The eight-part podcast is heavy on cold war intrigue, light on music.
|Stephen Thomas Erlewine||May 27|| 3|
Did the CIA write "Wind of Change" for Scorpions? It's a question so simple, so tantalizing it's a wonder that it hasn't been explored prior to Wind Of Change, the eight-part podcast by Pineapple Street Studios and Crooked Media that debuted on Spotify this past month.
It's such an enticing scenario, I wondered why I had never heard of this rumor prior to the podcast. "Wind of Change" climbed to number four on the Billboard charts in the summer of 1991, a year when I was paying attention to every trend in modern rock and pop. While I could never call myself a Scorpions fan, I had been aware of the group for years, ever since "Rock You Like A Hurricane" rammed its way into the Top 40 in 1984, a placement assisted by heavy play on MTV. Like all metal bands, Scorpions experienced a nosedive in popularity in the early 1990s, falling prey to the shifting winds of fashion, but they never went away, maintaining enough of a presence to still be featured in metal, classic rock and metal magazines for years. All of this combined with my voracious music press reading habits make me think that gossip of Scorpions doubling as secret agents would've wound its way to my ears at some point in the last thirty years, but it just didn't.
I'm not the only one who didn't hear this CIA rumor. I asked my Facebook feed whether they'd heard it and the vast majority had not. Among this group included several music journalists and critics who shared my belief that the would've heard about the deep state writing the Scorpions' biggest hit. Several other posters had heard the story before. Among these ranks were residents of Washington DC and metalheads, which pretty much represents the Venn Diagram for this particular story.
Discovering that some friends and acquaintances were familiar with the "Wind of Change" rumor helped dispel my first reaction to the Wind Of Change podcast: that investigative Patrick Radden Keefe invented the story. Keefe is too respected a reporter to put his reputation at risk by simply making things up but the ingenious thing about Wind Of Change is, it's a story that can't be proven or refuted, only explored. That ambiguity makes it an ideal vehicle for a leisurely podcast, where each episode rambles down a detour designed to bolster the circumstantial evidence supporting Keefe's thesis. There's an episode dedicated to CIA's cultural operations during the cold war, an episode about "The KGB Rock Club," a stretch detailing the procedure for getting FOIA requests from the CIA, a segment spotlighting rock manager Doc McGhee and, finally, an interview with Klaus Meine, the Scorpions lead singer who wrote "Wind of Change." Combined, these highways and byways give the impression that Keefe launched the podcast as an opportunity to explore ideas tangentially related to his central theme and fair play to him. The cold war generated more intrigue and espionage than could've been properly documented at the time and "Wind of Change" provides an ideal hook to pull upon a few interesting threads.
Podcasts specialize in digressions and Wind Of Change contains nearly all the deviations endemic to the format: casual conversations, re-enacted exchanges, whispered confidences, archival footage, events staged for the microphone, wild theories best recounted in the hours after midnight. It's a structure pioneered on This American Life and Wind Of Change adheres to this formula so strongly it almost plays like a metacommentary on the format while also feeling reassuring. The twists and wry commentary are expected, the unhurried pace allowing a listener to get accustomed to its lulling rhythms while also suggesting this is a story of import, even if Keefe never comes to a definitive conclusion to his thesis.
As a podcast Wind Of Change is enjoyable, teasing out its narrative carefully and getting considerable mileage out of its diversions. It's a pleasant way to pass time but its agreeableness never quite disguises how casually considers music, which should've been at the core of the podcast. Keefe is an investigative reporter—he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder And Memory In Northern Ireland in 2019, so it stands to reason he's a good one—but he lacks a nuanced musical vocabulary and possesses a superficial understanding of Scorpions' place in the rock firmament. The group and their 1991 hit are called "hooky" and "cheesy," a dreaded descriptor that suggests that the author and audience alike are both superior to their subject. It's not the only place where Keefe is dismissive of his subject. Niteflyte, the Miami soul outfit headed by Howard Johnson, a singer who shares a history with Doc McGhee, is introduced with "Remember Niteflyte? Yeah, me neither."
