1984 was pop’s year of war. I’m not talking about Macca or Nena or Frankie: it was the moment I most keenly felt the charts as a battleground. There was a cosmic struggle raging in the Top 40 between the awesome and the terrible and in some huge and undefinable way it mattered which side won each week. Before this point I’d experienced the charts as a source of pleasure – the bad stuff rubbed up against the good but it hardly bothered me. After this, my concept of what pop included started to expand – the war continued but with the Sunday evening chart only one of its (many, many) fronts.
Unfortunately, looking back the actual sides in this private war weren’t truly determined by some righteous perception of perfect pop. Instead the casus belli in 1984 was simple and grubby: was it a girls’ record? Did they like it? Did they sing it? If so – to the dumper! Nena very much included – I hated this record fiercely: it was silly, it was sappy, it squelched. And to make it worse, Nena’s offhand, gamine bounce brought on that special pre-adolescent kind of “DO NOT WANT” where the “NOT” cuts in and out like a bad radio signal.
The version of her song we got – unlike almost anywhere else, the US included – is the English version, with the lyrics more rewritten than translated. The shift in emphasis matters. Both versions sing armageddon as a domino topple – once the baloons set the process going, the end of the world is an inevitability. But in the German version this happens with little human input – the people involved are tools of the process, and it’s a sad parable of a world doomed by systems. The English version is more savage. Here humanity gleefully digs its own grave, in a Strangelove style vision of a war nobody starts and nobody survives but everybody deep-down wants. “This is it boys! This is war!”
This version fits the music a lot better – its quickening tempo, its sense of release, the way the groove gradually liberates itself from that opening duck-walk and lets the song become a swirling, bumping kids’ party before it suddenly stops for the sad little coda. The downside is that you have a fine, husky voice singing lyrics in a second language and getting the phrasing slightly off – poor puns like “standing pretty” get worse when sung so haltingly. German, in any case, is a very underrated rock language – those thick crunches of consonants! So migration works an odd trick on “99 Luftballons”, changing it into a sharper song but a tweer performance.