What, you might well ask, is Bentley doing, combining German hard rockers Scorpions with new wave, synth pop and punk queen Nena, even if they are fellow countrymen? Well my reasoning is that with all the talk right now of the return of the Cold War, renewal of Trident, the Iranian nuclear ‘deal’ and the possibility of North Korea nuking the south or even Japan, this is a good moment to review a couple of songs from the original Cold War era, each with a different message but both connected directly to the Berlin Wall.
In the case of Scorpions’ Wind of Change, the song takes a positive outlook, celebrating ‘glasnost’ (technically ‘government transparency’ but widely interpreted more simply as ‘openness’) and which is forever linked with ‘perestroika’ (government reform) in the western mindset. Both were manifestations of the end of the Cold War, which had hung over everyone on the planet like the Sword of Damocles from 1947 to 1991 with its promise of mutually assured destruction (M.A.D.) if a nuclear war was ever initiated.
The song was prompted by the fall of The Berlin Wall in 1989; a year in which global tensions otherwise increased as Communist governments in many eastern bloc nations toppled one by one, because no-one was sure what would follow and whether it would be better or worse. I suppose an analogy might be made with the Brexit debate right now. Of course things actually did get better – much better (at least for a while) – but that’s the end of my political statement on the matter.
And so it is seen to be a song of hope despite those setbacks, with many references to the ‘children of tomorrow.’ ‘Children’ and ‘the future’ have been sure-fire record sellers, forever. Despite being inspired by the fall of the Wall however, the song, written by Klaus Meine (who also provides one of his famous whistles), actually references the failed 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt in which hard line communists attempted to wrest control from reforming President Mikhail Gorbachev and which was halted by a campaign of civil resistance. Ultimately that led, shortly thereafter, to the break up and dissolution of the Soviet Union. So the opening lines refer to Moscow landmarks and not to Berlin ones:
I follow the Moskva
Down to Gorky Park
Listening to the wind of change
Moskva is the name of the river which flows through Moscow (also ‘Moskva’) and Gorky Park is the city’s large urban park, named after the writer Maxim Gorky, and made famous in the 1981 eponymous crime novel by Martin Cruz Smith.
The guitar solo is by Rudolph Schenker. In most Scorpions songs, guitar solos are performed by lead guitarist Matthias Jabs, the guy credited with changing their style from hard rock to ‘melodic metal’ and with power ballads such as this, after he joined in 1978, replacing Uli Jon Roth.
Wind of Change was released as the third single off Scorpions’ eleventh studio album, Crazy World, which is also their best seller. It became a worldwide hit, topping the charts in Germany and across Europe and hitting #4 in the United States and #2 in the United Kingdom. It is one of the best selling singles of all time with estimated sales of 14 million copies worldwide, and is certainly the best-selling single by a German artist. The song is held in very high regard in Germany with one poll voting it as the song of the century. Touchingly, the band presented a gold record of the single to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.
The video, which I guess is the official one, attracting almost 226 million views to date, poignantly covers the period from the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 to its citizen-completed destruction with inspiring images along the way (and some not so inspiring ones) although I have no idea how the Exxon Valdez got into it and what the connection is. Surprisingly perhaps Scorpions were the first German band to exceed the 100 million YouTube views barrier with this video.
Scorpions are still writing and recording and are on a world tour right now, though it doesn’t bring them to the UK.
Nena’s 99 Red Balloons, originally 99 Luftballons (air balloons – is there any other kind?) in German was written eight years earlier than Wind of Change, in 1983 when the Cold War was at its height and the Berlin Wall as solid as a rock. The second single from debut album ‘Nena,’ it was prompted by Nena herself, apparently, seeing some balloons rising over the Wall and descending on the other side but doesn’t carry the same message of hope. (N.B. Nena is also the name of the band. Nena the person is actually Gabriele Susanne Kerner).
There is some variation in the lyrics between the original German version and the later English one. 99 air balloons, released by unknown persons, are mistaken for UFOs, causing pilots to be sent to investigate. Finding only children’s balloons, the pilots decide to put on a show of Top Gun style machismo and shoot them down. But the display of force and the shooting worries the nations along the borders prompting defence ministries on each side to go in to a flap. Ultimately, a 99-year war results from this otherwise harmless flight of balloons, causing devastation on all sides without any side being able to claim victory. At the end, the singer, Nena, walks through the devastated ruins and symbolically lets loose a balloon, watching it fly away, like a dove of peace.
The English version (14 million views) retains the spirit of the original narrative, but many of the lyrics are translated poetically rather than verbatim. 99 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, DEFCON 1 (“this is what we’ve waited for; this is it boys, this is war”) and eventually nuclear obliteration. (M.A.D. again). This time Nena walks through the ruins before “standing pretty” in “this dust that was a city” and before releasing her solitary red balloon; a souvenir that once “the world was here.”
Nena herself has said she doesn’t like the English version as it is ‘too political’ and surprisingly the German version was preferred in Australia and in the US where it reached #1 on the Cashbox chart and was only denied the same position on the Billboard Hot 100 by Van Halen’s ‘Jump.’
However, the English version did top the charts in the UK, Canada and Ireland. I know that must have been around now in 1983 because Sara Cox played it as the #1 song on her Saturday night 1980s radio show a week or so ago. Sad, aren’t I?
While it can’t compete musically with the Scorpions song there are some notable moments on 99 Red Balloons, including some great bass work. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the video. I suppose those explosions are supposed to be atom bombs?
Nena is still around, having gone solo and reinvented herself several times although much of her latter day success came in the mid 2000s with old 1980s material. She frequently covers her influencers, such as Bowie and the Rolling Stones, and performed an odd sexually ambiguous duet with our own clean-living Kim Wilde in 2002 (Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime, a reprise of a 1985 Nena song), the video for which is worth checking out. (Actually, looking at the 99 Red Balloons video the keyboard player looks like Kim Wilde). Nena’s both a vegetarian and a born again Christian now, winning the award of “Sexiest Vegetarian of the Year 2010” along the way (honestly, I’m not making this up). Now a grandmother, but still seen wearing the leather jacket that was her trademark in her heyday, she released her 12th solo album, with an accompanying tour, in 2015. She’s probably good for a few more nuclear wars yet but, like Scorpions, doesn’t seem to be heading our way any time soon.
So, there you have it; two different interpretations of the end of the Cold War. But has anything really changed? I’m just about old enough to have the vaguest of memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is the closest we ever got to global annihilation (if you’ve never seen the film 13 Days, make sure you do) and I’m sorry to say I’m getting the same bad vibes now as I did then. But heck, it might just spawn another classic track, and keep me in business writing these reviews.
© D J Bentley, 2016