The Scorpions’ Wind of Change: Was It a Ploy to End the Cold War?

Let me ask you this: Do you think one single song can end a war? Now, let me ask you this: Do you think the CIA would intervene in an existing war with a real rock group to create a song with the intention of ending said war? Well, that’s the conspiracy that’s being debated as of late. True fans of the Scorpions deny every iota of the concept. Skeptics and almost everyone else, on the other hand, would beg to differ.

The Scorpions posing in a pyramid on stage during a performance / The Scorpions posing in a black and white photograph / Doc McGhee and Phil Collen of Def Leppard posing together backstage / The Scorpions posing together at a concert
Photo by Jim Steinfeldt, Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images / Richard E Aaron, Redferns, Getty Images / Jeff Kravitz, FilmMagic, Inc, Getty Images / XAMAX, ullstein bild, Getty Images

Wind of Change is one of the German rock band’s biggest hits (they also made waves with Rock You Like a Hurricane). And it was huge; it basically became an anthem for fans around the world that captured the zeitgeist at a time of massive political turmoil. It was a sign of the end of the Cold War. It was also a very different song for the group. Wind of Change was a lighter ballad than their usual hard rock style. It was a song that… some might say… was written by someone else… with a particular goal in mind.

Knock, Knock

A recent podcast called Wind of Change hit the airwaves and created a wave of skepticism and controversy. It investigates the idea that the Scorpions’ global smash hit was actually written by the CIA. Was it? Well, that’s what articles (and podcasts) are here for…

The Scorpions posing in the bleachers in an empty arena
Photo by Aaron Rapoport / Corbis / Getty Images

Back in June of 1994, the Scorpions’ front man Klaus Meine heard a knock on the door of his Memphis hotel room. Lo and behold, there was a CIA agent standing there. The Scorpions were in town to play a concert at the Mud Island Amphitheater. Meine was asked to whistle the opening bars of their latest and biggest hit, Wind of Change.

One Piece of the Puzzle

Meine obliged, and the satisfied visitor (most likely in a trench coat and hat) bid him a good day without even stepping into the threshold of Meine’s room. So, during the concert, he did what he had been asked to do. This minor yet puzzling incident is one piece of the puzzle that the podcast Wind of Change, written and produced by the Orwell Prize-winning journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, centers on.

Klaus Meine of the Scorpions on stage holding the microphone while performing
Photo by John Atashian / Getty Images

Keefe had been chewing on the idea for about a decade. It all started with a second-hand disclosure from an intelligence service called “greybeard.” They’re convinced that the Scorpions’ multi-platinum hit single was, in fact, written by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Case of Soft Power

And the truth is, it’s not even that far-fetched. Since its establishment, the CIA has been in pursuit of American cultural domination. Songs are one part of their agenda. But it wasn’t until 1990, when a book by Joseph Nye was published, that this was given a name. “Soft power” is what the CIA has essentially been exerting.

The Scorpions on stage performing in 1984
Photo by Paul Natkin / Getty Images

It was how “one country gets other countries to do want what it wants.” There was a time in the 1950s when artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were being backed by the CIA (the agency saw the arts scene and Abstract Expressionism as a tool against communism), and they benefited from it with international promotion.

Using Musical Genius as Propaganda

The same thing happened – around the time same, too – with jazz musicians. Jazz was still largely “Black music” in the U.S., and tours and concerts were being segregated. The racial origins of jazz were also used as propaganda against Germany. The musical genius of Louis Armstrong was targeted, and the maestro trumpeter was thus appointed a “goodwill jazz ambassador.”

Louis Armstrong posing with his trumpet
Photo by Bettmann / Getty Images

Armstrong was dispatched on government-funded tours to Europe and Africa. Meanwhile, the Jim Crow laws were still being applied at home. But these jazz “ambassadors” proved less manageable than the painters. Armstrong withdrew from the post after President Eisenhower refused to deploy troops to enforce the desegregation laws of 1957.

The Case of Nina Simone

There was also the case of Nina Simone, whom the CIA tricked into pushing government propaganda. And the tragic part? That she went to her death bed none the wiser. In 1961, Simone had been sent on a tour to Nigeria by the American Society of African Culture, which was, in reality, a CIA front organization.

