Jacob Mendez
Jacob Mendez

Thanks to an accident, her song became an American hit. 40 years since the success of “99 Luftballons”

Perhaps a piece by the Nena formation “99 Luftballons” it would never have reached overseas and only become a local European hit if it weren’t for a certain coincidence. In 1978 Vera Christiane Felscherinowknown as Christiane F, together with journalists from the weekly “Stern”, published the book “We, children from the Zoo Station”, which is a record of her conversations and memories from the times when she was addicted to drugs as a teenager. The shocking document quickly gained popularity and was translated into many languages ​​in the following years. Additionally, there was a quite successful film adaptation, enhanced by the soundtrack David Bowie and Brian Eno met with considerable interest.

On the wave of success, Christiane F. came to America to promote the book and the film that were released in local cinemas. She appeared on a popular radio program on the station KROQ In Los Angeleshosted by Rodney Bingenheimer. She accompanied the girl to the studio Nina Hagen, called the godmother of German punk rock, who had just successfully toured America. The presenter asked Christiane what’s going on in Germany and what music trends are there now. The heroine of “We, Children from the Zoo Station” talked about the group Einstatrzende Neubautenbut at some point she remembered about 99 Luftballonswhich was a huge German hit.

In an interview with the New York Times, the presenter recalled this moment: “We didn’t have a cassette recorder in the studio, so she took her portable tape recorder and put it to the microphone, thanks to which our listeners heard this recording for the first time.” The audience’s reaction was astonishing. They called the station, asked what the song was and when it would be possible to hear it again. A few weeks later, when Bingenheimer received the CD with the recording, the song began to appear more often on the radio, and soon also on other stations.

You can imagine the surprise of Epic’s managers when it suddenly turned out that the German group’s song was climbing the Billboard charts. Of course, the recording was a huge hit in Germany and did well throughout Europe. Former Trójka listeners probably remember the time when “99 Luftballons” reigned supreme on the charts. However, no one expected such popularity overseas, especially since no one from the record label was betting on this song. Managers even advised against including the composition as a single, claiming that it had no potential to be a hit.

Gabriele Susanne Kernerwho had a nickname since childhood Nenaafter the breakup of her first band, The Stripes, with her boyfriend Rolf Brendel she moved to Berlin. There she met, among others, a guitarist Carlo Kargensa and other musicians with whom she created a new group, named after her nickname. Although Carlo wrote the lyrics of the later hit earlier, impressed by the event that took place during the concert The Rolling StonesWhen Mick Jagger he released balloons into the air and they flew towards East Berlin, he did not show it to the other team members. One day in the rehearsal room Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen he was playing with the new synthesizer he had just bought. He tried different licks and fine-tuned the rhythm, suddenly he played a slightly funky motif, which later became the basis of the song, and Carlo realized that his lyrics fit perfectly with the whole.

When Nena appeared at three concerts in America in 2016, she recalled her emotions related to the creation of the song: “As soon as I heard the song, I screamed that it was great and I wanted to sing it immediately. We recorded it for a very short time, and then we decided to release it. it as a single in Germany. Our label said, ‘Please don’t do it, there’s no chorus, it’s not commercial enough.’ But we were all very moved by the song and went for it.”

The history of a devastating armed conflict caused by the appearance of innocent balloons in the air fell on fertile ground. The world in the early 1980s was held in the iron grip of the Cold War. The uncertainty of tomorrow, the specter of a devastating nuclear conflict between the West and the East, contrasted slightly with the colorful and seemingly carefree lifestyle presented in the mass media. The song became number one in Germany in March 1983. In the following months, its popularity spread beyond Europe, topping the charts in Australia, Mexico, Canada and Japan.

In America, the political mood was similar to that in other countries. After all, these are the times Ronald Reagan and his “Star Wars” strategic missile defense program, which had a profound impact on American society and popular culture. The film “War Games” was extremely popular in cinemas, showing how, quite by accident, a computer-savvy teenager could bring the world to the brink of nuclear destruction. If we add to this the fascination with German culture that has persisted since David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, the terrain was perfectly prepared for Nena and her hit.

The radio-driven recording appeared on the top of the Billboard magazine chart on March 3, 1984, overtaken only by “Jump” groups Van Halen. Sales of the single exceeded the wildest expectations, so much so that the label decided to release an English-language version of the song. Only the British audience liked it and it reached number one in the UK. The whole world fell in love with the original version of “99 Luftballons”.

Unfortunately, the debut album was no longer popular, just like the group’s subsequent songs. Nena’s hit went down in history as the so-called “one-hit wonder”. After the breakup of her band, the artist, acting solo, was still a star in Germany. Sometimes, as in 2003, she managed to achieve European success thanks to the English version of the hit “Irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann”, performed in a duet with Kim Wilde was released as “Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime”.

In recent years, Nena has become popular again in Germany, not only thanks to her well-received albums, appearances in “The Voice Germany” or being hailed as the “Sexiest Vegetarian of the Year”, but also due to the controversies surrounding her. “Did Nena just ruin her career with questionable performances over the last few weeks?” – asked the German newspaper “Abendzeitung” in 2021. The article was the result of the artist’s strong involvement in the anti-vaccine movement, which resulted in the interruption of her Berlin concert and the cancellation of her entire tour.

After the action with Chinese balloons, the Internet was full of memes and videos on TikTok. “A German woman claims that she tried to warn the US about Chinese balloons 40 years ago,” read the caption under the photo, which shows a frame cut from the “99 Luftballons” music video. The song began to gain interest again on streaming services. There were reports on gossip websites about a planned tour of America, which, however, did not take place. However, the star is planning a series of concerts around Europe this summer. Will they come to fruition? We’ll find out soon.