Eighties’ best 100 redux: #98 Nena “99 luftballons” (1983, 1984)

<< #99    |    #97 >>

Back when I counted down my Eighties’ best 100 the first time, “99 luftballons” came in at #99. Honest to god. And I didn’t even plan it that way.

In fact, I hadn’t even realize what I had done until I was discussing the list with my friend and colleague Ian and let slip the song at #99 on said list. I actually considered switching the list order right there and then, so that the readers on my old blog didn’t think I was trying to be clever. In the end, I decided it was too early in the game to be making changes to the list and in spite of those original worries, I decided to let the list grow organically this time around as well, and the let proverbial chips fall where they may. So it is merely incidental (I assure you) that for this redux, the song moves up one spot to number 98.

Of the now three songs into my top 100 songs of the eighties, “99 luftballons” is the first but most likely not that last song by a so-called “one hit wonder” to grace the list. I think it would be near impossible to discuss the best tracks of the nineteen-eighties without one or two of them rearing their ugly noggins because the decade was full of them.

Unlike the previous two songs, I distinctly remember listening to this one when it was popular back in 1984. I used to watch the Chum FM 30 video countdown every week on CityTV and wait for the video to come on, typically near the top of the list. What I didn’t know back then though was that the version I was listening to (and watching) was translated and re-recorded into English from the original German to be more palatable for international audiences (hey, I was still a kid). I didn’t actually hear the original German version until almost a decade later when a friend in university put it on a mixed tape of retro tunes that she made for me.

Nena (named for the lead singer Gabriele Kerner, whose stage name was Nena) came from the very German school of New German Wave music. It originated as an underground scene that was heavily influenced by British Punk and New Wave. As the sound gained popularity, more commercially viable bands based on this sound came out of the woodwork, incorporating English instead of German lyrics, among these were Nena and other acts you might recognize (like Alphaville, Peter Schilling, and Falco).

Most people I encounter prefer the German version of the song but I can appreciate both (and I have included both for your listening pleasure below). The German version because it is as was initially intended and the English because I likely would have never truly understood the song in the first place and it really is worth understanding. It’s not just a good beat that you can dance to. In fact, its Cold War protest implications landed itself a place in an exhibit I once took in at the Canadian War Museum on the impacts of the Cold War on music and music videos, along with Alphaville’s “Forever Young.” I don’t think that particular exhibit is still there but the museum is very cool and if you’re ever in Ottawa, I highly recommend checking it out.

I’m sure you’re familiar with one of these two versions but here they are for your enjoyment nonetheless.

First, here’s the German version:

Now, the English version:

Original Eighties best 100 position: #99

Favourite lyric:
In German:
“Hab’ nen Luftballon gefunden / Denk’ an Dich und lass’ ihn fliegen” I don’t know what she’s saying – it’s just the way she sings it.

In English:
“This is what we’ve waited for / This is it boys, this is war” Again, it’s the way she sings it.

Where are they now?: Nena (the band) broke up long ago but Nena (the solo artist) had a resurgence in popularity in the early 2000s and was rather prolific up until 2015. She most recently released a new album called “Licht” in 2020.

For the rest of the Eighties’ best 100 redux list, click here.


Playlist: “Raging Retro” (a mixed tape)

So I was downstairs in the basement a few days ago, looking for something else entirely, when I came across a treasure trove of my old cassette tapes. Yes, you read that right: cassette tapes. And with that clarification, you may be asking yourself why I still have cassette tapes in my possession, especially when I no longer have the appropriate hardware on which to play them. Well… it would be the same reason why I still have piles of old concert tickets, old floppy discs, rough drafts of long forgotten and unfinished short stories, and other random bric-a-brac from my past, all cluttered together in the same roughneck storage bin. The memories attached to these things are priceless and irreplaceable and even though I only ever come across them once or twice a year (while looking for something else), I can’t bring myself to part with them.

It was while sorting through these cassettes, remembering when and for what reason I made each, and reading through the track listings, that I got the brilliant (well, you might not think so) idea to share one or two of these as part of my (Spotify) playlist series. I’m starting off with this one, “Raging retro”, because it’s one of only a handful of those in the box that I didn’t in fact make, but instead, was made for me. Susan, a scenester friend of mine in university (and who I haven’t spoken to in years), actually made a few mixed tapes for me, though this might be the only one that I still have.

