99 Luftballoons: Nena’s Song About The Consequences Of Misunderstanding

Nena. Source: (Getty).

In 1983, the German group Nena released their self-titled album, which included the single “99 Luftballoons.” They then re-released it on their album 99 Luftballoons in 1984. All seven of their live albums dating from 1995 to 2018 include live recordings of the song. The single was not intended to be released in America until a disc jockey at KROQ in Los Angeles started playing the German version.

The Song Was Inspired In Part By A Rolling Stones Concert

“99 Luftballoons” was inspired when Nena’s guitarist Carlo Karges saw balloons being released during a 1982 Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin. As they moved towards the horizon, he saw that they shifted and changed shapes, looking like a spacecraft, which they referred to in the song as a UFO. As he observed the movement of the balloons, he wondered what would happen if they floated over the Berlin wall into East Berlin. Karges then wrote the lyrics, while Nena’s guitarist Uwe Fahrenkrog Petersen wrote the music.

In 1973, Some Teenagers Released 99 Balloons In Nevada

Nena also cited the influence of a newspaper article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The story was about a prank five local high school students played in 1973. The five students released 99 aluminized Mylar balloons (it was originally 100, but one was lost). Using ribbons, the balloons were attached to a traffic flare and released, and they created the appearance of a pulsating red object floating over Red Rock Canyon in Nevada. 

Source: (IMDb).

The German Version

In the German version, the title literally translates to “99 Air Balloons,” although that just means party balloons. The lyrics tell a story that goes as follows: Mistaking 99 balloons for UFOs, a general sends pilots to investigate. When he finds only balloons, he puts on a show of firepower which worries bordering nations, and the war ministers encourage the conflict in order to grab power. In the end, the harmless flight of balloons leads to a cataclysmic war, with devastating consequences on all sides and no victor. The song ends with a line that is the same in both English and German: “I think of you and let it go.”

The Changes To Create The English Version

In order to create the English version of the song, Irish singer-songwriter Kevin McAlea had to tweak the lyrics a bit, translating them poetically rather than directly so that he could retain the melody and phrasing of the original. In the English version, the narrator and her unnamed friend release red helium balloons which a faulty early warning system registers as enemy contacts. This leads to panic and eventually to nuclear war. One of the major differences between the two versions happens at the beginning, where, in the English version, the story of the song begins in “a little toy shop.” Another comes at the end of the song; in the German version, the line is “99 years of war” while in English, the line is “99 dreams I have had.”  

Source: (SoundCloud).

Nena Was Not Happy With The Translation

Nena and other band members were not happy with the translation of the song. As Nena has said about the German version of the song, “for us it was always a song about misunderstandings” and sees the song more as related to daily human interaction than to international brinksmanship. The co-writer of the song, Uwe Fahrenkrog Petersen said in a 1984 interview “We made a mistake there. I think the song loses something in translation and even sounds silly.” In another interview, he said that they weren’t completely satisfied with the translation, calling it “too blatant," especially in light of the fact that they did not want to be seen as a protest band. Interestingly, American and Australian audiences preferred the original German version of the song over the translation, and the German version reached No. 1 on the Cash Box chart and the Kent Music Report, and No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, right behind “Jump” by Van Halen. It was certified gold. The English translation topped the chart in the UK, Canada, and Ireland.

The Video was A Hit As Well

A promotional video for the song was made for the Dutch music program TopPop. The video was shot in a Dutch military training camp, with the band performing the song on a stage against a backdrop of fires and explosions provided by the Dutch Army. In the video, which aired on March 13, 1983, the band abandons the stage and seeks cover; this was unplanned as they thought the explosive blasts were getting out of control. The video became a hit on MTV, which was only three years old at the time. Since its release, it has also been played on a number of television shows and in films, including Despicable Me (2017).