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The songwriter was the guitarist in this band and saw a large bunch of balloons float up from the audience at a 1982 Rolling Stones show in Berlin, and as they shifted color in the setting sun, he wondered what would happen if they drifted over East Berlin and were misidentified. The song peaked at number two, kept out of the number one spot by Van Halen's “Jump”.
This was during the coldest part of the Cold War since the Cuban missile crisis. The United States had placed their Pershing II medium range missiles in West Germany, and the peace movement felt that this increased the risk of war and made West Germany a target for Soviet retaliatory strikes.
School kids, in Europe especially, were still being taught “duck and cover”and there had been a few reported incidents of false alarms in the early warning system ICMBs.
The balloons in today’s song are a metaphor for any mistake, false alarm, glitch in the system or bug that could trigger a nuclear war, and the song, as a whole, is a protest and warning against a system where it could happen and it became synonymous with the peace movement of the mid-80s.
This did NOT sit well with the band’s lead singer, She said it made the band sound like they were some protest, militant political band - which they weren’t.
She didn’t want to be known as an activist or protester. She wanted to be known as a performer.
The song was part of a brief flowering of German-pop in the United States:
David Bowie’s “Berlin” trilogy of albums in the late 1970s stoked American interest in the city, and other early ’80s successes included
Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home),” a hit in its English-language version
Trio’s “Da Da Da,” a mix of English and German
After the Fire’s English cover of Falco’s German song “Der Kommissar”
“Germany embodied the spirit of roboticism [and technology] for American new wave kids,” said Rolling Stone Magazine. “American kids fantasized about Berlin the way German kids fantasized about Detroit.”
In recent years, this song has taken on a second life as a staple in karaoke bars. The band’s singer and namesake has advice for anyone attempting her song: “Take a deep breath before you start. And switch from the English to the German version.”
When the band broke up four years after [this song] made it in America, the singer continued as a solo act. She successfully rebooted her career in Germany, and also served as a coach on the German version of “The Voice” for three years.
Nena...99 Red Balloons...I Know That Song