Unlike Mac, I tend to regard the pop music of the 1980s as something of a nadir, but that is not to say that there was no gold amongst the dross. Back in January I sang the praises of The Pogues. At the time I said that what most interested me in songs was the lyric, and this is undoubtedly true, so it is strange that one of the albums that gave me the greatest joy as a teenager was one which, at the time, I could hardly understand a word of. This was Nena, the debut album of the band Nena, which was fronted by a singer whose stage name was also Nena. Somebody has put the whole album on YouTube.
I’ve never forgotten my mother, whose tolerance for pop music seemed to be restricted to The Beatles, complaining at my father “always listening to screechy women” when driving. Kate Bush or Stevie Nicks would have been the immediate culprit, but he also listened to operatic sopranos a lot, especially Kiri Te Kanawa. Just a few weeks ago, to my astonishment, my elder daughter said almost exactly the same thing of me, when I was listening to Jean Ritchie. I will never understand the appeal of Kate Bush, but the appeal of Nena was her far-from-screechy voice. As a result, assertions that German is an ugly language have always struck me as bizarre, although like any language it can no doubt be spoken in ugly ways. The band was quite a spare formation of guitar, bass guitar, drums and keyboard, producing a fairly typical German New Wave sound (not otherwise my favourite), supporting the singer’s voice and very much subordinate to it.
They are really only known in the UK for “99 Red Balloons” – originally “99 Luftballons” – one of the singles from the album.
By the time the album came out, though, I was living on the Continent. The track that most spoke to my twelve-year-old imagination was “Indianer”, which I now can’t help thinking must have been inspired by Karl May:
But by the age of 14 or 15 my sympathy was with the Reggae-influenced “Ich bleib’ im Bett”:
The most characteristic in terms of upbeat, boppy energy, however, might be the band’s breakthrough single in Germany, “Nur geträumt” (also on the album), or perhaps the opening track, “Kino”, about a late-night trip to the cinema:
Nena, the singer, is the only entertainer I can recollect ever having anything like a crush on (contemporaries salivating over Madonna or Kylie Minogue I could only regard as dolts), but for decades the album Nena was all I knew her for. She has apparently had a steady career in Germany ever since 1983, but was a one-hit wonder elsewhere until a (pretty negligible) single recorded with Kim Wilde in 2002 (by no means an improvement on Nena’s original). Somehow the fact filtered through to me that she had recorded part of the soundtrack to a German comedy of modern manners, Vollidiot, in 2007. And just last year she released a new album, Oldschool, which has a couple of nice numbers on it. The best is certainly Genau jetzt:
What really brought her back to my attention, though, was the highly entertaining Cold War spy series Deutschland 83, broadcast here last year, the soundtrack for which features quite a lot of German New Wave pop.
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.