This is the 99th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In 1982, The Rolling Stones played a concert in West Berlin. At the end of the show, Mick Jagger released thousands of helium balloons, some of which floated toward East Berlin. Carlo Karges was in the audience, and wondered what could happen were those balloons to cross into Soviet airspace. Would they be seen as a UFO or some other kind of threat? “A simple balloon could cause a war because of a big misunderstanding,” Karges later said.
At the time, Karges was the guitarist for the band Nena, which got its name from singer Gabriele “Nena” Kerner. After jotting some lyrics down about the possibility of these balloons causing a conflict, Karges shared the idea with his bandmates. Kerner told Vice that when she first read Karges’ lyrics, she got “goosebumps all over,” adding that she thought these were the “most intense lyrics [he had] ever written.”
Keyboardist Jörn-Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen wrote the music, and the band quickly set to work on what would become “99 Luftballons.” The song expanded upon the “what if” that Karges had thought about at the concert: a bunch of balloons float over the border between East and West Berlin, leading the two countries into a war that ultimately destroys the planet. Not exactly cheery stuff, but the band was excited to record it nonetheless. As Kerner later told The New York Times:
“I said, ‘I want to sing it right away.’ We did the song in one hour,” Nena said. “And then we decided to release it as a single in Germany. Our record company said please don’t do that, there’s no chorus, it’s not commercial enough. But we were all so touched by the song.”
Nena’s first single, “Nur Geträumt,” had been a hit in German-speaking countries, but “99 Luftballons” became an international hit, peaking at Number 1 in several countries, despite being sung in German. The song found its way to the US when German actress and musician Christiane Felscherinow was visiting Rodney Bingenheimer’s radio show on KROQ in Los Angeles. She had brought a mixtape and had intended to play for Bingenheimer a song by her boyfriend’s band, Einstürzende Neubauten. But when Felscherinow played the tape, she accidentally played Nena’s “99 Luftballons” instead. Listeners called up requesting the song, and Bingenheimer soon got an imported copy of the German version.
Soon, Nena recorded an English version, which peaked at Number 1 in the UK. Despite the success of “99 Red Balloons,” Kerner preferred the German original. “I don’t want to say I never liked it,” Kerner told Billboard. “But I never felt it.”
The two different versions, though linked to each other, now exist on slightly different timelines, as both “99 Luftballons” and “99 Red Balloons” have been covered multiple times.
Pioneering hardcore punk band 7 Seconds covered “99 Red Balloons” on the 1986 album, “Walk Together, Rock Together.” The cover stood out on the album, and not just because the song had recently been a hit. On an album that had 14 tracks in 29 minutes, 7 Seconds’ cover of “99 Red Balloons” was three to four times the length of some of the other songs. And it was delightfully goofy, as these guys were in on the joke.
Belgian pop singer Kim’Kay covered “99 Luftballons” on her 1998 album, “La Vie En Lilali.” At first, it sounded like a faithful remake of Nena’s, and while it more or less was, the Eurodance keyboards made it sound like the original had been sped up.
L.A. punk-ska outfit Goldfinger, probably best known for “Here In Your Bedroom,” covered “99 Red Balloons” for the band’s 2000 album, “Stomping Ground.” Just as the band had done with its cover of Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?,” Goldfinger roughened up the edged on “99 Red Balloons,” making the guitars crunchier and the vocals more emo (read: this is earnest compared to the 7 Seconds cover). The song later appeared on the soundtrack for “Not Another Teen Movie.”
Lounge satirist Richard Cheese’s album “I’d Like A Virgin” included a track that wasn’t a cover of “99 Luftballons” so much as a snippet of it that led to a creepy back-and-forth with an audience member.
Tři Sestry rewrote the song in Czech, releasing it as “Dederon” in 2006. I can’t tell how faithful the translation was, especially after Google Translate returned “rubber Indians” as one of the lyrics.
That same year, a cover of “99 Red Balloons” appeared on “My Name Is Earl: The Album,” the soundtrack of the TV show starring Jason Lee. Van Nuys’ cover was heavier and harder than the punk covers had been up until this point. Parts of it veered toward borderline metal territory. Veered, but never got there.
DDR was a Norwegian band that had a specific niche: parodying Norwegian band D.D.E. while singing in German. Thankfully, the band expanded that mission statement, allowing it to perform “99 Luftballons.” The freewheeling cover was delightfully all over the place, with ethereal female vocals over a soft arrangement giving way to a man screaming over a mixture of metal and ska. As one does.
