On this day in 1984: Nena started a three week run at #1 on the U.K. singles chart with ’99 Red Balloons.’ Originally sung in German, ’99 Luftballons’ was re-recorded in English as ’99 Red Balloons’. The song was a #2 hit in the U.S. and the only U.K. (and U.S.) hit for Nena making her a One Hit Wonder.
While at a June 1982 concert by the Rolling Stones in West Berlin, Nena’s guitarist Carlo Karges noticed that balloons were being released. As he watched them move toward the horizon, he noticed them shifting and changing shapes, where they looked like strange spacecraft (referred to in the German lyrics as a “UFO”). He thought about what might happen if they floated over the Berlin Wall to the Soviet sector.
Also cited by the band was a newspaper article from the Las Vegas Review-Journal about five local high school students in 1973 who played a prank to simulate a UFO by launching 99 (one was lost from the original 100) aluminized Mylar balloons attached with ribbons to a traffic flare. The red flame from the flare reflected by the balloons gave the appearance of a large pulsating red object floating over Red Rock Canyon outside the Las Vegas Valley in Nevada.
A direct translation of the title is sometimes given as “Ninety-Nine Air Balloons”, but the song became known in English as “Ninety-Nine Red Balloons”. The title “99 Red Balloons” almost scans correctly with the syllables falling in the right places within the rhythm of the first line of lyrics, although Neunundneunzig (99) has one syllable more than “ninety-nine”.
The lyrics of the original German version tell a story: 99 balloons are set free and are mistaken for UFOs, causing a general to send pilots to investigate. Finding nothing but balloons, the pilots put on a large show of fire power. The display of force worries the nations along the borders and the war ministers on each side bang the drums of conflict to grab power for themselves. In the end, a cataclysmic war results from the otherwise harmless flight of balloons and causes devastation on all sides without a victor, as indicated in the denouement of the song: “99 Jahre Krieg ließen keinen Platz für Sieger,” which means “99 years of war have left no place for winners.” The anti-war song finishes with the singer walking through the devastated ruins of the world and finding a balloon. The description of what happens in the final line of the piece is the same in German and English: “Denk’ an dich und lass’ ihn fliegen,” or “I think of you and let it go.”
The English version retains the spirit of the original narrative, but many of the lyrics are translated poetically rather than being directly translated: red helium balloons are casually released by the civilian singer (narrator) with her unnamed friend into the sky and are mistakenly registered by a faulty early warning system as enemy contacts, resulting in panic and eventually nuclear war, with the end of the song near-identical to the end of the original German version.
Here’s a look at the Top 20 on the U.S. singles chart from this day back in 1984, where Nena’s ’99 Luftballons” was at its peak of #2:
1 1 JUMP –•– Van Halen (Warner Brothers)-8 (2 Weeks at #1) (1)
2 3 99 LUFTBALLONS –•– Nena (Epic)-13 (2)
3 4 GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN –•– Cyndi Lauper (Portrait)-12 (3)
4 5 THRILLER –•– Michael Jackson (Epic)-4 (4)
5 7 NOBODY TOLD ME –•– John Lennon (Polydor)-7 (5)
6 2 KARMA CHAMELEON –•– Culture Club (Virgin)-14 (1)
7 12 SOMEBODY’S WATCHING ME –•– Rockwell (Motown)-6 (7)
8 9 WRAPPED AROUND YOUR FINGER –•– The Police (A&M)-9 (8)
9 8 LET THE MUSIC PLAY –•– Shannon (Mirage)-17 (8)
10 13 I WANT A NEW DRUG –•– Huey Lewis & The News (Chrysalis)-8 (10)
11 15 HERE COMES THE RAIN AGAIN –•– Eurythmics (RCA)-6 (11)
12 6 JOANNA –•– Kool & The Gang (De-Lite)-18 (2)
13 16 NEW MOON ON MONDAY –•– Duran Duran (Capitol)-8 (13)
14 10 AN INNOCENT MAN –•– Billy Joel (Columbia)-12 (10)
15 11 THAT’S ALL –•– Genesis (Atlantic)-15 (6)
16 22 FOOTLOOSE –•– Kenny Loggins (Columbia)-6 (16)
17 21 GOT A HOLD ON ME –•– Christine McVie (Warner Brothers)-6 (17)
18 23 THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE –•– Dan Fogelberg (Full Moon / Epic)-5 (18)
19 20 YAH MO B THERE –•– James Ingram (with Michael McDonald) (Qwest)-13 (19)
20 14 TALKING IN YOUR SLEEP –•– The Romantics (Nemperor)-22 (3)