"99 Luftballons" (German: Neunundneunzig Luftballons, "99 balloons") is an anti-warprotest song by the German band Nena from their 1983 self-titled album. An English-language version titled "99 Red Balloons", with lyrics by Kevin McAlea, was also released on the album 99 Luftballons in 1984 after widespread success of the original in Europe and Japan. The English version is not a direct translation of the German original and contains somewhat different lyrics.
A direct translation of the title is sometimes given as "Ninety-Nine Air Balloons", but the song became known in English as "Ninety-Nine Red Balloons". The title "99 Red Balloons" almost scans correctly with the syllables falling in the right places within the rhythm of the first line of lyrics: "red" partially replacing a flourish of the singer before "Luft". Neunundneunzig (99) has one syllable more than "ninety-nine", so the last syllable and "Luft" are blended in the English translation and become "red".
The lyrics of the original German version tell a story: 99 balloons are mistaken for UFOs, causing a general to send pilots to investigate. Finding nothing but child's balloons, the pilots decide to put on a show and shoot them down. The display of force worries the nations along the borders and the war ministers on each side bang the drums of conflict to grab power for themselves. In the end, a 99-year war results from the otherwise harmless flight of balloons, causing devastation on all sides without a victor. At the end, the singer walks through the devastated ruins and lets loose a balloon, watching it fly away.
According to David Frum, the political context of the song was the protests against NATO nuclear missile deployments.
The promotional video was shot in a Dutch military training camp, the band performing the song on a stage in front of a backdrop of fires and explosions provided by the Dutch army. Towards the end of the video, the band are seen taking cover and abandoning the stage which was unplanned and genuine since they believed the explosive blasts were getting out of control.
The English version retains the spirit of the original narrative, but many of the lyrics are translated poetically rather than directly translated: red helium balloons are casually released by an anonymous civilian into the sky and are registered as missiles by a faulty early warning system; the balloons are mistaken for military aircraft which results in panic and eventually nuclear war.
From the outset Nena and other members of the band expressed disapproval for the English version of the song, "99 Red Balloons". In March 1984, the band's keyboardist and song co-writer Uwe Fahrenkrog Petersen said, "We made a mistake there. I think the song loses something in translation and even sounds silly." In another interview that month the band including Nena herself were quoted as being "not completely satisfied" with the English version since it was "too blatant" for a group not wishing to be seen as a protest band. Despite having given in excess of 500 concerts over a period of more than 30 years, Nena has never sung "99 Red Balloons" live, even at her rare concerts in England, always performing the German version instead.[not in citation given]
There have been two re-recordings of the original German version of the song which have been released by Nena: a modern version in 2002 which was included on Nena feat. Nena (2002) and a retro version in 2009, which included some verses in French.
Live recordings of the song are included on all six of Nena's live albums, dating from 1995 to 2016.
The later-released English translation, "99 Red Balloons", topped the charts in the UK, Canada and Ireland.
VH1 Classic, an American cable television station, ran a charity event for Hurricane Katrina relief in 2006. Viewers who made donations were allowed to choose which music videos the station would play. One viewer donated $35,000 for the right to program an entire hour and requested continuous play of "99 Luftballons" and "99 Red Balloons" videos. The station broadcast the videos as requested from 2:00 to 3:00 pm EST on 26 March 2006.
In his 2010 book Music: What Happened?, critic and musician Scott Miller declared that the song possesses "one of the best hooks of the eighties" and listed it among his top song picks for 1984. Nonetheless, he cautioned: "It must be admitted that this song suffers from an embarrassingly out-of-place disco funk interlude, and the word kriegsminister."