Snapshot In Sound – Nena 99 Red Balloons
The year was 1984, George Orwell had predicted a totalitarian society controlled by the media and technology, a forecast off by roughly two decades, but the seeds had been planted in a year that saw Apple release its first Macintosh computer and Russia responding by programing the classic video game Tetris. It was at the height of the American- Russian Cold War and Europe was not such a nice place to live in, divided by The Berlin Wall and beaten down by old order oppression. There was high unemployment and conflict was always in the news. I was in my mid teens at the time, locked away in a Catholic Boarding school, where once a week, students were permitted to watch TV and the show we got to see was Top Of The Pops. It was a rare porthole into life outside the walls of our confinement, a chance to soak up modern style and culture through music. While many people look back on the 80’s as a golden period for music, living in it was a different matter. All we had were cassette decks with LW Radio and the technology of the day was the Sony Walkman. For me personally, the music of the early 80’s was uninspiring, made up of ballads, love songs and novelty tracks, like Save Your Love by Renee and Renata, Joe Dolce’s Shaddap You Face and the sickly sweet There’s No One Quiet Like Grandma, which infamously knocked John Lennon and Imagine off the Christmas #1 spot. It was the equivalent of waterboarding for ears and it was not until Kraftwerk, New Order and Culture Club came along in 83, before I felt music culture starting to change and embrace an electronic 4x4 beat. The track we feature today, 99 Luftballons, was released in 1984 and as well as being an anti-war song, it was a sexual awakening for many teenage boys my age. It was translated into English for the dominant UK market and renamed 99 Red Balloons, a controversial move that did not sit well with the band, its lead singer refusing to sing the track live in English. Nena felt the song lost much of its true meaning and message in translation.
I remember over 100 students in Ballyfin College, now a luxury Hotel for the stars, sitting on the floor and stacked benches at the back of the TV room, mouths and eyes open at the imposing sight of a tall, black haired sex goddess, in tight leather pants moving about with Amazonian freedom and abandon. Her name was Gabriele Kerner and she was the lead singer in a band named after her nickname, Nena. It was at a 1982 Rolling Stones concert in Berlin, that the late guitarist Carlo Karges was inspired to write the song after noticing red balloons floating into the summer sky and carried by the wind over the Berlin Wall into the Soviet controlled side of the city. He wondered what would happen to them as the Russians were on high alert as more and more people were attempting to cross the militarised wall, strewn by land mines and soldiers with shoot to kill orders. Over 230 people died, 68 of them shot, trying to cross the wall searching for a better life. It was after the Rolling Stones concert that Carlo met Gabriele, a big Mick Jagger fan and her drummer boyfriend Rolf Brendel to discuss forming a band. They recruited Jürgen Dehmel on bass and Jörn-Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen on keyboards and soon released their first single “Nur geträumt” in August 1982. It became an instant success, reaching #2 in the charts – the band appealing to a new generation of Germans, children of parents who fought in WW2. However it was their second single, 99 Luftballons that brought them international fame, topping the charts in over 16 countries, including #2 in America in its German version and selling nearly 3 million copies worldwide. Their home audience looked to a brighter future, free from the desolation of war and conflict, and Nena was the poster band for a new wave washing across Europe. Nena, like many young bands and artists that followed them, understood that music rather than protest, was the answer to win over the hearts and minds of their generation.
As we awaited for the dance music revolution to arrive, via industrial techno from Germany, things were a lot brighter across the pond in America. Chicago was nurturing House music, still in its infancy but capable of releasing the iconic Jamie Principle/Frankie Knuckles track Your Love. America was where it was happening, we turned there for infulence and fashion, as it had Jackson and Madonna and was fashionably way ahead of anything that was happening in dreary Europe. Most importantly it had the pioneering MTV, the church of musical freedom and non stop music. It provided a platform for all types of music to shine and US Tv gave us cool shows in 84 like, Miami Vice, which so influenced style, fashion and music in Europe. Politically, Ronald Reagan was in a daily battle with the Soviets to keep the planet from blowing up and Margaret Thatcher was fighting wars with Argentina and the IRA. There was a real and present danger that a nuclear war could start at any time, such was the tension in the air. Frankie Goes To Hollywood captured that mood When Two Tribes Go To War went to #1, its groundbreaking video featuring a parody of Reagan and Chernenko ring wrestling. It was the year that another symbol of hope, The Space Shuttle Discovery, made its maiden voyage and feel good movies like Ghostbusters ,Footloose, Sixteen Candles, Karate Kid, and Gremlins were released. In neighbouring Canada, Ibiza resident, Guy Liberate, launched another mission of light when Cirque du Soleil was founded. 1984 was the year that crack cocaine made its first appearance on the streets of Los Angeles, which also hosted one of the most successful Summer Olympics ever, an event the Soviets boycotted but best remembered for Carl Lewis, Daley Thompson, John Tracey and Sebastian Coe.
Back in Europe the mood was much more depressing. Margaret Thatcher gave orders to baton charge striking miners and an unlikely ginger hero, Arthur Scargill, rose to prominence. In India, its Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a symbol of peace, was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, sparking a sectarian war that killed 20,000 in New Delhi. Aids made its deadly appearance and famine in Ethiopia captured a mood of generosity and goodwill, as Bob Geldof and Midge Ure wrote the classic Christmas track, Do They Know Its Christmas, and organised the Band Aid concerts raising over £150 Million for famine relief. Music was now breaking down borders and walls, English DJ and producer, Nicky Holloway, who had been holidaying in Ibiza since 1982, was telling all his friends back in old blighty that something new was happening on a little known Balearic island in the Med. In 1987 they famously rented a villa in San Antonio and with a bag of Mitsubishi Ecstasy pills, dropped under the stars of Amnesia’s open air terrace, witnessed an Argentinian political refugee named Alfredo, DJ Balearic styled music. They returned home to Thatcher’s Britain with the memory of that holiday fresh in their minds and etched it’s smiling soul into modern British culture. Not long after, on this day in 1989, The Berlin Wall and all that it stood for, was committed to the history books. A new dawn had arrived and with it the seeds of a United Europe were planted. Carlo Kages the writer of 99 Luftballons lived long enough to see his country unite and lead Europe in the formation of a dynamic new continent, that was born of unity, respect and openness, things that we could only dream of back in 1984