NENA coming to America: It’s one of the great unrequited love stories of pop culture history. Thirty-five years ago she enchanted the world with “99 Luftballons” and that included America. In 1983 some would have said it was an impossible love: a song sung in German and the American people. Indeed this song set against the backdrop of Cold War tensions struck a nerve so deep that it was the first German- language song to enter the US charts since Marlene Dietrich. There was something about that song and NENA herself that made it happen. Although she’s toured the whole world including Japan, she never did get the chance to tour the US back then, but America never forgot her. And now, for those that waited so long to see the girl that stared wistfully into the sky and sang that first haunting melody, two star-crossed lovers are finally meeting in her first US tour!
So much has happened in the meantime. While America went about its business, NENA continued to flourish in Europe as an artist. With a total of 16 albums under her belt (17, counting her very first band, The Stripes), NENA never went away. Through the decades, NENA's musical ouvre has grown to encompass all sorts of genres... rock, punk, new wave, ballads, pop and electronica - as an artist NENA was constantly moving forward. Her latest album, Oldschool, and its accompanying live record, Live at SO36, see “The Balloon Chick” (her own nickname for herself) reflecting on her adventurous past and looking towards the future.
You and the U.S. finally meet. Why now after 35 years?
The answer is pretty simple. Because now’s the right time. It is always now! You just have to pick the right one. The right now. When you want to do something and it just doesn’t happen, you shouldn’t be sad or disappointed, because, well, 35 years later, it happens! For me at least... it’s perfect timing. And it’s a total, like, “Wow!” for me.
How do you feel about going to the USA now?
I’m really happy about it. All of it’s a great, big adventure – a really cool step into the unknown. I love not knowing exactly what awaits me. I’m really excited about what I’m going to experience with you all.
You have been to the U.S. before though...
Yeah, back in the 1980s we did a little promo-tour in LA and in New York. And in LA we met legendary KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer. And that was a real pleasure... because it was all his fault! [Laughs] I’m still very, very grateful for that! And three people in my band are from States and so I’ve been in the US a couple of times in recent years too. The last time I was there I really immersed myself. Now I have friends who live there. I visited John, my guitar player in Woodstock for two weeks, and I saw a lot of bands and musicians. But I’m still getting to know it, too.
It was Rodney’s fault?
Totally! [Laughs] He caused our breakthrough in the US. Back then, Christiane F. brought a suitcase of her music on the promotional tour of the Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo film... Rodney Bingenheimer picked our record out of it and played “Luftballons”. It was nuts. I remember when I was 12, I listened to records that opened up my world – and then suddenly I was there in the big wide world. That was indescribable.
How did a song like this even come about?
Man, it’s such crazy story – a musical experience giving birth to more music. It was 1982 and the Rolling Stones were touring their album Tattoo You in Berlin. Mick Jagger released thousands of balloons at the end of the concert. They were all picked up by the wind and carried in the direction of East Berlin – over the Berlin Wall. I’ll never forget that image. That was the moment when my friend and guitarist Carlo Karges wrote the first lines of the song “99 Luftballons”. He completed the lyrics the same day and eventually it catapulted us into a different dimension.
Why do you think this song remains such a hit to this day?
For me it’s always been a song about misunderstandings – something that can trigger wars. You can see a balloon and it can be thought of as an attack. This can happen on the smallest level, down to even the family where sometimes a balloon can unleash a war. [Laughs] This is something interpersonal and that’s how these things begin. People relate to that. And here, you can dance it out. What’s better than dancing out a misunderstanding?
The Cold War and the Berlin Wall were backdrops for this song. What was it like living with this around you?
Whew! Well, that’s a big one! Germany was divided before I was even born, so at first for me, it was just the way things were, you know? Then I moved to West Berlin in 1982 and it was much more in your face. Like David Bowie sung, you really could simply “stand by the Wall”. It was really crazy being there in our little walled-in island in the “red sea” – there were so many young and crazy artists and musicians there doing their own thing, including me. At the same time we were all playing and making music though, the Wall was there reminding us that there were people sometimes just meters away, that spoke the same language even, that we couldn’t touch or reach. That’s a really crazy feeling. And it inspired artists to express themselves about freedom in so many different ways.
Did you ever take this song to the GDR?
We were invited to play in East Germany but we turned the invitation down because only people in the FDJ (Free German Youth) were allowed to see us. We had a lot of fans and just couldn’t accept that those not in the FDJ were forbidden to come to our concert. But when we later played in the former East, it was totally a freeing feeling to think about how this Wall that had locked people up and away from each other for years was simply not there anymore. It was heavy and freeing. All the symbolism with the whole fall of the Wall for me was that this should always remind us and serve as a warning to future generations that we’re on this planet not to be separated but to be connected.
In Germany though, people see you as a role model. Who were your role models and how do you feel about being a role model now?
Oh, there were lots of cool women when I was starting out! But off the top of my head, I’ve got to name Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and Patti Smith. These were three women that were – and still are – tough, cool, didn’t take shit, had a real sense of style and made rock’n’roll on their terms. To listen to their music is still really something. And to have my own role models and then suddenly be one myself ... It was totally weird and yet at the same time inspiring in the 1980s to see girls all over Germany that looked like little Nenas. It was a bit unreal and I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Being a role model was something that I didn’t really want to understand, I just accepted and enjoyed the fact that my life was hitting a new phase. I take it as it comes and am just thankful for new experiences.
A lot of your perspective seems to be based on being free and open. Would you say that’s true?
When I say I’m open, that’s a general feeling in my life. When I was 17, this guy just tapped on my shoulder and I said “Yeah?” And he said “Do you want to start a band with me?” I didn’t ask him “Where?” or “How?” I said, “Yes.” Zero details, just “Yes!” That’s how my first band, The Stripes, came about. When that band ended and I went to Wild West Berlin in the early 1980s, I had the great big wide world in my sights and an unquenchable thirst for adventure on my own terms. There was music everywhere. I bathed in neon light, drifted through the never-ending sky, and in the shadow of the Berlin Wall and Hansa Studios I built castles in the sand on Potsdamer Platz. And let come what came.
So you’re totally open, but for the US tour do you have any expectations of people there?
I’m very humble about playing in America. It ́s going to be different and it’s going to be new. And I love it. And that’s what life is about! ☺
So would you say there’s a difference between Germans and Americans?
What I would say is that whenever I meet American people, they’re really open for music. They are very respectful of the fact that you do music. That’s different than in my country. Music has a different value in Germany. I think you guys are, in general, way more open and respectful of all genres, too. But really...? Hmm. I know! The big difference between Americans and Germans is that we say “Prost” and you say “Cheers!” ☺