Did the CIA Write the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change,” One of the Bestselling Songs of All Time?

By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it seemed the fate of the Sovi­et Union was all but sealed. It would be two more years before the USSR offi­cial­ly dis­solved, and flew the Sovi­et flag over the Krem­lin for the last time, but the age of Cold War bel­liger­ence offi­cial­ly end­ed with the 1980s, so it seemed. Soft pow­er and sua­sion would fin­ish the job. And what bet­ter way to announce this tran­si­tion than with the soft-rock stylings of a pow­er bal­lad like the Scor­pi­ons’ “Wind of Change”? The sen­ti­men­tal song from Ger­man met­al and hard rock favorites was sud­den­ly inescapable in 1990, and it was not at all sub­tle about its mes­sage.

The song became a mas­sive hit and remains one of the best-sell­ing sin­gles of all time. It served as “a sound­track of sorts to a polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion,” writes Richard Bien­stock at Rolling Stone. Odd­ly, “espe­cial­ly in light of the Scor­pi­ons’ back­ground… ‘Wind of Change’ was about nei­ther the Berlin Wall nor their Ger­man home­land.” Instead, the song was osten­si­bly inspired by a his­toric two-day fes­ti­val the band played in Moscow in 1989, a so-called “hard-rock Wood­stock” fea­tur­ing met­al roy­al­ty like Ozzy Osbourne, Möt­ley Crüe, Cin­derel­la, and Skid Row along­side hard rock Sovi­et bands like Gorky Park.

Three months after the con­cert, the Berlin Wall fell, and Scor­pi­ons’ lead singer Klaus Meine wrote the words:

The world is clos­ing in
Did you ever think
That we could be so close, like broth­ers
The future’s in the air
I can feel it every­where
Blow­ing with the wind of change

The icon­ic whis­tled intro and lighters-in-the-air video cement­ed “Wind of Change” as a defin­i­tive state­ment on how the “chil­dren of tomor­row” will “share their dreams” in a glob­al­ized world. Tan­ta­liz­ing­ly vague, the lyrics read like Sur­re­al­ist ad copy, slid­ing back and forth between dog­ger­el and weird Sym­bol­ist incan­ta­tion:

The wind of change
Blows straight into the face of time
Like a stormwind that will ring the free­dom bell
For peace of mind
Let your bal­alai­ka sing
What my gui­tar wants to say

These lines, it may not shock you to learn, may have been writ­ten by the CIA. At least, “that’s the mys­tery dri­ving the new eight-part pod­cast series Wind of Change,” writes Nicholas Quah at Vul­ture. (Lis­ten on Apple, Spo­ti­fy, Google, and on the pod­cast web­site.) “Led by New York­er staff writer Patrick Rad­den Keefe and pro­duced by Pineap­ple Street’s Hen­ry Molof­sky… the jour­ney takes us to a shape-shift­ing Won­der­land, a world where an Amer­i­can agency like the CIA may very well have par­tic­i­pat­ed in the pro­duc­tion of pop cul­ture as part of con­cert­ed efforts to build sen­ti­ment against its ene­mies abroad. It might even be some­thing that’s hap­pen­ing right now.”

Those who’ve read about how the Agency has influ­enced every­thing from Abstract Expres­sion­ism, to lit­er­ary mag­a­zines, cre­ative writ­ing, and Hol­ly­wood films might not find these alle­ga­tions par­tic­u­lar­ly sur­pris­ing, but as with all the best exam­ples of the ser­i­al pod­cast form, it’s the jour­ney, not the des­ti­na­tion that makes this sto­ry worth pur­su­ing. Keefe approach­es the sub­ject with a naiveté that might be delib­er­ate, play­ing up the idea of mass enter­tain­ment as “care­ful­ly devised and cal­i­brat­ed mes­sag­ing.”

The pod­cast is great fun (“it’s been described as This is Spinal Tap meets All the President’s Men,” writes Dead­line); its sto­ry, Keefe says in a state­ment, “stretch­es across musi­cal gen­res, and across bor­ders and peri­ods of his­to­ry.” Do we ever find out for sure whether the agency best known for over­throw­ing gov­ern­ments it doesn’t like wrote the Scor­pi­ons’ 1990 pow­er bal­lad “Wind of Change”? “Hear the music, and the accents and the voic­es,” says Keefe, “and judge for your­self who might be lying and who is telling the truth.”

