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  I originally included the band's appearance on Top Of The Pops, but it got withdrawn; so I replaced it with a collector's item - the official promo video - which has likewise been withdrawn.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?  

Author: Andy Meek

Guitarist and singer-songwriter trying to make more love in the world using rock 'n' roll. "Hold on tight to your dream!"