"99 Luftballons" is a Cold War-era protest song by the German singer Nena. Originally sung in German, it was later re-recorded in English as "99 Red Balloons".
"99 Luftballons" reached #1 in West Germany in 1983. In 1984, the original German version also peaked at #2 on the American Billboard Hot 100 chart and the English-language version topped the UK Singles Chart. The German version topped the Australian charts for five weeks and the New Zealand charts for one week.
While at a Rolling Stones concert in 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 nothing like a mass of balloons but some strange spacecraft. (The word in the German lyrics "UFO") He thought about what might happen if they floated over the Berlin Wall to the Soviet sector.
Both the English and German versions of the song tell a story of 99 balloons floating into the air, triggering an apocalyptic overreaction by military forces. 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 Germanic Europe and Japan, plans were made for the band to take "99 Luftballons" international with an English version. Kevin McAlea wrote this version, titled "99 Red Balloons" (on an envelope, which he claims to still have), which has a more satirical tone than the original. The English version is not a direct translation of the German but contains a somewhat different set of lyrics.
Nena recorded "99 Red Balloons" despite their dissatisfaction with the lyrics, which they expressed in numerous magazine interviews in 1984. They, as with many of their fans, felt that the English rendition was not true to the meaning of its German original.
The song came during a period of escalating rhetoric and strategic maneuvering between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. In particular, its international chart success followed the United States deployment of Pershing II missiles in West Germany in January 1984 (in response to the Soviet deployment of new SS-20 nuclear missiles), which prompted protests across western Europe. The following month, Nena topped the UK Singles Chart with "99 Red Balloons" for three weeks, starting in 28 February 1984. Unusually, in the United States the German version was more successful, charting at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. On March 26, 1984, it was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, for shipment of over 500,000 copies. "99 Luftballons" became the first German-language record to reach the top ten on the US charts since "Sailor (Your Home Is the Sea)" by Lolita in 1961. Although the German version was the hit version in America, both the German and English versions receive radio airplay in the United States today.
The song has been covered by numerous bands, including 7 Seconds, Desolation Yes, Five Iron Frenzy, Goldfinger, Siobhan DuVall, Angry Salad, Reel Big Fish, Smutgeist, and Draco and the Malfoys, and is a show staple. In German it was covered by Beat Crusaders and by Goldfinger in English with a German verse. The German verse in the song is actually the next to last verse in the original German version, and it replaces the next to last verse in the English version (one involving Captain Kirk). However, in Sony Computer Entertainment's Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec the song is sung in full English, including the Captain Kirk verse.
The Goldfinger cover was featured in several films, including Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), Not Another Teen Movie (2001), Watchmen (2009), and Eurotrip (2004) as well as during various competitions in Nickelodeon's television movie Rocket Power: Race Across New Zealand (2002). The song was also used during an episode of Gilmore Girls called "Dear Emily and Richard", when Lorelai Gilmore arrives at the hospital. Van Nuys covered it for the My Name Is Earl soundtrack.
Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine have also covered the song on their I'd Like a Virgin 2004 album; this version actually contains gibberish lyrics sung in a pseudo-German accent in lieu of German lyrics, stopping almost immediately after the song begins, cutting in with "alright, that sucked...". Ellen ten Damme included part of the song in her cover of Sag mir wo die Blumen sind, the German translation of Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?". A version in Japanese called 99 Love Balloons was released by Nakanomori Band on their March 2008 album ELECTRIC GIRL. French singer Alizee performed live cover during her "Psychédélices" tour in Moscow, Russia on May 18, 2008. She sang in English.
Original- By Nena
Cover by Goldfinger