Nina Simone sitting behind a piano with a microphone performing
Photo by David Redfern / Redferns / Getty Images

As Keefe noted in his podcast, “It’s one thing for the government to pressure Louis Armstrong to go to Africa on a propaganda mission and have him grudgingly but knowingly go along. It’s a very different thing to covertly send an artist on false pretenses.”

The “United Snakes of America”

Simone was no patriot. She eventually went so far as to renounce the United States and move abroad. She called the nation “the United Snakes of America.” Keefe pointed out that we tend to think of culture as “organic and spontaneous, as purer than politics.”

Nina Simone holding her fist in the air during a performance
Photo by David Redfern / Redferns / Getty Images

And Simone did as well, giving it her all. She felt it gave her a deep connection to the people whom she met in Nigeria. So, to learn that it was at the hidden hands of government makes you feel “like someone picked your pocket.” Anyone who knew Simone – personally or from afar – is sure that had she know the truth, she would have been livid.

Getting by With a Little Help From Our Friends

If the CIA was using painters and jazz musicians, why wouldn’t they use German rock bands too? Whether or not the CIA was making any dents, by the time the late 1960s came around, cultural stimulation was off the leash. New music was being made in the form of protest songs and peace movements.

Mathias Jabs and Rudolf Schenker of the Scorpions performing circa 1988
Photo by John Atashian / Getty Images

Music was being made with both capitalism and communism in mind. And even though rock ’n’ roll culture was eating away at the idea of communism, it still needed a little help from U.S. intelligence – at least, that’s what the CIA was convinced of.

Follow the Moskva

It was now the late 1980s, and by the time Bruce Springsteen played his Chimes of Freedom in Berlin in 1988, which was one of the most politically charged performances ever, it was clear that the CIA was no longer needed.

German fans holding up a poster of Bruce Springsteen
Fans in Germany 1988. Photo by Herbert Schulze / ullstein bild / Getty Images

But after a festival in Moscow in August 1989, the Scorpions released their new single, Wind of Change, in 1990, referencing the Moskva River (“follow the Moskva”) and Gorky Park (“down to Gorky Park”). But any fan or non-fan alike could recognize just how different this song was from the rest of their material.

Down to Gorky Park

This lyrical salute to a new world was in stark contrast to the Scorpions’ other material from that time. Take their song Crazy World, for example, with lyrics like “Spend your dollars and rubles, Buy a piece of the wall, I’m so sick of it all.”

The Scorpions greeting their audience after their performance in the UK in 1979
Photo by Gus Stewart / Getty Images

The song was released less than a year before the implosion of the Soviet Union. That said, it came at the most opportune time, capturing the hearts and minds of people everywhere. It predicted the end of the Cold War, albeit in a somewhat cheesy way. But still, it got the message across and gave the people what they wanted to hear and sing.

Succumbing to the Soft Metal Charm

During his investigative podcast, Keefe discovered the song’s power involuntarily. He was at a Scorpions concert in Kiev and was surprised to feel this burst of joy as soon as he heard that opening whistle. Why surprise? Because he was previously resistant to the song’s soft-metal charm.

Matthias Jabs and Klaus Meine of the Scorpions performing in 1980
Photo by Paul Natkin / Getty Images

It was then that he decided to embark on his exploratory adventure, in pursuit of the truth about the song, only to hit wall after wall. The story began with a man named Harold “Doc” McGhee, who happened to be the key conspirator in the largest drug deal in American history.

It Begins With “Doc” McGhee

To give you an idea of who this guy was, Doc was the manager of low-profile and low-ranking bands in the rough Miami music scene during the 1970s. He was making ends meet by co-financing the trafficking of cocaine and marijuana. And by “making ends meet,” I mean he was making so much cash that he didn’t even bother to hide it.

Doc McGhee posing with a thumbs up at an event
Doc McGhee. Photo by Jim Spellman / WireImage / Getty Images

He would order bottles of Cristal champagne in boutique hotel bars and even burned out the motors on three cash-counting machines. By 1982, Doc was funding an operation that trafficked 270,000 pounds of marijuana into the wetlands of Louisiana.

