Between late 1979 and the end of 1989, there were nearly 500 (real) one-hit wonders of the 80s that reached the BILLBOARD Hot 100 just one time, a list that includes Soft Cell, Gary Numan, Timbuk 3, The Church, Bronski Beat, Nik Kershaw, The Buggles, The Waitresses, Ultravox and two different bands named The Silencers. Once a week, I’ll highlight a (real) one-hit wonder for you.
I recently met a couple of nice folks from Germany at WMPG community radio in Portland, Maine, following my little 80s radio show, STUCK IN THE 80s. Many years ago, STUCK IN THE 80s highlighted acts from Germany and Austria, along with other songs in German, like Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers.”
Their wonderful visit to WMPG reminded me of this show from years ago, and also reminded me how much I love “99 Luftballons” by Nena. The band Nena was formed in Berlin in 1982, and named after the nickname of lead singer Gabriele Susanne Kerner.
I wasn’t exposed to much of anything in German in my youth, but somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas 1983, I heard “99 Luftballons” for the first time, and got sucked right in, like taking in the helium from a balloon.
Don’t let the fun beat fool you – this Cold War Classic had a very interesting story behind it. You’d think something as fun and harmless as releasing a bunch of balloons in the air would be an okay thing to do. Unless of course, it’s 1983, and the Cold War is in full go mode. The balloons, in this case, 99 of them, show up on the radar as UFOs, both sides think it’s a nuclear attack, and then… it really is.
“99 Luftballons” was released in Germany in February 1983 and made its way on to the BILLBOARD Hot 100 two weeks before Christmas 1983, and by late January 1984, found its way to the Top 40. “99 Luftballons” certainly had the momentum to reach No. 1, but Van Halen and their monster hit, “Jump,” had other plans.
“99 Luftballons” had to settle for a peak position of No. 2 on the Hot 100, spending a week there in March 1983. “Jump” spent 5 weeks at No. 1, and even prevented Cyndi Lauper’s huge feminist anthem, “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” from reaching the top.
Around the globe, the anti-war message of “99 Luftballons” and its English-language counterpart, “99 Red Balloons,” was well-received, reaching No. 1 in the U.K., Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland.
In comparing the German and English versions of this song, as much as I love and adore “99 Luftballons,” I cannot stand (and cannot emphasize how much I cannot stand) “99 Red Balloons.” The band never even liked the English version (and have never performed it live), and the lyrics aren’t even a direct translation.
NERDY FUN FACT: I remember watching VH1 Classic in 2006, where they were holding a video-thon, if you will, to raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief, and you could pledge money to have videos you pick to be aired on the channel. Someone donated $35,000 to have both the German and English versions of “99 Balloons” play for an entire hour.
Somewhere along the way, I found a 12” remix of “99 Red Balloons,” and, well, let’s just say that some songs shouldn’t be remixed… ever. But, as for the original German-language version of this Cold War Classic, I’ve got a lot of fond memories, and unlike the balloons in the song, there’s no way I’m letting them go…