532. ’99 Red Balloons’, by Nena

A couple of posts ago, I was a bit down on 1984. Before it had even started, I was pooh-poohing the idea that it was all that great of a year. But… with this next chart-topper following on from the assault to all five senses that is ‘Relax’, maybe 1984 wasn’t such a bad year after all.

99 Red Balloons, by Nena (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 26th February – 18th March 1984

Not that I’m going to start claiming it as the best year ever – not yet anyway – but this is another great slice of synth-pop. The slow-building intro is quite similar to ‘Relax’, and it forms the background to a story of two people in a toy shop, buying a bag of red balloons… Set them free at the break of dawn, ‘Til one by one, They were gone…

And then the beat drops – one of the great beat ‘drops’, from before beat ‘drops’ were a thing – and we have an incredibly catchy, cheese-funk synth riff. And guitars! Punk rock guitars. Forget synth-pop; it’s synth-rock. It feels like an age since we’ve had actual guitars at #1, and they drive the song along through its story of nuclear armageddon. Ninety-nine red balloons, Floating in the summer sky…

The authorities see these innocent balloons and panic. This is what we’ve waited for, This is it boys, This is war… You don’t need a degree in 20th Century history to work out what concerns this record is tapping into. The Cold War was at its height: it’s still February, and this isn’t even the first chart-topper of the year to reference war. It won’t be the last either… Incidentally, the inspiration for the song was said to have come when the band went to a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin, and watched balloons released on stage floating towards the Wall.

Nena were themselves from West Germany – ‘Nena’ being both the name of the band and of the lead singer, in a shades of Blondie. In fact, Britain was one of the few countries where the hit version of ’99 Red Balloons’ was in English. Across Europe and Australia, even in the US, the German original soared to the upper reaches of the charts. I do like Nena’s German-accented English, especially in the worry, worry, super scurry line, though there’s a forcefulness to the German version that probably comes from her being more confident singing in her native tongue (the drums are also heavier in the original, which is another pro).

In the end we’re left with something stark, both musically and lyrically. The driving beat and catchy riff vanish, leaving the echoey synths. It’s all over and I’m standing pretty, In this dust that was a city… The singer finds one last balloon. I think of you and let it go… It’s a powerful ending from a song that sometimes gets written off as a novelty (I was thinking the same before listening to it properly a few days ago…)

Nena (the band) had a few more years of success in Germany, but struggled to score many more hits in English-speaking countries. They split up in 1987, though Nena (the singer) has continued to record, and sometimes collaborates with her former bandmates. And so. I am left to reassess my opinions on 1984, and on synth pop in general. Except, oh dear…. Our next number one will go some way to proving why this year wasn’t so great after all…

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