Entering the Billboard Top 40 on 21 January 1984, 99 Luftballons – a single by Teutonic new wave group Nena sung entirely in their own language – put German popular music on the map. Peaking at #2 made it the first foreign language pop song to scrape the top of the US charts.
A record of this nature was right for the times. The United States in the early and mid-80s was a culture divided between the fist-pumping nationalism of Ronald Reagan‘s superpower, and a scared nation watching its government inch towards triggering a thermonuclear global war.
99 Luftballons was an anti-nuclear protest song.
Although the lyrics – about nations powering up their nukes after mistaking a flotilla of innocent red balloons for enemy missiles – may seem trite, it’s possible the sentiments of the song struck a deep chord when set against the harrowing political backdrop of that year.
In November 1983, the Soviet Union activated its nuclear weapons after misinterpreting NATO’s Able Archer exercise as an act of aggression. In January 1984, the United States responded by deploying Pershing II missiles in West Germany.
This period was arguably the closest mankind has ever come to nuclear war.
Nena commissioned an English lyricist – Kevin McAlea – to pen an English-language version of the song. Although the resultant 99 Red Balloons was an international hit – and a UK #1 – the original song, written by Nena guitarist Carlos Karges, is generally regarded to be more satirical, political, and precise than McAlea’s translation.
Nena Kerner (Gabriele Susanne Kerner)