This was one of the songs in the '80s to make a point about the brinkmanship and paranoia/hysteria surrounding the issue of war. The song talks about Nena and the listener buying 99 Balloons in a shop and letting them go, for fun. These balloons show up on the radar as unidentified objects and both sides scramble planes and go to full alert to counteract a perceived nuclear attack, when in fact it is the most childlike of things, a bunch of balloons.
The song, though difficult to understand, is about the dreams of the German people that were lost after World War II. The 99 balloons represent the many dreams that each person had. At the end of the song, she just wants to prove that the German people did have dreams by finding one balloon - she finds one balloon, a dream, and lets it go. (thanks, Josh - Pleasant Plains, IL)
Nena's guitarist, Carlo Karges, got the idea for the song after watching balloons being released at a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin. He wrote the lyrics and Nena's keyboard player Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen wrote the music.
Nena's real name is Gabriela Kerner. She was is a band called The Stripes before forming her own group.
This was released in Germany, where Nena was from. Their record company had no intention of releasing it in America until a disc jockey at radio station KROQ in Los Angeles found a copy and started playing it. They recorded an English version (the original words are in German, and yes, "Captain Kirk" in German is still "Captain Kirk") with the title translated as "99 Red Balloons" and released it in the US, where it was a big hit.
Nena is a true one-hit-wonder outside of Germany, where she didn't even come close to another hit. Before this, however, her single "Nur Getraumt" was a #1 hit in Germany.
The California ska band Goldfinger released a popular cover version in 2000 on their album Stomping Ground that was used on the soundtrack of the 2001 film Not Another Teen Movie. Their version features one verse in German; lead singer John Feldmann said he had to take lessons to learn how to say some German words before recording it. (thanks, Josh - Pleasant Plains, IL)
The English-language version was #1 in the UK for three weeks in March 1984. It was the first of two songs about nuclear war to top the charts in the UK that year; the other was "Two Tribes" by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. (thanks, Emery - London, England)
"Luftballons" literally translates to "Air Balloons" in German, and means regular party balloons.
The Goldfinger version was used in a 2015 commercial for Coca-Cola as part of the company's campaign to recognize the 100th anniversary of it's iconic bottle.