35 Years Ago: Nena Soars to Pop Stardom with ’99 Luftballons’
Nena may refer to three things. It’s the name of a German new wave band, the title of their 1983 debut album and the nickname for the group’s frontwoman. Gabriele Susanne Kerner had earned the moniker during a family trip to Spain when Kerner was little, and locals called her “niña” (girl). The vacation ended, but the name stuck. Gabriele became Nena.
In the late ’70s, Kerner was “discovered” as a teenage disco denizen in Hagen, West Berlin, and asked to join the pop/rock band the Stripes as their lead singer. The group, which sang in English, never quite took off and they split in early 1982, allowing the singer to pursue a new opportunity. The Stripes’ record label, CBS, encouraged Kerner to move to West Berlin and form a new band, provided that she switched to singing in her mother tongue.
She did just that, earning a contract by forming a group, which adopted the Nena nickname. The outfit included drummer (and Kerner’s boyfriend) Rolf Brendel, guitarist Carlo Karges, bassist Jürgen Dehmel and keyboardist Jörn-Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen. Living in the divided city, on the edge of the “iron curtain,” proved a strange new experience for the singer.
“It was much more in your face,” Kerner remembered in 2016. “It was really crazy being there in our little walled-in island in the ‘red sea’ – there were so many young and crazy artists and musicians there doing their own thing, including me. At the same time we were all playing and making music though, the Wall was there reminding us that there were people sometimes just meters away, that spoke the same language even, that we couldn’t touch or reach. That’s a really crazy feeling. And it inspired artists to express themselves about freedom in so many different ways.”
The members of Nena would directly address the East/West situation in their star-making song (more on that soon, although the band’s early material contained a variety of subjects, often focusing on love, but also referencing the movies (“Kino”) or Indians (“Indianer”). After performing their debut single “Nur geträumt” (“Just a Dream”) on West German TV in the summer of 1982, Nena became the leaders of the country’s new wave scene, watching their first song become the No. 2 tune in the nation – and a hit in neighboring, German-speaking countries.
By the end of the year, the quintet had recorded enough material for an album and the self-titled Nena hit European shelves on Jan. 14, 1983. The release of the album – loaded with spritely, synthesizer-spiked pop tunes sung in German – was followed by a second single: “99 Luftballons.” It was a song written by guitarist Karges and keyboardist Fahrenkrog-Petersen, after Nena had attended an epic concert.
“It was 1982 and the Rolling Stones were touring their album Tattoo You in Berlin,” Kerner recalled about the song’s inspiration. “Mick Jagger released thousands of balloons at the end of the concert. They were all picked up by the wind and carried in the direction of East Berlin – over the Berlin Wall. I’ll never forget that image. That was the moment when my friend and guitarist Carlo Karges wrote the first lines of the song ‘99 Luftballons.’ He completed the lyrics the same day…”
In the song – which moves from ethereal ballad to funk breakdown to bouncy pop and back again – Karges imagined the floating balloons being misunderstood for weapons, provoking a deadly military conflict between neighboring nations that lasted for 99 years. The cold war theme resonated not only in West Germany, where “99 Luftballons” went to No. 1 in 1983, but also in many other European countries, both German-speaking (Austria, Switzerland) and not (Sweden, the Netherlands). An accompanying music video was filmed in the Netherlands, in which the Dutch army set off explosives behind Nena they performed their smash hit. The song’s melody was attractive, but so was Nena’s lead singer who caused many European teenage girls to copy her Debbie Harry-meets-Chrissie Hynde look.
“To have my own role models and then suddenly be one myself ... It was totally weird and yet at the same time inspiring in the 1980s to see girls all over Germany that looked like little Nenas,” Kerner said. ”It was a bit unreal and I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.”
It might have been even harder to wrap her mind about what happened next. After visiting German celebrities introduced American DJ Rodney Bingenheimer to “99 Luftballons,” the KROQ legend helped popularize the song in the U.S., even though it contained not a word of English. It didn’t seem to matter. American radio embraced the song, MTV put the video in heavy rotation and a German pop single became the No. 2 song in the country in 1984 (held from the top spot only by Van Halen’s “Jump”).
As “99 Luftballons” became an American hit, the record label commissioned a new version sung by Kerner in English (although written by someone outside of the band, Kevin McAlea). The English lyrics focused on nuclear war, but weren’t a direct translation (stipulating the balloon's color as red to synch up properly and making a Star Trek reference). While American audiences surprisingly stuck to the German version, “99 Red Balloons” went to No. 1 in Canada and the U.K.
All the while, Nena were having sort of parallel careers between German-speaking Europe and the English-speaking world. As “99 Luftballons” was taking off in new territories, the band made and released a second LP (1984’s ?) and scored a half-dozen more hits in Germany and central Europe.
A 1984 international release, titled 99 Red Balloons, combined tracks from Nena’s first two albums, including five re-recorded in English. The album faired okay, but didn’t produce any more successful American singles. In contrast to their string of European hits, across the Atlantic, Nena was a one-hit wonder and “99 Luftballons” was considered a novelty song.