We think the world has its troubles now. Not so long ago, even in Europe, the world was divided by what Winston Churchill christened the Iron Curtain…the divide between East and West, the world’s two major political blocs.
Watching a Cold War espionage drama last night, I recognised a familiar song on the soundtrack from the days when the Cold War was real and the world seemed permanently on the brink of nuclear catastrophe.
“99 Red Balloons” was by the German band Nena…slightly confusingly also the name adopted by the band’s lead singer (real name Gabriele Susanne Kerner). It made the UK Number One spot in 1984.
Tensions were running high at the time. Soviet strongman since 1964, Leonid Brezhnev had recently passed away and his successor, Yuri Andropov fell ill soon after taking office and passed away a short time later.
Purges were rife in the Kremlin. The West didn’t know who was in charge or what was going to happen next.
So “99 Red Balloons” was a perfect song for those uncertain times.
The fact that “99 Red Balloons” was by a German group made it even better. Nowhere was the contrast between East and West more stark than the contrast on either side of the Elbe River.
In West Germany, people drove around in Mercedes and BMWs. To the East, the bleak conditions of life under communism made even a basic standard of living for Westerners seem unimaginably opulent.
“99 Red Balloons” came in two flavours. The UK hit version was in English, although, somewhat surprisingly, it was with the original German lyrics that “99 Red Balloons” reached Number Two in the Billboard Hot 100.
The English lyrics weren’t a direct translation of the German ones, but they tried to keep the same spirit. And certainly, as you’ll see in a moment, the translation was close enough that big chunks of the original German music video still made perfect sense when shown with Nena singing the English lyrics.
The original German title of “99 Red Balloons” was “99 Luftballons”. The English lyrics were by Kevin McAlea.
Although the English-lyric version was the hit in the UK, I do remember hearing the German version on the radio from time to time. And I also seem to remember…but may just be imagining this through the passage of time…my sister having a vinyl single with the English version on one side and the German version on the other.
For such a serious subject, “99 Red Balloons” uses an almost child-like metaphor…a helium balloon.
Everybody likes balloons. They’re fun, non-threatening and associated with special occasions like birthdays and celebrations.
So an odd choice, you might think, to highlight the unwelcome consequences of heightened tensions between East and West at a time of geopolitical strife.
I always thought it was a brilliant concept. A balloon signifies happiness, hopes and dreams. And if you let it go, it floats away never to return.
Whenever we become too selfish, too cynical or too distrusting, our hopes and dreams float away in exactly the same manner.
Balloons are fragile, like our hopes and dreams. One pop and they’re gone.
But they’re also surprisingly strong and can survive the buffeting of strong winds in the upper atmosphere in a way we probably wouldn’t, flying thousands of miles in a few hours powered only by one of nature’s wonders.
That’s why balloons were precisely the right metaphor in the mid-1980s when “99 Red Balloons” was making its way up the charts…
You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got
Set them free at the break of dawn
Till one by one they were gone
Nena starts by re-connecting us with some childhood memories. A time of innocence. A time when we were safe with our families, grown-ups around to protect us.
But, as in the real world of the mid-1980s, even perfectly innocent gestures can be mistaken for threats which were never intended. That’s what paranoia and distrust does for you in the end. You think other people are poisoning you…the truth is, you’re poisoning yourself.
And in a “Reds under the bed” world, even a gesture as innocent as a child’s balloon floating into a military zone could be seized upon as having a more sinister and menacing intent than it really had.
In moments, escalation piles on top of escalation, and before you know where you are, thermonuclear war inches just that little bit closer…
Ninety-nine red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it’s red alert
There’s something here from somewhere else
The war machine springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
Focusing it on the sky
Where ninety-nine red balloons go by
I love the line “There’s something here from somewhere else”…the knee-jerk reaction that something from somewhere else is more likely to be a threat than something which brings us joy.
That’s true enough in a geopolitical sense, of course. And goodness knows there’s a lot of that about at the moment too.
But it’s also true for our personal lives as well.
When new experiences come our way, do we regard them with interest or suspicion?
When we meet someone we haven’t met before, do we assume they’re out to hurt us or to help us?
When we experience a culture different from ours, do we think it’s “unnatural” or do we enjoy seeing our shared world through a slightly difference lens for a change?
I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not qualified to advise on the right course of action for any individual human being.
But I do feel able to point out that, in the geopolitical sense, peace and prosperity has always been more prevalent when we remember that there are many more things which join us together as human beings than there are which divide us.
We don’t need to feel our way of life is under threat just because other people have chosen a way of life which isn’t the same choice as ours.
Who knows…if we had been in their shoes, maybe that’s exactly the decision we would have made too.
When we set out to destroy, there’s no way back. As Nena points out in the last verse of “99 Red Balloons”…all we’re left with are our memories and our dreams…
Ninety-nine dreams I have had
In every one a red balloon
It’s all over and I’m standing pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
And here is a red balloon
I think of you, and let it go
This is a surprisingly moving end to “99 Red Balloons”.
Nena releases a sense of wistfulness onto the breeze that carries her red balloon full of memories from the midst of the horrors of war to a better place far away.
“99 Red Balloons” isn’t all doom and gloom, though. It’s thoughtful rather than depressing. And it’s got a middle section which would get most of us up on our feet and bopping around given half a chance.
That’s the brilliance of “99 Red Balloons”…the contrast between the child-like memories at the beginning…through the ramped-up excitement as the world moves swiftly to a war footing…through illustrating the silliness of the over-reaction to a completely non-threatening event…and on to the poignant end when there’s only Nena’s left.
She’s completely by herself, surrounded by rubble, in the middle of what once was a city full of living, breathing people… men, women and children…innocents all.
At times of strife, it’s the ordinary people who suffer. The generals and the politicians are safe, far away from any trouble. It’s people like you and me who bear the brunt of political posturing and military solutions.
And maybe, just maybe, that should make us more understanding of those who’ve suffered in a way we pray our own families never will.
God forbid you needed somewhere for yourself and your family to be safe, only to find that even the stable doors had been barred to keep you, and people like you, out…
Depending on where you are in the world, you might remember a different version of Nena’s “99 Red Balloons”…or “99 Luftballons”, as the case may be.
As I remember the English version, I’ve used that in the main links below. However if you prefer the German version, or merely want to compare and contrast, for the German video click here…and for the German version on Spotify click here.
If you watch both videos, you’ll notice the record company did their best to save a few quid by re-using big chunks of the original German-language video, but skipped Nena’s close-ups where her lips would obviously not be in sync with the English words. Always good to see video directors with an eye on their budget…it’s such a rare quality…
Here’s Nena, bringing plenty of food for thought, with “99 Red Balloons”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/0wTlHWCHHtup2rXaw4zcaE