“99 Red Balloons” — Nena

No Words, No Song
6 min readJul 21, 2019

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…

No Words, No Song

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.