Nena: The Woman & The Band

The History of Gabriele Kerner and Her Band/Stage Name "Nena"

Nena served as both stage name for a superstar German singer as well as the band she fronted throughout the '80s.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of CBS

Rather like American new wave predecessor Blondie, the German band Nena — formed in West Berlin, Germany in 1982 — often gets confused with and overshadowed by its incredibly photogenic, charismatic frontwoman. It doesn't help that in this case the stage name of the woman and the band itself were exactly the same.

Nevertheless, the quintet in question released several successful pop-rock albums throughout the middle years of the decade, producing music well beyond its one massive worldwide hit — "99 Luftballons." Of course, that's the one most people remember — especially in America (ethnocentrism alert!) — but this was an accomplished band that blended new wave and mainstream rock impulses to create a sound all its own.

The fact that Nena herself — born Gabriele Susanne Kerner on March 24, 1960 — was beautiful certainly plays a role in the group's success, but the story of this unsung German band is a richer tapestry than just that superficial truth.

Early Years

Though her stage name came from a childhood nickname stemming from the Spanish word for "little girl," lead vocalist Kerner matured quickly into the music business, joining her first band in 1979 while still a teenager. That enterprise didn't gain much traction, and when the band dissolved Kerner and Brendel (her boyfriend at the time) moved to West Berlin to look for new cohorts.

There they found other talent and formed a lineup consisting of Jörn-Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen, Carlo Karges, Jürgen Dehmel and Rolf Brendel. Once their lineup was set, the band made a nearly instant splash on German television in 1982, releasing a debut single "Nur geträumt" that was embraced heartily by German music fans.

A self-titled debut album followed in 1983, quickly establishing the band in Europe and Kerner herself as an international superstar.

Peak '80s Impact

While both the German and English versions of "99 Luftballons" have since become unquestionable '80s rock classics, the band's appeal was far from a one-hit, one-time phenomenon.

Nevertheless, it's important to linger on this signature tune, as its initial success in Germany alone (Number 1 in 1983) would have been enough to establish the band and singer as major '80s music figures.

However, more impressively — and perhaps more and interestingly — the English version of the song "99 Red Balloons" topped the U.K. singles chart in 1984, followed by a similarly stratospheric performance of the German version on the Billboard Hot 100.

In fact, only Van Halen's massive hit single from that year, "Jump," stood between a German-language rock song and ultimate American chart eminence.

Ongoing Career

Following four successful albums — released in the consecutive years from 1983 to1986 — the band Nena split in 1987. Kerner continued on with a solo career, keeping the established, pithy name as her stage moniker going forward.

Her debut solo album, "Wunder Gescheh'n,was released in late 1989 and just happened to coincide with the fall of The Berlin Wall. Though thematically unrelated to that event — the title is roughly translated into English as ​"Miracles Happen" — the LP and title track became linked forever to a monumental moment in history.

That latest iconic moment didn't necessarily turn into a highly successful 1990s for the singer-songwriter, but Kerner has maintained an active performance career ever since.

Most recently, she even enjoyed a surprising 2002 European hit in collaboration with fellow 1980s icon Kim Wilde, a remake of her song ​"Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime." Remembered fondly by '80s music fans worldwide, Kerner and the Nena legacy remain very much alive in the new millennium as well.