released Sweden’s finest hard rock band instead of General Zod — of course, what did he think he was doing in the first place, hurling a nuclear bomb like that? Pretty careless for Earth’s greatest hero if you ask us. Europe wins this round in spite of Superman’s completely reckless disregard for the Phantom Zone.
Fun fact round:
Except for their self-titled debut, all of the America albums by the group’s original line-up have titles that start with the letter H: Homecoming, Hat Trick, Holiday, History, Hearts, Hideaway, and Harbor. Their eighth album, the first without founding member Dan Peek, was titled Silent Letter.
Hymie’s has not sold a copy of Out of this World, Europe’s follow-up to their enormously successful Final Countdown, in years. The same copy has been languishing on the shelves here since we moved the shop four and a half years ago. Whether someone has ever taken it to the listening station is anyone’s guess.
America wins this round because their fun fact isn’t sad.
Tie-breaker round: Who is more likely to beat Asia tomorrow?
America is one of those 70s bands that every used record store has in surplus. Several fine songs are sprinkled over them, and you can hear most of those on History, one of the most popular greatest hits collections of its time. We probably have a different feeling for the because we grew up in Europe’s age, so old hits like “A Horse with No Name” and “Ventura Highway” were songs we heard when Mom and Pop picked the radio station. They’re songs that have aged well, no more ‘moldy oldies’ than albums by Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes Young, as well as other folk-rock hits from the same time. You’re sure to see an America album in the 50¢ bin, or on our next “Free Records Day” (coming soon!) and it wouldn’t kill you to give it a try. After all, they’re named for your country. Unless you hate America. You don’t hate America, do you?
Europe, on the other hand, is a band whose appeal has steadily shrunk since around the time labels shirked away from producing LPs in the late 80s. The Final Countdown is pretty easily found by record collectors, and it’s as much a surprise when we sell a copy of it as it is when we sell an America record. There aren’t a lot of people who loves The Final Countdown who don’t already own it. And they don’t have the magic nostalgia of Guns n’ Roses or the weird appeal of 80s KISS, they’re just one of those embarrassing bands out of the big budget metal days.
Hell, Joey Tempest made a series of contrived singer-songwriter albums before exploring electronic pop before finally reuniting Europe. That’s just not a very metal thing to do. Observe the slow, mellowing decline:
If Europe had stayed the course of Wings of Change they might have won this battle, but the fact is we don’t believe their keyboard-heavy pompous arena rock can defeat Asia’s keyboard-heavy pompous arena rock. If we take nothing else from the life of General Joseph Stillwell (or The Princess Bride) let’s all hold dear to the advice “Never fight a land war in Asia” as we enter tomorrow’s smackdown …