Night Flight’s “Take Off to European Rock” featured Nena’s Reagan-era nuclear war protest song, “99 Luftballons”

By on September 9, 2016

“Night Flight”‘s “Take Off to European Rock” — which originally aired on April 14, 1984 — features perhaps one of the best remembered hits of the 80s, the 1983 Cold War-era anti-war protest song “99 Luftballons” (later recorded in English as “99 Red Balloons”) by the West German new wave band Nena, fronted by the lovely singer Nena, who was born Gabriele Susanne Kenner. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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“99 Luftballons” was co-written by the guitarist/songwriter Carlo Karges, who has said he was inspired to write the song’s lyrics after seeing thousands of balloons released into the air during a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin on June 8, 1982, something that happened regularly during that band’s European tour.

Karges watched as the balloons looked like they were shifting and changing shapes, looking like a strange spacecraft or UFOs as they floated away, and he wondered what might happen if the balloons crossed the Berlin Wall to the Russian side, could it even lead to a full-scale nuclear war if one side thought the balloons were a threat?

This scenario nearly happened on September 26, 1983, just after midnight, when a Russian Lieutenant Colonel named Stanislav Petrov was in a secret bunker reviewing the Soviet Union’s early warning satellites and suddenly saw a flashing alarm that suggested that a nuclear missile had been launched from a U.S. base.

Petrov advised his colleagues, but his gut feeling told him this wasn’t a real nuclear launch and the Soviet Union, of course, didn’t retaliate. Whew.

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Karges — who had previously been in other German bands, including Tomorrow’s Gift, Novalis and Extrabreit — had also written the band’s debut single, “‘Nur Geträumt”(German for “Only Dreamed”), which became an instant hit in Germany after the band appeared on the German television show “Musikladen,” on August 21, 1982.

That single reportedly sold 40,000 copies the day after the song appeared on the show and reached #2 in the German charts.

Karges got together with the band’s other songwriter, Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen, and presented him with the idea, how ninety-nine “air balloons” were mistaken as UFO’s on a radar screen, and how a general in the army sent pilots up to investigate.

The pilots determine they’re actually children’s balloons, but decide to put on a show and shoot them down, but this showy display of firepower actually ends up starting what turns out to be a 99-year war, a war that no one wins and two countries end up destroying themselves.

In the end, the singer walks through the devastated bomb-pocked landscape and lets go of a single red balloon, wistfully watching as it floats away.

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The German single quickly shot up the charts, entering the charts on December 4th, 1983, at position #74.

It spent the next twenty weeks on the Top 100 (and for six of those twenty weeks it was on the Top 10).

It reached #1 in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, before floating across the oceans on its way to major international chart success the following year.

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It also ended up topping the charts in both Australia and in America, where it reached #1 on the Cash Box charts, and #2 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, right behind Van Halen’s “Jump.” (It actually charted a second time after dropping off, also reaching the #2 position the second time around).

Today, it remains one of the biggest non-English hits to chart in English-speaking countries.

The band had only been in existence a little over a year, forming in 1982 and taking the childhood nickname of singer Gabriele Susanne Kerner as their band name (she’d been called “Nena,” based on the Spanish word niña or “little girl,” since the age of three, when it was given to her on a family vacation to Spain).

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Kerner was born in 1960, in Hagen, North Rhine-Westphalia, in what was then known as West Germany. She had grown up and lived in the nearby town of Breckerfeld, leaving high school before graduating to study goldsmithing.

She started her musical career in the summer of 1979, when guitarist Rainer Kitzmann offered the stunning young beauty a position as the lead singer in his band The Stripes, who ended up having a minor regional hit with “Ecstasy.”

They were never able to break out wider and ended up disbanding in May 1982, when Nena and her then-boyfriend drummer Rolf Brendel moved to West Berlin, where they met Karges, Fahrenkrog-Petersen and bass player Jürgen Dehmel, forming Nena shortly thereafter.