Trafficking, Private Planes, and Dictators

According to Steve Kalish, a fellow member of Doc’s crew, the payoff was in the “tens of millions of dollars.” Kalish took his own eight-figure prize to Panama, which was the money-laundering capital of the world. There, he lent his private plane to the country’s dictatorial leader, Manuel Noriega.

Don McGhee with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of Kiss on the red carpet
Paul Stanley, Doc McGhee, and Gene Simmons. Photo by Kevin Winter / TJ Martell Foundation / Getty Images

Noriega then flew to Washington D.C. and meet with a man named William J. Casey, the Director of Central Intelligence. Back in the U.S., the drug smugglers were getting caught and being sent to prison. By that point, in 1988, Doc was already the manager of Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, and the Scorpions, among others.

Thanks to Jon Bon Jovi

Jon Bon Jovi vouched for his manager by writing a six-page letter to the judge, where he admitted that “Doc did, in fact, commit a crime,” but that “a man with his knowledge and commitment to the music industry can do so much good as a public servant.”

Jon Bon Jovi and Doc McGhee dressed up walking by a trailer
Jon Bon Jovi and Doc McGhee at the Video Music Awards. Photo by Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic / Getty Images

Lucky for Doc, Bon Jovi’s plea worked. He escaped with “just” a $150,000 fine and five years’ probation. It’s safe to say that Doc owes him one. And yes, it’s clearly unfair, considering that the truck driver of the Louisiana operation had to eat bland porridge for three years behind bars.

The (Ironic) Moscow Music “Peace” Festival

A year later, in 1989, the crooked band manager announced that he would be staging the Moscow Music Peace Festival. It was to be held over two nights, August 12 and 13, at the Central Lenin Stadium, and Doc stated that the concerts would raise money for “Muscovites” (natives of Moscow) who were suffering from addiction.

Ozzy Osbourne and Motley Crue looking excited, holding gold records in picture frames
Photo by Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty Images

In a case of extreme irony, he recruited the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe – two rock stars who are basically the epitome of drug-dependence. Aside from the notorious rocker addicts, there were also acts like Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Cinderella, and our friends, the Scorpions.

What’s Up, Doc?

The line-up was completed with Russia’s very own Gorky Park, a hard rock act whose very existence signaled the quickly changing nature of Russian politics. Keefe asked Doc directly if the “Peace” festival was a part of a CIA operation to amaze 160,000 Russian kids with the dazzling stupidity of songs like Crazy Train and Wild Side.

The Scorpions performing on stage
Photo by John Atashian / Getty Images

Doc’s responded that that “had nothing to do with it; it just happened by accident.” The Moscow Music Peace Festival wasn’t even the first time. Western rock ‘n’ roll punched a hole into the Iron Curtain.

American Rock on Russian Soil

In 1977, after the state turned down requests from The Doobie Brothers and America, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was given permission to be the first U.S. act to perform on Russian soil. It would be 11 years before the Scorpions would appear on the same soil.

Matthew Jabs and Rudolph Schenker performing with their guitars on stage
Matthew Jabs and Rudolph Schenker of The Scorpions. Photo by Paul Natkin / Getty Images

They performed over five nights at the SSK Arena in Leningrad and at the KGB-fronted Leningrad Rock Club. And when they did, their hotel rooms were ransacked by unseen forces. But Doc McGhee’s convoy of hard rock musicians was an entirely different beast.

A Massive Drunk Tank

Aboard a private Boeing 747 decorated with psychedelic art (made by artist Peter Max), the traveling musicians carried on like the colorful, indulgent characters they were. “It was like a massive drunk tank,” recalled Dave “Snake” Sabo, the guitarist of Skid Row.

