Saturday, August 23, 2008

99 Red Balloons Rise To #1

One of the seminal one hit wonders of the 1980s, and a song that will forever be associated with that time, was ‘99 Luftballons’ by West German rock quintet Nena. I say West German because at that time 1983/4 Germany was still divided into East/West, as was Nena’s home city of Berlin. In fact the political divide between ‘communist’ East and ‘democratic’ West provided much of the inspiration for the song.

Nena formed during 1982, featuring Carlo Karges (guitar), Joern-Uwe Fahrenkrog-Peterson (keyboards), Jurgen Dernal (bass, Rolf Brendel (drums, ex-Stripes), and vocalist Gabriele ‘Nena’ Kerner (formerly also with The Stripes), from who the band took their name. In fact when the band scored their one major hit outside of continental Europe, many people thought that Nena was a solo female singer, rather than a rock group. The band released their first single ‘Nur Getraumt’ (‘Only Dreamt’ - Ger#2/Aut#9) in late 1982, but the song didn’t make an impact beyond their home nation. That task would be achieved by the title track from the group’s debut album.

‘99 Luftballons’ was written by Fahrenkrog-Peterson and Karges and featured on the album of the same name (OZ#25/US#27 - the album was titled ‘Nena’ in Germany-#1 and the UK-#31). The song was released in its original German lyric form everywhere but the U.K. In the U.S. ‘99 Luftballons’ rose as high as #2 in early 1984, whilst Australia fell in love with song to such a degree that it spent five weeks atop the singles chart from April 1984. In both markets the single featured a B-side English language version ‘99 Red Balloons’. That version was recorded at the behest of the English record label who deemed the English market too insular to be receptive at that time to a German language single. Kevin McAlea was given the job of translating the song’s lyrics to English. Though the song’s clear anti-nuclear/anti-cold war message may have been rendered more comprehensible to the English audience in a literal sense, the song was such a brilliantly constructed electro-pop song that surely the German language version would have been a runaway hit anyway. Regardless ‘99 Red Balloons’ spent three weeks at #1 in Britain during March ‘84, making it one of the biggest selling songs in Britain for that year. ‘99 Red Balloons’ also became the fourth British #1 single by a German based artist inside of two years, the three previous being ‘The Model’ by Kraftwerk, ‘Seven Tears’ by The Goombay Dance Band, and ‘A Little Peace’ by Nicole.

The English language song ‘Just A Dream’ was a disappointing performer on the non-European charts (OZ#71/UK#70), and the only other single to chart for Nena in Australia was ‘It’s All In The Game’ (OZ#95) from their 1986 album of the same name. However, Nena tha band scored a number of major hits in (West) Germany, including ‘Leuchturn’ (#2) and ‘Feuer und Flamme’ (#8-1985), and throughout continental Europe and Japan. Their 1986 German release ‘Eisbrecher’ bombed on the charts at home and by 1987 Nena the band had split.

Gabriele ‘Nena’ Kerner spent the remainder of the 80s and 90s balancing family life and a solo career. She released half a dozen albums during the decade 1989 to 1999, and her biggest solo hit single was ‘Wunder Geschen’ in 1989, which peaked at #19 in Germany. She was also active in television, hosting the shows ‘Metro’ and ‘Countdown Grand Prix’.

Nena, the singer not band, returned to the limelight during 2002 when a 20th anniversary CD was issued entitled Nena featuring Nena, consisting of some new arrangements of her old band’s biggest hits. An English language version of the 1984 Nena German #3 hit ‘Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann’ titled ‘Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime’ was performed as a duet with Kim Wilde (see earlier post), reaching #1 in Austria and the Netherlands, and #3 in Germany. Nena has released three German language pop albums since, and in 2007 released the English language album ‘Covers’, featuring, appropriately enough, Nena performing cover versions of songs by the likes of the Rolling Stones and David Bowie. Nena has toured consistently around Europe in the last decade and has also leant her voice to recording German language dubs for popular motion pictures, including ‘Eragon’ and ‘Arthur And The Invisibles’.

You might be interested to know that Gabriele Kerner gained the nickname of ‘Nena’ when she was on vacation in Spain as a three year old. ‘Nena’ is an alternate spelling of the Spanish word nina, meaning ‘little girl’. I bet her parents never envisaged the name ‘Nena’ becoming so synonymous with 80s pop music.

For those of you who’d like to compare the German and English language versions of Nena’s biggest hit, you can find them both here:

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