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Their record company had no intention of releasing it in America until a disc jockey at radio station KROQ in Los Angeles found a copy and started playing the song, and then their U.S. label, Epic, quickly determined that an English-language translation was needed.

The band tried at first to write a suitable translation but it wasn’t working out, mainly because they were trying to adhere to the song’s original meaning.

They asked others to help with a translation, including a college professor, but none of the lyrics worked with the song itself.

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Finally, a songwriter and musician named Kevin McAlea, who was at the time playing with the British progressive rock band Barclay James Harvest, was given a tape by the band’s manager of the German song and asked if he could write an English version.

McAlea listened to the song and asked a German-speaking friend to explain to him the gist of the song’s lyrics, but he went a bit different in his English language re-write, changing “Neunundneunzig Luftballons” to “99 Red Balloons.”

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“Floating in the summer sky,
Ninety-nine red balloons go by”

McAlea — while trying to retain the same Reagan-era anti-nuclear message and overall spirit of the original song’s lyrics — decided it was better for focus on a more poetic story, and so he concentrated on having the syllables of the song match up with the original lyrics, retaining the aural flow rather than keeping the story itself the same.

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In the English version, two people stop into a toy shop to buy a bunch of helium-filled red balloons one summer night, which are then released into the air (there’s no toy shop in the German version).

Soon the military takes note that “something’s out there” which leads to a “red alert” as “panic bells” begin to sound.

First, the “war machine springs to life,” then the “president is on the line,” and the singer then describes the escalating war as the troops mobilize and jet fighters fill the sky (“Everyone’s a superhero, everyone’s a Captain Kirk”).

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Soon the military has bombed everything to pieces and nothing is left but dust — just the singer of the song, and one red balloon, alone in the post-apocalyptic rubble of her former city.

“It’s all over and I’m standing pretty
In this dust that was a city,
If I could find a souvenir,
Just to prove the world was here.”

Towards the end of the song, Nena describes the unfolding war and cries out, “This is it, boys, this is war,” in an almost giddy, gleeful way, as if to emphasize our culture’s love of war itself.

Initially the band were impressed with McAlea’s lyrics and went into the studio to record the English-language version of the song, now called “99 Red Balloons,” which topped the charts in the UK for three weeks in March 1984 (it also charted well in Canada and Ireland).

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“99 Luftballons/99 Red Balloons” was the first of two songs about nuclear war to top the charts in the UK that year; the other was “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

Here’s the English-language video:

The same month that the band’s English-language version was charting in the UK, just a month before our Night Flight episode aired, the band’s keyboardist and song co-writer Uwe Fahrenkrog Petersen expressed regret for having recorded the English version, saying:

“We made a mistake there. I think the song loses something in translation and even sounds silly.”

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In another interview that same month the band including Nena herself were quoted as being “not completely satisfied” with the English version since it was “too blatant” for a group not wishing to be seen as a protest band.

The band never performed the English language “99 Red Balloons” in concert, choosing to stick with the original.

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After “99 Luftballons” — Nena’s only hit in the English-speaking world — the band continued to enjoy success in several European countries in the following years, even issuing another international single “Just a Dream” (an English-language re-issue of their first single, “Nur geträumt”). It reached #70 in the UK charts in 1984, but failed to chart elsewhere.

The band’s swift rise to fame and the inherent pressures of trying to come up with another hit led to the band’s break-up in 1987, leading Nena to go on to record successful solo albums, children’s recordings, more musical collaborations, and sold-out tours. She also did some acting and wrote her autobiography.

In 2006, the VH1 Classic channel ran a charity event for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and one viewer donated $35,000 for the right to program an entire hour and requested continuous play of “99 Luftballons” and “99 Red Balloons” videos.

The station broadcast the videos as requested from 2:00 to 3:00 pm EST on March 26, 2006, as part of a $200,000 fundraising campaign for Mercy Corps relief efforts.

Watch Nena’s “99 Luftballons” video as part of our “Take Off to European Rock“over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.