99 Red Balloons was a number one hit for Nena, which was both the name of the female singer of the song and her band too, in February 1984. This was the English translation of the original German version, which was called 99 Luftballons, and between the two versions Nena managed to achieve the number one slot in the charts in at least ten countries, including the UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada and home country Germany.
Surprisingly enough, though it only managed to reach number 2 in the US, this was with the original German language version of the song, which was quite an achievement.
The song was a very poppy, bouncy (fitting for a song about balloons) yet still a bit rocky affair, but the story it tells had a rather darker over tone. The two versions tell broadly the same tale, although the English version isn’t actually a direct translation of the words. It goes something like this…
Some friends buy a packet of balloons (perhaps a packet of 100 but one popped during inflation? Who knows?) and decide to blow them all up and let them loose into the sky. Off they merrily bob, only to be picked up on radar and mistaken as a possible UFO or maybe an enemy attack, which leads to fighter jets being scrambled and the brink of war! Ouch!
The song was apparently written by Nena band member Carlo Karges after seeing a bunch of balloons being set free at a Rolling Stones concert. He noticed the shape the mass of balloons made looked somewhat like a strange spacecraft, and what with the Cold War between East and West being at a height, he wondered what could happen if something as innocent as this occured near, say, the Berlin Wall.
99 Red Balloons is therefore considered somewhat of a protest song, and indeed it was released just after a round of missile deployments by the US and Russia, so the song struck a chord with many around the world at this time.
The song remains popular today, and somebody out there obviously really loved it, as in 2006 one viewer of VH1 Classic donated $35,000 during a charity event for Hurricane Katrina so that both the German and English versions of the songs would be played continuously for an entire hour!