Friday, 1 May 2009

1984 Nena: 99 Red Balloons

And still the Germans keep on coming, the fourth Deutsch number one in a matter of months had already been in a number one in its native country and much of the rest of Europe (as "99 Luftballons") the year before, a version that also hit number two in America. Rather like 'Blondie' before them, Nena was the name of the band as a whole rather than the poutingly photogenic lead singer (who name was actually Gabriele Kerner).

There was no mention of 'Red' balloons in the original German version (a 'Luftballon' is apparently any toy balloon) and it was only added in the English translation to make the verse scan properly. It could just as well have been Blue or Green, but you get the picture. Both versions though have a similar theme - that is, a stray crop of 99 Balloons crossing over an unidentified European border and sparking a major nuclear incident (this was the eighties after all). And if the words are different between the versions, the music is the same - that is, synthesiser led soft rock with most of the rock removed.

It's strange that such a weighty subject matter should be accompanied by the limpest of backings. Rather than tub thumping drums and crashing power chords, '99 Red Balloons' flies on the back of cheesy synthesiser riffs with added slap bass fills that don't gel all that much until the song proper actually gets going, and then the guitar riffs and drum rolls are buried so inoffensively low in the mix that they are barely there.

Kerner's tongue lolls around the lyrics in a slightly muddled way as if she has a mouthful of bratwurst; it is literally only today that I've found out that the lyric is actually 'Back at base, bugs in the software' and not 'sparks in the software', and that it's 'opens up one eager eye' and not 'eagle eye'
as I've always thought. So you live and learn. True, though her accented sing/speak delivery adds a touch of the exotic to the song, it does little to convey the urgency of the situation - this is cold war paranoia and nuclear war she is singing about here after all.

I should lay my cards on the table at this point and say I had the most stupendous crush on Ms Kerner in 1984 and listened to '99 Red Balloons' on my Walkman until the tape wore out. And I loved it. Twenty five years on, I can't let my nostalgic heart rule my rational head and I have to admit that the song has not aged well. Though it knocked FGTH off the number one spot, in comparison it can be said that 'Relax' in 1984 was the sound of the present and the future rolled into one stay fresh package.

But by trying to be achingly modern, '99 Red Balloons' pulled virtually every eighties cliché out of its hat, meaning that in Feb 1984 it sounded as contemporary and cool as a phone in the car or Matthew Broderick hacking into the Pentagon in 'War Games' by physically dialling on a telephone and plugging the handset into a computer socket. And how modern do these things seem now? Exactly.

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