Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Nena - 99 Luftballons

Today (April 8th) marks the thirtieth anniversary of 99 Luftballons, a compilation album from the German rock band Nena. Drawing from the band's first two releases (1983's Nena which I reviewed here and ? (Fragezeichen) from earlier in 1984, this album split evenly with tracks in English and German. It spent fourteen weeks on the US Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 27.

Side one opens with "99 Red Balloons", the English version of their German hit "99 Luftballons". Here in the US, this single spent thirteen weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped out at number 2; in both Canada and the UK it went to number 1. The lyrics tell the tale of a cataclysmic nuclear war that is all started by balloons floating in the atmosphere being mistaken for missiles. While I have both the original version and the translated one, I do like the German one a lot; most of us who grew up in the 80’s probably can sing along to both versions. It goes without saying that it was a great song to dance to back in the day, especially the US version which has some extra beats and hooks thrown in for good measure.

"? (Question Mark)" is the translated title track from the second album. The song is about someone is crisis, wondering who they are and what their place in the world is. I think lead singer Gabriele Kerner's vocals sound great on this one. This English version also features a saxophone solo by David Sanborn.

"Hangin' On You" is a translated version of "Ich häng' an Dir" from the second album. The mid-tempo song is about a girl with a major crush on a guy.

"Just a Dream" is the English translated version of "Nur geträumt" ("Only Dreaming") from the first album. It tells of nocturnal desires that arise in the unconscious mind when two lovers have spent a long time apart. This one has a good beat that was perfect for those early 80's jerky dance moves.

"Let Me Be Your Pirate" is the English version of slower-tempo song "Lass mich dein Pirat sein" from the second album. Musically, it has a bit of a distant, dreamy vibe to it.

Side two begins with "Kino" ("Cinema"), a song from the first album. The lyrics tell of going to the movies at night to see films starring Bogart, Cary Grant, James Dean and more. The blend of synths and guitars really works well here.

"Das land der Elefanten" ("The Land of the Elephants") comes from the second album. I really like the tribal beat to it.

"Leuchtturm" ("Lighthouse"), from the first album, describes love as a beacon. It is about always being there for one another and guiding them to safety like a lighthouse does to wayward ships in a storm.

The next two tracks came from the second album. The up-tempo "Reete mich" ("Save Me") is all about the loneliness and boredom of spending nights in hotel rooms on the road.

It is followed by moody "Unerkannt durchs Märchenland" ("Unrecognized Through Fairyland").

The album closes, appropriately, with the original German version of "99 Luftballons" from the first album.

As with the band's debut record, I had to look to the Internet for a little bit of translation help with the song that were in German (I studied Spanish in high school which is zero help here). I suspect that 99 Luftballons did so well as an album here in the States was due to the title track and the band's music video that aired quite a bit on MTV. While the first side works as a nice mini-EP, I found I could enjoy the second half too despite the language barrier.

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