Nena’s rock chic plays well in L.A. debut, 33 years after her hit single

Nena at the Regent Theater (Photo by Todd Nakamine)
Nena at the Regent Theater (Photo by Todd Nakamine)

Imagine for a moment that you’re in a foreign land, and a hugely successful artist from your homeland with over 25 million record sold plays a small club show. That pretty much sums up what Nena’s show was like for hundreds of expat Germans at the Regent on Sunday night. Thirty-three years after her massive New Wave standard “99 Luftballoons” landed at No. 2 on the U.S. charts, Nena finally made her first appearance upon American soil, playing the second show of her brief, three-date U.S. tour.

You could be cynical or even dismissive of an act that is considered a one-hit wonder. You’d be sorely mistaken. The 56-year-old German superstar looked and played at a level akin to someone half her age. Her performance brought a Joan Jett-like rock chic vibe and updated it with a joyful posi-pop message, a la Pink. She and her tight seven-piece band delivered a vibrant and energetic set that sounded far more present-day than it should have, adding elements of punk, metal and even hip-hop. This wasn’t the usual tired Flock of Seagulls or Missing Persons self-parody that is trotted out to pay the bills. Yes, the occasional ’80s-style sequencer leaked through the mix, but overall her set was guitar-heavy and current.

||| Photos by Todd Nakamine

In Nena, the crowd witnessed was an artist so comfortable in her own skin that she didn’t need to add any unnecessary vamping or preening to her act. Her honesty was refreshing and unconventional, to the point of stopping the show for a minute of meditation. Most of the crowd obliged.

Upon apologizing for not singing her songs in English, Nena asked, “Who here speaks German”? Two-thirds of the crowd raised their hands, and she squealed with delight.

Many of them not only remembered the old material, but knew the new single “Genau Jetzt,” which live took on a weighty feel.

While “99 Luftballoons” was the highlight of the night, it certainly wasn’t the only song that worked the considerable crowd into a frenzy. To understand “99 Luftballoons,” one must imagine early-’80s West Germany. The country was already an economic powerhouse, but suffering from phantom limb pain due to decades of separation from its Eastern half, and the song was a response to the stress of living under generations rife with fear and paranoia. The Russians were next door and everyone feared the Stasi. Growing up in the Bundesrepublik Deutschland was to live within a normalization of fear, akin to living in a John Le Carre novel. While marking a bygone era, the Cold War relic still sounds bittersweet, innocent and endearing to this very day.

Of course, as there is with many New Wave stalwarts, there was a Rodney Bingenheimer connection, and Nena thanked him mid song for breaking the single in 1983.

Considering the response and her ability to reach across generations, it would not be surprising to see her booking a more extensive U.S. tour soon.