Nena, the name of the band, not just the stage name of the lead singer, released “99 Luftballons,” originally sung in German, in West Germany in 1983. An English version, “99 Red Balloons,” was released in 1984 throughout the rest of the world. The English version topped the chart in the U.K., but the German version peaked at #2 in the U.S., not the English version.
Besides being sung in different languages, the songs differ in that “99 Luftballons” begins with the lead vocalist singing that she will tell a story of 99 luftballons, while the “99 Red Balloons” describes two children buying a bag of balloons in a toy shop. In both versions, the balloons are released into the air and are mistakenly believed to be a threat and results in a nuclear war.
The idea for the song came to Carlo Karges, Nena’s guitarist, while watching balloons being released at a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin the year before. Nena’s keyboardist, we Fahrenkrog-Petersen, composed the music, and Kevin McAlea eventually wrote the lyrics for the English version.
99 Red Balloons 3’50
99 Luftballons 3’32
99 Red Balloons [Club Mix] 4’43
“99 Red Balloons”
In the original music video for “99 Luftballons,” the band performs the song outdoors. A new video was created for “99 Red Ballonons,” which includes footage from the original video, plus a performance of the song by the band in a small nightclub.
I remember this song getting a lot of airplay in early 1984, both the German and the English version. (Radio was also playing the English and German versions of “Major Tom (Coming Home)” by Peter Schilling at the time.) I thought it was cool to hear not just one–but two–songs sung in German on American radio. We lived with the fear that nuclear war was imminent, so this song was timely. It doesn’t seem to be such a widespread fear today. One thing that always bothered me about the song is that it seemed like the children blew these red balloons up by blowing them up with air from their lungs, which would be impossible for them to float away into the sky without helium. This is one of those songs that was overplayed so much at the time that I hardly ever play it even to this day, although I always enjoy it when I happen to hear it on the radio or in a department store.
What are your memories of “99 Red Balloons” by Nena?