In January 1983, shallow pop music dominated the international charts. Phil Collins was No. 1 in the United Kingdom with "You Can't Hurry Love." In the USA, Hall & Oates' "Maneater" and Men at Work's "Down Under" topped the Billboard charts. In Germany, Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" was making waves.
But the German music scene back then featured more than the standard Anglophone superstar pop.
There was a new genre of dance-worthy German-language songs with funny, colorful and imaginative lyrics, which also featured synthesizers and electronic drums.
Groups such as Spliff, Fräulein Menke, Peter Schilling, Trio and Hubert Kah all belonged to this genre called Neue Deutsche Welle (or New German Wave) and made their mark in the German charts alongside international stars like Supertramp, Eddie Grant, Dionne Warwick and Phil Collins.
The genre comprised mainly West German rock music originally derived from post-punk and new wave music, with electronic influences.
A message that went global
And one major player in the charts was the band Nena — the nickname of its frontwoman, whose full name was Gabriele Kerner. With her cheeky face, tousled hair, oversized earrings and girly voice, she was known for her energetic performances onstage.
And in January 1983 this band demonstrated that Neue Deutsche Welle was more than just punky electronic fun.
Their debut album "Nena," released on January 14, 1983, had included Nena's first hit "Nur geträumt" (Only dreamt) as well as the seemingly naive "99 Luftballons."
However, it quickly became clear in the latter song that Nena was addressing, in her own language and in the language of youth, the warmongers who were keeping the world in suspense at the time: the Soviet Union and the USA. Armed to the teeth with nuclear missiles, the two world powers had not only threatened each other, but could destroy the world with their deadly arsenals.
All because of 99 balloons
Most people's greatest fear during this highly explosive time in history was that someone might accidentally press the red button and trigger nuclear annihilation. This is exactly what Nena describes in "99 Luftballons" — known in English as "99 Red Balloons." The song imagines a situation where (99 red) balloons show up on both countries' radars as unidentified objects and both sides scramble planes and go on full alert to counteract a perceived nuclear attack.
The situation escalates, all countries get involved, everyone wants war and power — and in the end there is nothing left.
No hit potential
The band's two songwriters, Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen and Carlo Karges, did not originally set out to write such a song: It happened purely by chance.
Fahrenkrog-Petersen had been trying out his new synthesizer and was inspired by the electro-funk that was coming out of the US then, and tried to integrate the hard-hitting funky groove into the new wave sound that was in vogue. At some point he got the idea of the rhythm change that ultimately made the composition so exciting.
Meanwhile, Karges had been carrying around the lyrics in his pocket for a while — and they perfectly fit the melody.
Singer Nena was also enthusiastic and contributed her vocals with a "punky girl attitude," Fahrenkrog-Petersen wrote in his blog, adding that it "perfectly matched the profound story and the energetic music."
The band was convinced by the song and wanted to release it as the first single of their new album. But their record company thought otherwise, arguing that the song had no chorus and with the long instrumental part at the start, no radio station would play it.
One-hit wonder abroad
The band nevertheless prevailed and released the song at the end of January 1983 — and the song took off.
On March 28, 1983, it reached No. 1 in the German charts — and enjoyed success worldwide: No. 1 in Japan, Australia, Canada, Mexico.
The German song also became famous in the United States, after a radio DJ heard it by chance and played it so often that it spread nationwide there.
It eventually reached Number 2 in the US Billboard charts in December 1983, a feat that hasn't been achieved by any other German-language song
In 1984, Nena released the song in English and this version topped the British charts.
However, an international career did not materialize. While Nena enjoyed success with the band and later as a solo artist, she remains a one-hit wonder abroad with "99 Luftballons." But the song's message remains as relevant today in view of the war in Ukraine — a scenario that no one could have imagined for a long time.
This article was originally written in German.