AS WE START talking about lives, and experiences, and how they intersect with today, I am starting a feature in this column from the very outset: Retro Tuesday is perfectly timed for the day after Monday, when people are a little less gloomy yet facing the bulk of their week before a break; these “Retro Sets” will be funny, sad, upbeat or pause for thought. Yet all the songs I feature will relate to my own story, and I will tell a story around them.
At the great risk of breaking my own “first law” in this column — no politics — the very first presentation of Retro Tuesday is selected because of the stupidity going on in the Middle East as I write.
A Russian fighter jet has been shot down over Turkey. Predictably, the Turks say it strayed into their airspace; predictably, the Russians said it didn’t.
Either way, the Russian pilot is dead, and as is the way of these things Russia is calling the incident “very serious indeed” (code for “we’re exceedingly pissed” without the belligerent threat of retaliation) with NATO pledging to “defend” Turkey if its sovereignty is violated (code for “attack us again and we’ll fight back”).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the amount of sensationalist rubbish that permeates society these days, “World War III” is trending on Twitter. Jesus, Mary and Joseph: people can be morbid.
It won’t come to that of course, but in thinking about a) my next piece for this column, and b) the “Retro Tuesday” idea I wanted to run with anyway, it got me thinking back to 1985: I was in my first year at high school, and in the last week of that year — coincidentally, at the height of the Cold War — my German teacher arrived at class one day with a ghetto blaster and an audiotape of a band and a sound I’d never heard.
Gabriele Susanne Kerner — known to millions, simply, as Nena — had hit big internationally a couple of years earlier with a song some find ubiquitous these days, which is a pity; most of the people I know who don’t speak German, which I do, don’t have a clue what it’s even about. But this song (and you can listen to it with me, below*) was actually about the outbreak and aftermath of a nuclear war, and it becomes the very first feature of Retro Tuesday today.
This band, like so many that have emerged from mainland Europe over the past forty years or so, enjoyed great commercial success and critical acclaim, and let’s face it: who doesn’t still know the words to Dancing Queen, or smirk involuntarily whenever Paul Lekakis’ Boom Boom (Let’s Go Back To My Room) comes onto the radio?
But Nena was different: remembering postwar West Germany uniquely retained its quintessential German character whilst acquiring considerable cultural influences from the US forces that remained to reconstruct the country, its music was impossible to pigeonhole.
It didn’t sound European, and it didn’t sound American either. It was unapologetically a pop group, but its songs held far more meaning than the bubble gum rubbish being churned out by record factories in London and Los Angeles. Yet if you listened to it enough, its songs etched themselves in your brain the same way the puerile popstars of the mainstream industry invariably, and irritatingly, always did.
99 Luftballons was my first taste of anything German apart from the words in textbooks and readers I had, by then, spent a year learning by rote and role playing their use.
I remember the beat made me move — and that melody track was so infectious it was ridiculous. The good mate of mine in the seat beside me, with whom I remain in occasional contact that would be more regular if he didn’t live in Iowa, had to be told to stop jumping around and sit down.
The lovely Ms Kerner — now 55 — was then 25 and beautiful, edgy, and smoking hot. Like any teenage boy, I was captivated.
Even so, some years later a friendly record shop owner near where I lived gifted me a demo copy of a vinyl album that record company regulations prohibited him from selling — I think I still have it somewhere — with half a dozen songs on one side in German, and half a dozen in English on the other. The English songs were dreadful, and nobody needs me to tell them that Nena never became an English language blockbuster: the German songs were where the magic was.
The English version of 99 Luftballons — 99 Red Balloons — was so cringeworthy it’s a shame to mention it. If you’re pedantic about such things as I am, it didn’t even faithfully translate the German song, sounding instead like the caricature of something worthwhile that it was.
For the first time — and we’ll get better at this as we go — I hope today’s song lightens up boring old Tuesday for readers, and after you’ve enjoyed a blast of Nena, here’s a double shot: another track from the original album featuring 99 Luftballons, remade in the 1990s, is another old favourite of mine. Turn it up. Even if you don’t speak German, the real measure of these songs is that they can be listened to and enjoyed by anyone. That’s certainly true in this case.
Back to normal programming next time…whatever “normal” is, as this new column sputters into life. Next week, I promise Retro Tuesday will offer something for English-speaking readers, although what I pick to share could be anything this close to Christmas.
*Like anything new, we’ll iron out bugs as we go: to this end, the clips I embed may or may not be “removed at the request of the user” as YouTube so coolly declares when it takes something down. We will see. But as the only purpose here is general entertainment, I contend the use for Retro Tuesday is consistent with the terms of a YouTube standard licence…