Tommy Lee holding drumsticks next to a stuffed doll / Ozzy Osbourne in shiny silver and black jacket posing in front of a pink background
Photo by Gutchi Kojima, Shink Music, Getty Images / Ross Marino, Getty Images

“I need to pee!” Ozzy Osbourne screamed before he went ahead and kicked down the washroom door, where a reporter from MTV was sitting. “We were looking at a daylong plane ride with nothing to do,” Tommy Lee, the drummer with Mötley Crüe, wrote in his tell-all book The Dirt.

The Doctor Is In

Lee recalled a “so-called doctor on board,” who was supplying the boys with whatever “medicine” they needed. “It was clear that this was going to be a monumental festival of hypocrisy.” The festival’s arrangements were so risky that, as he entered Russian airspace, Doc wasn’t so sure that the concerts would even take place.

Sebastian Bach and Tommy Lee outside of a plane on a landing strip
Sebastian Bach and Tommy Lee. Photo by Koh Hasebe / Shinko Music / Getty Images

Even more, pressing was the very real possibility that the 747 would be denied permission to land at Sheremetyevo International Airport. The fears turned out to be all for naught. As they landed, they went right through, without even needing to show their passports.

Culture Shock

As the band members and everyone else on board exited the plane in a sort of hangover haze, they squinted into the Moscow sun and were made quickly aware of a major clash of cultures. Doc imported ice from Switzerland.

The Scorpions riding in a golf cart while posing for the camera
Photo by Koh Hasebe / Shinko Music / Getty Images

Why? Because he had to keep his bands’ tumblers of Jack ’n’ Coke nice and cold. Ozzy Osbourne said into the MTV cameras: “It’s a beautiful country, it really is, it’s just that people are so miserable. They’ve got nothing. What it does make me appreciate is what we have in the West.”

In Russia, The Struggle Is Real

Ozzy also noted that you couldn’t even get toilet paper or toothpaste there. “I saw a great big line of people yesterday, as we were driving in, queuing for a cabbage. That’s ridiculous.” But not everyone was as humbled by the Russian struggles as Ozzy was.

Members of the Scorpions, Ozzy Osbourne’s band, and Skid Row posing together on a rooftop
Klaus Meine and Matthias Japs of the Scorpions, Zakk Wylde of Ozzy Osbourne’s band, Dave Sabo of Skid Row, and Rudolf Schenker of the Scorpions. Photo by Koh Hasebe / Shinko Music / Getty Images

Not everyone was quite so humbled by the struggles of the Russian people. Backstage at the Central Lenin Stadium, Tommy Lee confronted Doc. He was pissed off that Bon Jovi was allowed to use pyrotechnics while his band wasn’t. After the drummer chugged a bottle of vodka, he punched his manager in the jaw.

The Odd Ones Out

After slugging him, Lee told Doc that his services were no longer required. Mötley Crüe was then removed and flown back home to Los Angeles on an Air France jumbo. By many accounts, it was the Scorpions – the sleeping giants, the odd ones out – who took over the Moscow Music Peace Festival and essentially stole all the other acts’ thunder.

Richie Sambora and Klaus Meine on stage together performing at the Moscow Music Peace Festival
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi and Klaus Meine of the Scorpions. Photo by Koh Hasebe / Shinko Music / Getty Images

The Scorpions, after all, were a seasoned arena band. They were making music while the other bands’ members were still just dancing in front of their bedroom mirrors. The band from Hanover, Germany were, and still are, a music-making machine that takes its responsibilities to i audiences very seriously.

The West vs. the East

The Scorpions recognized the power of the Russian beast. Almost 50 years before Klaus Meine ever told Leningrad’s SSK Arena that he would rock them like a hurricane, his very own uncle sat in a freezing tank during the siege of Leningrad.

The Scorpions backstage at the Moscow Music Peace Festival
The Scorpions at the Moscow Music Peace Festival. Photo by Koh Hasebe / Shinko Music / Getty Images

Since the band was from the “corrupt” West, the wrinkles leftover from World War II meant that the Scorpions were still forbidden to perform in East Germany, that is, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Meine described how scary it was to be on Hanover’s autobahn (the speed limit-less highway), but it wasn’t because of how fast the cars were going.

