Ah, the Europop one hit wonder. Usually it's as close to a definitive expression of disposable, fun-while-it-lasts, harmless bubble gum pop as it's possible to be - Whigfield's Saturday Night, Lou Bega's Mambo Number 5, Cotton Eye Joe by Rednex, Blue by Eiffel 65... I could go on, but as the list grows it begins to seem less like harmless fun and the more like a pandemic of mindlessness.

But now and again a song emerges that's a bit different. A Europop song that's not inspired by Barbie dolls, does not have the words Love, Party or Dance in the title, nor the words Boys, Brothers or Crazy in the artist's name.

Written by guitarist Carlo Karges in 1983, 99 Red Balloons is a cold war story from inside the eye of the storm, but unlike most fiction of the period, it's not a brooding tale of cloak and dagger but an upbeat guitar pop song with a simply irresistible keyboard hook.

"The feeling in Berlin at the time was like dancing on the the volcano," remembered keyboard player Uwe Fahrenkrg-Petersen when interviewed recently for BBC4's Top of the Pops: The Story of 1984.

"I read the lyrics and I was blown away the same second," says Nena, "because it was so goosebumping".

This song was rare in a number of ways: a Europop guitar-synth crossover from a German group bringing an anti-war message to the British with a video that caused a media sensation not through nudity or violence, but by the ultimate transgression: female body hair.

99 Luftballons became No.1 in Germany in 1983 and took off across Europe, but not in the UK, where record buyers were not known for embracing songs written and performed in a foreign language. So an English language version was duly commissioned and rapidly became a British No.1 hit. One of the British newspapers called it the "biggest attack on Britain since the V2", remembers Uwe, cheerfully. But as much as the music itself, it was Nena's unshaven armpits, glimpsed in the song's video as Nena raised her elbows to run her fingers coquettishly through her hair, that captured the attention of the prurient British newspapers. When the band came to Britain they were baffled to see someone in the crowd holding up a banner saying "Nena we love your armpits".

Some songs stay with us because they are timeless, others because they are absolutely redolent of their time and 99 Red Balloons is absolutely one of the latter.

Those "goosebumping" lyrics are, if we're perfectly honest, a little childish. Lines like "worry worry super scurry" are at the level of communication of someone who speaks just enough of a foreign language to make themselves understood, albeit a bit silly. And thatnaïveté accounts for a lot of the song's charm - it is, after all, a piece of music that celebrates a bunch of children's party decorations and the scarily unironic reaction of the "war machine" as they drift untethered to the wrong side of the iron curtain. It's a song inspired by juxtaposition - the harmless with the monstrous, the playful and the serious, the rock with the pop, the hope, the horror and, from the perspective of the 1980s British tabloid press, the smooth and the hairy.

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About the curator

After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.

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