Everything sounds so harmless, like idyll and harmony. “If you have some time for me, I’ll sing a song for you” – that’s how “99 Luftballons”, Nena’s big hit, begins. The singer tells of these 99 balloons, which innocently find their way in the sky, are mistaken for enemy flying objects by the military and finally trigger a war. The song is perfectly timely when it was released in 1983. And yet it was not originally intended to be published.

It is the time of the Cold War, in West Germany the stationing of American Pershing II missiles is hotly debated. West and East are hostile to each other, and at least one uneasiness is always there, if not the fear of an escalation of the conflict. Nobody could have guessed that the Berlin Wall would fall in a few years. Not even the musicians of the band Nena, who live in West Berlin.

They had already had a hit with “Nur Getraut” before. Bassist Carlo Karges came up with the idea for a new song at a Rolling Stones concert: at the end of the show, the Stones released colorful balloons into the sky. Karges’ imagination sets in: What if the balloons fly over the Wall to East Berlin? What if the Soviets didn’t realize they were harmless balloons? Karges scribbles a few lines in his notebook.

A little later, Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen, Nena’s keyboard player, played “a really great melody” to his bandmates, as he himself finds it. Everyone is immediately impressed. And Karges also finds the right text in his notes – the one about the “99 balloons”. “Carlo’s text really fitted my melody exactly, even though it had an unusually large number of notes,” says Fahrenkrog-Petersen on his website. Singer Nena, whose real name is Gabriele Susanne Kerner, is immediately hooked: “I got really big goosebumps and said: Hey Carlo, that’s the best thing you’ve ever written.”

Full of enthusiasm, the band presented their idea to the record company. “99 Luftballons” is to be released as a single from the debut album. But her enthusiasm is curbed abruptly, the management is anything but convinced of the song. It doesn’t meet any of the “other usual criteria” for a hit song, critics say it doesn’t have a chorus and the instrumental part at the beginning – intended by the band as a kind of foreword – is far too long. “They definitely didn’t want to do the song as a single,” says Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen.

A fatal misjudgment that fortunately didn’t stop the musicians. The band prevailed, and in January 1983 the song about 99 balloons, Ministers of War, jet planes, petrol cans and 99 years of war hit record stores. It becomes a mega hit: on March 28, 1983 – 40 years ago – “99 Luftballons” reaches number one in the German hit parade and even makes it into the international charts. The song also stormed to the top in the United Kingdom and other countries, and in the USA it was number two – with German lyrics, mind you, although an English version was later released. No other German-language song has done that since then. To say it with Nena: “Man, who would have thought that?”

40 years after the great success, everyone still has Nena’s music and lyrics in their ears when it comes to balloons – and unfortunately the song has regained special relevance for its anniversary in view of the Ukraine war. “If we’re honest, the song was always up to date. Unfortunately, there were always wars. We don’t have to fool ourselves,” says Nena.

Sources: Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen / “Spiegel” / “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”