Have you ever known a song for years without ever quite realising what it’s about?
99 Luftballons – better known to most of us as its re-recorded English version 99 Red Balloons – is one such song. Now over 30 years old and one of the best-known one-hit wonders of the 1980s, this pleasantly upbeat track is actually an anti-war song.
The lyrics were inspired by a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin. Nena’s guitarist Carlo Karges watched as balloons were released and wondered what might happen if they floated over the Berlin Wall into Communist East Berlin.
Consequently the original German version of the song describes 99 balloons being mistaken for UFOs, which are shot down by military aircraft, leading to a devastating 99-year war without a victor.
An English language version was written by Irish musician Kevin McAlea and recorded by the band. Although not a literal translation, it is thematically similar: an unnamed person releases red balloons into the sky and are mistaken for missiles by an early warning system, resulting in nuclear war.
In its original German form, the song reached number two in the US, while the English version topped the UK singles chart. A follow-up single, Just A Dream, struggled to number 70 in the UK and failed to break into the US top 100.
Nonetheless, 99 Red Balloons remains a well-known song even now, and one that has been frequently covered and parodied, not least by Homer Simpson himself.
Incidentally, although Nena were a band, they took their name from lead singer Gabrielle Kerner’s childhood nickname, which she acquired during a family holiday to Spain.
And the number 99 has popped up in song titles on a number of occasions, including Tab Hunter’s 99 Ways (a top five single in 1957), Jay-Z’s 99 Problems and, of course, Prince’s 1999. Yeah, I know that’s cheating a bit …