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
“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.
“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.