Japanese band Beat Crusaders has been compared to Weezer and The Rentals. The band’s cover of “99 Luftballons” certainly demonstrates the influences of those groups, but the trippy song incorporates some ska flourishes and heavy drums, too. In other words, it’s kind of a mess. But not a bad mess.
New Zealand actor and singer Hayden Tee released a live performance of the song on his 2009 album, “Generation Why? Live.” Tee’s version, which combined elements of musical theatre and cabaret, incorporated bits of the German and English versions while changing some of the words.
Musician and producer Andrew Huang developed a social media following releasing videos of songs using several different instruments, or items that aren’t even instruments at all. In 2014, he challenged himself to cover a German song while he was visiting Germany. His instrumental version of “99 Luftballons” was performed using… red balloons.
Female a capella quartet Les Brünettes included a live version of “99 Luftballons” on the group’s 2014 album, “A Women Thing.” As pretty as the original song was, it sounded even prettier when performed without any backing instruments.
Sleeping At Last, which is basically a solo vehicle for singer and composer Ryan O’Neal, included “99 Red Balloons” on “Covers: Vol. 1” in 2014. Like the version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that appeared on that album, Sleeping At Last’s “99 Red Balloons” was slow, soft, and earnest. Kerner sounded exuberant on the Nena original, but O’Neal’s delivery so so understated that he sounded like he was afraid to sing any louder lest he wake someone up.
While performing in Germany in 2015, Kylie Minogue brought a red balloon onstage as a way of introducing her cover of “99 Red Balloons.” She apologized for not being able to sing the German version. But it was fun to see Kylie do the song. That same show, she performed a cover of “Bette Davis Eyes.”
On an episode of the German version of “The Voice Kids,” three adorable kids named Nils, Pia, and Michael performed “99 Luftballons.” The idea of the kids performing that is cute enough, but it’s even cuter with Nena Kerner as one of the judges.
That same year, “The Bob’s Burgers Music Album” was released, including a version of “99 Red Balloons” from the show, as performed by H. Jon Benjamin. In character. It was akin to karaoke, but it was entertaining nonetheless.
English electropop duo Kaleida, comprising vocalist Christina Wood and keyboardist Cicely Goulder, recorded a charming “Take Me To The River” cover that I included in the post reviewing that song. In 2017, Kaleida contributed a breathy, slowed-down “99 Luftballons” to the soundtrack for “Atomic Blonde.” Between Wood’s vocals and the absence of the funky keyboards, this was a darker “99 Luftballons,” much less quirky than the original. And yet it still worked, in part because Wood’s delivery made speaking German sound so effortless.
The use of German or English is important with these covers, because that helps us decide whether the cover is a cover of “99 Luftballons” or “99 Red Balloons.” But Haydeen Tee’s version had a little bit of both, making it hard to delineate whether it was a cover of “99 Luftballons” or “99 Red Balloons.” It was, like many of these versions, a hybrid of sorts: “99 Red Luftballons,” maybe?
In the review of covers of “Der Kommissar,” I bumped into a similar dilemma. If the song was performed in German, I considered it a cover of the Falco version. But what if it was in English? Was it a cover of the version by After The Fire? Or was it a cover by both artists? And what about the versions that had a little bit of English and German? Or a different language altogether?
Those questions plague “99 Red Balloons” and “99 Luftballons,” too. And then there’s the question of whether or not “99 Red Balloons” should be considered a cover of “99 Luftballons.” It’s a translation, yes, and an alternate version, to be sure. But in the previous 98 posts, I’ve tended to rule that an artist can’t cover a song that they wrote or originally recorded. Nena was responsible for both “99 Luftballons” and “99 Red Balloons,” so I don’t think this counts as a cover. But the translations performed by other artists do count as covers, because they were performed by other artists.
As I mentioned above, Kerner said she “never felt” the English version. And perhaps that might be why I never “felt” it when listening to it. Kerner told Vice that part of her love for the German original came from hearing stories from fans:
Wherever we travel and play live, even in Japan, they sing the song in German, and it’s a very, very special feeling. The people I talk to, especially from America, they all tell me the same story: when the song came out, and they were 5, 6, or 7 years old, it was the first time they had contact with the German language. Even though they didn’t understand the lyrics, they just felt the message of the song. That song is a really, really special; it took me all over the world. I’ve never played a show and not sang it, and I can’t imagine playing a show without it. It’s also special for me; I always loved the lyrics.
Perhaps, then, it is the German language that made the song magical for so many of us. The song had a vibe that was discernible, even if the lyrics were foreign to many listeners. In that sense, that might be why “99 Red Balloons” feels like a weaker song. The translation, besides being a little too on the nose, takes away some of the mystery.