Perhaps this is a funny aside—it's certainly delivered with an audible grin—but these fleeting slights do add up, suggesting Keefe possesses a tentative grasp on his subject. The very fact that Scorpions decided to shift course and record a power ballad in 1990 is painted as suspicious when there could've been no safer commercial choice for a hard rock band at the dawn of the 1990s than cutting a power ballad. Similarly, the band's decision to part from their longtime producer Dieter Dierks to work with Keith Olsen—an industry titan who worked on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk and Foreigner's Double Vision and was fresh off Whitesnake's eponymous 1987 blockbuster—in Los Angeles isn't a cover for a covert operation, it's merely good business sense. A lot of hay is made over the fact that singer Klaus Meine wrote "Wind of Change" on his own and while it was his first solo composition, he had writing credits on Scorpions songs since their earliest days and he'd go onto fly solo quite often during the 1990s, facts that undercut the uncertainty allegedly surrounding "Wind of Change." Another area of conjecture is the fact that Scorpions recorded a variation on "Wind of Change" where the lyrics were translated into Russian. The existence of this version is painted as another vehicle for propaganda but releasing variations for different markets was a common practice in the record business, dating back to at least the Beatles, who released German-language singles of "She Loves You" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand." Scorpions also happened to re-record "Wind of Change" in Spanish, which makes the Russian variation seem less sinister.
Keefe also seems skeptical of Doc McGhee's assertion that Scorpions had a reputation of being tough, which is absolutely true. Part of their international appeal—and they were indeed a worldwide attraction ever since 1979's Lovedrive, a status they maintain until this day—was that they were German roughnecks, their native country adding a suggestion of steeliness to their metal. Throughout Wind Of Change, their homeland is treated as something provincial, nearly cutesy, when the fact is if Scorpions didn't deliver the goods, they never would've been known outside of continental Europe. For comparison's sake, look at Boris Grebenshikov, a Russian rocker who Columbia attempted to break in the US in 1989. Despite the label's push, American rockers didn't bite at Grebenshikov, nor did they warm to Gorky Park, a Russian hard rock band who released an eponymous album in 1989. (Grebenshikov is mentioned in passing in the context of the "KGB Rock Club" on Wind Of Change, Gorky Park is not mentioned at all.)
Scorpions not only broke out of Germany, they were a staple on the Billboard charts throughout the 1980s. Blackout, Love At First Sting and Savage Amusement all reached the Top 10 between 1982 and 1988, and they had a genuine Top 40 hit in 1984 with "Rock You Like A Hurricane." This success laid the groundwork for "Wind of Change" reaching number four in 1990, a remarkable position that nevertheless may underplay just how big the single was during 1991 when it was a mainstay on MTV. Keefe frames this success in an odd way, suggesting that the song has been nearly forgotten in America whereas it's been no more forgotten than the average chart-topper from 1991. Its lack of recurring play says more about the strictness of classic rock and oldies radio than the song's popularity itself. Besides, the fact that Scorpions are still an active concern, recording and touring to this day, is a testament that the group hasn't been consigned to the dustbin; they may be a relic from another era but they have plenty of competition on that front.
All these years of activity are evident in Keefe's climactic interview with Klaus Meine. The singer gamely recounts the Moscow Music Peace Festival, the 1989 extravaganza that inspired him to write "Wind of Change," and when he's asked about the CIA's potential involvement he's audibly surprised and genuinely delighted to explore this theory. Meine is engaging, warm, and funny, hardly the rube that the previous episodes of the podcast suggested he might be. He seems like somebody thoughtful enough to have written "Wind of Change" while also being responsible for the line "The wind of change/blows straight into the face of time," a line that any ghostwriter would've ironed out of the song.
With his mild manner and reasonable nature, Meine doesn't so much blow up the reasoning or Wind Of Change but highlights how the whole enterprise is built upon a MacGuffiin. The notion that the CIA authored the hit allows Keefe to wander through the cultural detritus of the Cold War. Much of this is fascinating, particularly when the series veers toward government subterfuge, but the lack of grounding in rock & roll means "Wind of Change" ultimately feels like a footnote to the podcast that bears its name.