99 Red Balloons

Nena

there’s something here from somewhere else …

Here is a stand-out song from 1984, remarkable because of its unusual style that manages to treat some serious subject matter in a pop genre. This was five years before the fall of the Berlin wall and the cold war was still a reality, with soviet and western nuclear arsenals opposing each other on a posture of mutually assured destruction.

The song was originally sung in Nena’s native German language (Neunundneunzig Luftballons), and re-recorded in English. That accounts for the pronunciation and my mishearing the lyrics for years … Just to clarify:

Back at base, bugs in the software

Flash the message, something’s out there

There are lots of themes to explore – fear of the unknown, fear of the ‘other’, aggressive posturing, poor communications, unintended consequences, over-reliance on technology with a belief that ‘there is no other way’. It’s a bit of a downer – the song ends with destruction and a lone survivor looking for hope in happy memories.

The Bible story that comes to my mind is the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.1-9. It’s a myth, of course, about how the world got many languages because God intervened upon seeing that humankind could soon ‘do anything they want’. The tower did not fall down, but the work was abandoned. We are still building towers to the sky, metaphorically and literally, as the human race is still trying to prove that we can do anything we want. What would have to happen to us to make it stop? Fire and flood? – they might be coming. All over the world, despite our modern technology, we are still scattered and confused.

There seems to be some assertive copyright enforcement on videos of this song.  I originally included the band's appearance on Top Of The Pops, but it got withdrawn; so I replaced it with a collector's item - the official promo video - which has likewise been withdrawn.  The official Sony BMG 'video' above just shows the sleeve cover image, but I kept it in because it is the best English-language audio version.  So here to compensate is a live version in German.  How long before they take this down too?  

Anthem

Leonard Cohen

Ring the bells that still can ring

For a fairly introspective 17 year old the music of Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) drew me with a fascination bordering on obsession; I can still remember sitting alone in my bedroom listening to ‘Bird on a Wire’ on repeat. The phase soon passed, and I only recently came to appreciate the depths of this song ‘Anthem’, from Cohen’s 1992 album ‘The Future’. 

‘The Future’ contains references to traumatic historical events, including Hiroshima and the Second World War. The massacre of students in Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin wall both happened in 1989; it was a time of massive upheaval and uncertainty in the world. 

Listening again in late 2019 you have to ask, has much has changed? Just thinking about our own country (quite apart from the rest of the world!) Britain is facing a bewildering parliamentary election, Brexit is unresolved, the country has more Foodbanks than McDonalds….. there surely still is ‘a crack, a crack, in everything’, but Cohen leaves us with a note of hope, ‘that’s how the light gets in’. We need the light, in our national and our personal lives, as never before. 

Currently it is Advent, traditionally the time for preparing for the coming of Christ. For me this song provides a kind of transcendence, bringing hope into the apparent hopelessness of our world. The parallels are obvious I hope. 

© Dorne Watson

The true light that shines on everyone was coming into the world. The Word was in the world, but no one knew him, though God had made the world with his Word.

John 1.9-10