Nena of “99 Luftballoons” fame says she tries her best

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Thirty years ago today–on May 18, 1984–24-year-old Nena Kerner called me from Berlin to promote her band Nena, which was flying high at the time on the strength of the anti-nuclear protest song “99 Luftballoons”. The song was such a hit that soon after they released an English version, “99 Red Balloons”, as well.

I seem to recall quite liking that tune when I first heard it back in the day.

Not so crazy about it now.

Anyway, in the spirit of things that are old, I’m gonna retype my story on Nena that ran in Vancouver’s Georgia Straight newspaper on June 1, 1984. It’s the first time the story has ever appeared on the Interweb, so that’s a big deal, right?

“When the Rolling Stones were in Berlin for their concert they let balloons flow at the end of the show. And Carlo thought, ‘What might happen if the balloons go over the border to East Berlin?’ There could be a misunderstanding.”

Over the phone from her home in West Berlin, Nena Kerner is commenting on the inspiration for her band’s hit tune “99 Luftballoons”. Written by guitarist Carlo Karges, the tune has nifty punk-guitar overtones and a funkified electro-bop bit that catches the ear. But it isn’t necessarily an anti-war song.

“No, not only,” assures Nena, trying her best with the newly acquired English that came her way through a recent crash course.

“Sure, it’s about fighting and wars and peace, but it deals also with misunderstandings between people. It’s a song with a lot of fantasy and fairy tale. Everybody can pull his own story out of the song.”

Born Gabrielle Susanne Kerner in Hagen, a West German city of one-quarter million, Nena grew up in an academic environment. Her father taught Latin and science, and her mother was a grade-school teacher. But young Kerner had no plans to follow in their educational footsteps. Nor did she figure on becoming a pop/rock star.

“When I was at school I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I never had the big dream to be a singer or a musician. So it was just luck that I was asked to sing in a band.”

Nena was approached by a local Hagen musician to join a group called the Stripes, which happened to include drummer Rolf Brendel, her current boyfriend. When Stripes folded in 1982, Kerner and Brendel set off for Berlin where they hooked up with the other members of Nena, guitarist Karges, keyboardist Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen, and bassist Jurgen Dehmel.

But success did not come fast enough for an anxious Kerner, and when Nena’s first single failed to cause much of a stir, she tried to draw attention to herself by starring in the teen exploitation film Gib Gas Ich Will Spass, which features some of the group’s songs.

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“But forget this f***ing movie,” blurts out the 24-year-old singer. “I hate it. I did this film two years ago, and I thought it would be a good thing to make our music a little popular. ‘Cause at the time we weren’t successful at all.”

“So I did it, and the result was that we made this movie successful, and not the other way. So don’t let’s talk about this movie, okay?”

Okay. But it should be mentioned that the Gib Gas film was a massive success in Germany, and helped make Kerner the country’s newest pop sweetheart. It also helped boost sales of her band’s debut album, Nena, to nearly one-million copies in their homeland.

Their North American debut album, titled 99 Luftballoons, is a combination of songs off the first German album and new material from their just-released second German LP. Currently #49 after 12 weeks on the Straight‘s Top 50, the record is one side English and one side German language, with versions of the hit title track in both.

“I am not satisfied with [the English versions of] ‘Just a Dream’ and ’99 Red Balloons’,” she admits, “but some translations of our German songs worked very well. And I try my best.”

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