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’99 Red Balloons by Nena’ – Classic Hit or Miss

While at a June 1982 concert by the Rolling Stones in West Berlin, Nena’s guitarist Carlo Karges noticed that balloons were being released. As he watched them move toward the horizon, he noticed them shifting and changing shapes, where they looked like strange spacecraft (referred to in the German lyrics as a “UFO”). He thought about what might happen if they floated over the Berlin Wall to the Soviet sector.

The English (but not the German) version tells about two children who buy 99 balloons at a toy shop and release them into the air, where faulty radar equipment is unable to identify the balloons. The German version starts with the narrator stating he will tell of a story about 99 balloons. Both versions then continue much in the same way with the government immediately put their troops on red alert and scrambles fighter jets to intercept the balloons, which ultimately triggers a nuclear war. Although originally in German, no countries are ever named. In the apocalyptic aftermath, the song’s narrator stands in the rubble of the city and finds a single remaining balloon. Thinking of the other child, he releases the balloon. The music was composed by Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen, the keyboardist of Nena’s band, while Karges wrote the original German lyrics.

 

Having achieved widespread success in Europe and Japan, plans were made for the band to take the song international with an English version by Kevin McAlea, titled “99 Red Balloons”. The English version is not a direct translation of the German and contains a somewhat different set of lyrics. The later-released English translation, “99 Red Balloons,” was the version that became popular outside of Germany and neighboring countries, with it topping the charts in Canada, the UK, Australia and Ireland. Interestingly, it was the original German version that American audiences preferred, becoming the highest Billboard charting German song in US History, when it peaked at #2 in the US.

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