As evidenced by the faded but still legible in some places playlist pictured below, the mix was conceived in October 1995. Susan wanted to share a taste of the songs that had been in constant rotation at an eighties night she started attending regularly the previous summer. I feel like this was one of the first times I ever heard the term “retro” being used in regards to music. I was dubious at first because the memories I had of the music from that era were not great but I ended up listening to the tape quite a bit.

Pretty soon, I was hearing the term “retro” everywhere, mostly in reference to music from the 1980s, and not necessarily the mainstream music to which I grew up listening . A couple of years later, I found myself going to a Toronto club named “Whiskey Saigon” pretty regularly on Sunday nights. Of course, that was the night the club had an eighties night that was so wildly popular that the radio station, Edge 102, broadcasted live to air every week and the club was constantly filled to capacity, on all three floors. Retro, for a time, almost became like a sub-genre of music all its own, which for some reason even appealed to young hipsters that were too young remember this music when it was originally released.

In 1997, the film “Grosse Point Blank” was released starring John Cusack (incidentally, another 80s icon making a comeback) with a soundtrack featuring a number of eighties songs, including ones by The Clash, The Beat, and The Specials (there were three other Specials songs in the movie that were not on the soundtrack). This movie and the ubiquitous presence on eighties night playlists is how songs like the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the sun” resurfaced in the nineties, was infinitely more popular than when it was originally released in 1983 and is now considered a classic in popular music.

But I’ve gone off on a tangent, let’s get back to this mixed tape. For me, “Raging retro” was the springboard to regaining an appreciation of the 1980s. So many of those tunes on this tape became favourites of mine. And for those bands of which I wasn’t already a fan, it led me to delve deeper into their catalogues. Such is the magic of a well-executed mixed tape and the main reason why I’ve decided to share it with you all today.

As I mentioned above, some of the tracks in the listing are no longer legible. Apparently, purple ink doesn’t have the staying power against the sun and the passage of time as has black ink. Nonetheless, I was able to piece it all together and laid it out for you below. At least three of the songs were apparently too obscure to be found on Spotify but I at least managed to find YouTube links for those of you who want to know what you are missing as you peruse this delicious Spotify mix.

But before I get right into the playlist itself, here are some highlights that you definitely should check out and incidentally, half of those are ones that Spotify hasn’t made available:

      • “Sinful”, the debut solo single by Pete Wylie, who got his start in punk bands with Julian Cope and Ian McCulloch and led a band in the early 80s with multiple names, all including the word “Wah!”
      • The version of the early The The single, “Perfect”, that appears in the YouTube video linked below is the one that was on my cassette but I’ve never been able to locate a physical copy of it
      • Scottish new wave band Endgames never truly broke through but their single “First last for everything” was a mainstay on Edge 102.1’s 80s shows
      • The Chameleons UK were an English post-punk band that I always meant to explore, mainly on the back the very excellent “Swamp thing”, and I’m happy to say that I finally picked up a copy of “Strange times” this year
      • This a cappella cover of Yazoo’s “Only you” by The Flying Pickets is just as good as the original in my books
      • Canadian new wavers Boys Brigade were pretty obscure everywhere but here at home but their single “Melody” is definitely worth checking out

For those who don’t use Spotify or if the embedded playlist further below doesn’t work for you, here is the entire playlist as it appeared on the original mixed (complete with side titles):

Side one “Trapped in the 80s”:
1. Dexy’s Midnight Runners “Come on Eileen”
2. The Icycle Works “Birds fly (Whisper to a scream)”
3. A Flock of Seagulls “I ran”
4. Pete Wylie “Sinful” (unavailable on Spotify)
5. Naked Eyes “Always something there to remind me”
6. Big Country “In a big country”
7. The The “Perfect”
8. Alphaville “Forever young”
9. Endgames “First, last for everything” (unavailable on Spotify)
10. Chameleons UK “Swamp thing”

Side two “Disgruntled 20 somethings”:
11. New Order “1963”
12. Soft Cell “Tainted love”
13. Talk Talk “It’s my life”
14. R.E.M. “Superman”
15. The Boomtown Rats “I don’t like mondays”
16. Split Enz “I got you”
17. The Jesus And Mary Chain “Head on”
18. Nena “99 luftballons”
19. The Flying Pickets “Only you”
20. Boys Brigade “Melody” (unavailable on Spotify)
21. The Dream Academy “Life in a northern town”
22. The Smiths “Unhappy birthday”

And here is the promised embedded Spotify playlist for your listening pleasure. Get out your Vuarnet sunglasses and neon spandex and enjoy.

If you’re interested in checking out any of the other playlists I’ve created and shared on these pages, you can peruse them here.