The classic Stanley Kubrick film “Doctor Strangelove” and the 1980s flick “War Games” imagined scenarios in which mistakes cause a nuclear war. So too does German singer Nena. The song is also titled 99 Luftballons, and true to one-hit wonder strategizing, Nena has done the song in German and English with her band (named after her), but also as a solo artist in English, and also a version with some French. Oh, and some versions splice together the different language takes. And every few years a new recording of it is released. It came second behind Van Halen’s Jump on the charts in 1983, but talk about stretching out a thin idea into a career!
The story in the song:
Two kids buy 99 helium-filled balloons at a toy shop. After letting them go, the are wrongly identified as incoming weapons by East Germany, which sends up the fighter jets, which makes it look like the Cold War has turned hot, which leads to our nuclear annihilation. The apocalyptic aftermath has the narrator of the song finding a remaining balloon.
It sounds silly written out, but the pounding 80s synth bass-heavy tune makes it seem important and memorable. Indeed, it is a tour de force of keyboard pop music from its day.