If you ask Klaus Meine, it’s all a fan­ta­sy. (But, then, he would say that, would­n’t he?) “It’s weird,” the Scor­pi­ons singer com­ment­ed after learn­ing about Keefe’s pod­cast. “In my wildest dreams I can’t think about how that song would con­nect with the CIA.”  The idea, how­ev­er, would make “a good idea for a movie,” he says, “That would be cool.” A movie, maybe, fund­ed by the CIA.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the CIA Fund­ed & Sup­port­ed Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zines World­wide While Wag­ing Cul­tur­al War Against Com­mu­nism

The CIA Assess­es the Pow­er of French Post-Mod­ern Philoso­phers: Read a New­ly Declas­si­fied CIA Report from 1985

Read the CIA’s Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al: A Time­less Guide to Sub­vert­ing Any Orga­ni­za­tion with “Pur­pose­ful Stu­pid­i­ty” (1944)

How the CIA Helped Shape the Cre­ative Writ­ing Scene in Amer­i­ca

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Paul Sheppard says:

    The CIA did not influ­ence Abstract Expres­sion­ism.
    The agency was involved in the pro­mo­tion of Abstract Expres­sion­ism at the Venice Bien­nale
    Which is some­what dif­fer­ent

  • Josh Jones says:

    Fair enough

  • Bob S-K says:

    Thanks for writ­ing about this! I just fin­ished the series and liked it very much. I was born in 1968 and was a Scor­pi­ons fan dur­ing my teens. My punch­line, though, is that I didn’t think the pod­cast suc­cess­ful­ly con­nect­ed the song and the CIA. (Mild spoil­ers fol­low.)

    I loved all the episodes: the plane ride to the Moscow fes­ti­val with all those bands, the sto­ry about drug run­ning and Doc McGhee, and con­vinc­ing inter­views with ex-agency employ­ees. They’re well pro­duced and the sto­ry­telling is top-notch. I think this man Keefe makes good argu­ments that the CIA has involved itself in cul­tur­al influ­ence: lit­er­a­ture, movies, music, and so on, and con­tin­ues to do so. And maybe the agency did have a hand in the 1989 Moscow Peace Fes­ti­val (episode 5, I Fol­low the Mosk­va, was riv­et­ing). It’s hard to believe that the CIA wouldn’t have had some involve­ment in such a thing.

    But none of the episodes make a clear con­nec­tion to “Wind of Change” specif­i­cal­ly. We hear Klaus Meine’s sto­ry of the writ­ing of the song, but I wasn’t con­vinced at any point by any details of how any­one at the CIA would have writ­ten the lyrics and then hand­ed them over to the Scor­pi­ons (and what moti­va­tion the Scor­pi­ons would have had to be part of such an oper­a­tion).

    One also sens­es that this Keefe chap is not real­ly a music per­son. At no point do we get an in-depth musi­cal analy­sis: the vers­es, the bridge, the cadences, the fla­vor of the thing, the rea­son why these par­tic­u­lar mea­sures don’t quite feel like the Scor­pi­ons. He sug­gests the pos­si­bil­i­ty that Klaus Meine did not write the song — that’s the crux of the whole project, and the bur­den of proof is heavy. I don’t think he deliv­ers. Yes, many Scor­pi­ons songs are faster and hard­er than “Wind of Change,” but recall 1984’s “Still Lov­ing You.” There are exam­ples in the Scor­pi­ons canon that make “Wind of Change” sound very much like the Scor­pi­ons song I believe it to be.

    Okay, if I may, more about song­writ­ing. In gen­er­al, no one sits down to write a hit song. Song­writ­ers crank out the work: song after song after song, albums are put togeth­er, tours are sched­uled, and maybe occa­sion­al­ly a song becomes a hit. The work is in the vol­ume (I’m think­ing of the “ceram­ics teacher” chap­ter of Bayles & Orland’s Art & Fear). So if the CIA had writ­ten “Wind of Change,” it would like­ly have been the result of hav­ing tried to write dozens of songs over many years in order to have at least one of them become a hit. It’s more like­ly that this mys­te­ri­ous Lan­g­ley employ­ee who made the pass­ing com­ment that the agency wrote the song was doing what any case offi­cer would find hard to resist: to take cred­it after the fact for an oper­a­tion that went well (very well, in this case).

    Oh, (good­ness I feel like I’m ram­bling), and to fol­low the espi­onage angle a bit fur­ther, it would have tak­en unnec­es­sary effort and risk to put togeth­er an oper­a­tion involv­ing the Scor­pi­ons and their songs, just to try to effect changes east of the iron cur­tain that were already well under­way (I’m pret­ty sure the agency knew a lot more than we did dur­ing those years). Any CIA employ­ee seek­ing per­mis­sion to set up and run a rock song-writ­ing oper­a­tion in late 1989 would like­ly have been gen­tly remind­ed that there was no need, because the Scor­pi­ons were already tak­ing care of it.

    Every episode had me enrap­tured, I tore through the series in just a few days. I was hooked. But the con­nec­tion between all the episodes and the ques­tion of the writ­ing of this song, “Wind of Change,” was not made. I remain con­vinced that this is a Scor­pi­ons song.

    But still, go lis­ten to the pod­cast. It’s good.

    Bob S‑K
    Durham, NC

  • Paul says:

    A less­er known fact is that NOAA wrote Rock You Like a Hur­ri­cane for the Scor­pi­ons.

  • Bob S-K says:

    Yes! Bril­liant.

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