An Unrepresentative Festival

“When you go on the autobahn, it’s a 100 km to the checkpoint, and then you’re in the DDR [Deutsche Demokratische Republik],” Meine said. “It was really scary, being so close. We felt like we were between the big powers, between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. We’re right in the middle. West Berlin was an island in the middle of the DDR.”

Matthias Jabs with his guitar performing
Matthias Jabs of the Scorpions. Photo by Koh Hasebe / Shinko Music / Getty Images

As much as Doc McGhee tried, not everyone was captivated by the Moscow Music Peace Festival. Music journalist Deborah Wilker wrote, “Could there possibly be a more vapid, less talented, poorly chosen line-up ever assembled to represent Western music for such an important event?” (Well, that sums it up).

The Sound of Freedom

In her report, Wilker asked, “Why not REM? Aretha Franklin? Bruce Springsteen? Eric Clapton?” Her point was that they could have brought artists who have “made a worthy contribution – no matter how slight – to Western culture.”

The Bangles posing together at an awards festival
Photo by Gie Knaeps / Getty Images

But what Wilker and other haters of the concert weren’t really absorbing was the fact that when it comes to the sound of freedom, the kids just wanna rock. Despite the mournful cries of Don Henley and Sting, it was The Bangles that best captured the mood of the times.

Call the Kremlin

“All the school kids are so sick of books, they like the punk and the metal bands,” Michael Steele sang in Walk Like An Egyptian. The three-and-a-half-minute hit even features the words “call the Kremlin.” Songs like these were a more cleverly disguised, more rebellious kind of protest song.

Metallica posing outside of a theater in 1986
Photo by Paul Natkin / Getty Images

At the Central Lenin Stadium, the Russian youth fell hard for the kind of rock ’n’ roll lyrics that they had previously heard only on bootleg cassettes. Two years later, Metallica pulled off the same trick in front of half a million Moscow youth at the Tushino Airfield.

The Leader of the Free World

It was in that moment that front man James Hetfield became the defining picture of a Western rock on communist soil. It was fitting, then, that when Rolling Stone interviewed the singer, they called the piece “The Leader of the Free World Speaks.”

James Hetfield performing with Metallica
James Hetfield of Metallica. Photo by John Atashian / Getty Images

But once the times were a changin’, it was the Scorpions who captured the moment better than anyone else. A month after the Scorpions’ appearance in Moscow, Klaus Meine reportedly sat in his home studio in Hanover and wrote Wind of Change. And he did it on a small Yamaha keyboard.

He Knew It Would Be Special, But…

He whistled the now famous melody over the opening refrain. Believe it or not, he wrote and dated the lyrics in a notebook that had an image of Mickey Mouse on the cover. “I had a feeling this could be something special,” he later said.

Klaus Meine on stage in a black hat with a red ribbon
Klaus Meine. Photo by Koh Hasebe / Shinko Music / Getty Images

“But, of course, not knowing that the wall would come down in November,” he added, and “not knowing that this song could be an anthem for so many people east and west, for reunification, for the end of communism, whatever. I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I just liked it.”

The OGs Getting Respect

Three decades later, the Scorpions’ status as Germany’s most significant rock band has been surpassed by another major player, Rammstein. The band from Berlin basically took the torch and kept running. They sing in their native tongue about their own country’s complex relationship with its recent past. They also advertise concerts in American stadiums by promising “to build a wall of fire, and you’re going to pay for it.”

Till Lindemann performing while his silver suit jacket is on fire
Till Lindemann of Tammstein. Photo by Horstmann / ullstein bild / Getty Images

Still, they wouldn’t have even existed if it wasn’t for the OGs, the Scorpions. In 1991, they issued a Russian-language version of Wind of Change. On December 14 that same year, the Russian premier invited Meine to sing the smash hit at the Moskovskiy Kreml in Red Square. Then, on Christmas Day, the flag of the Soviet Union was finally lowered from the Kremlin for the last time.

So? Did the CIA Write It?

According to Meine, the answer is no. He actually heard about the conspiracy theory for the first time when Keefe interviewed him for his podcast. After rejecting the idea, he did admit that it would make a great movie.

Klaus Meine at an award reception in 2000
Photo by Ronald Siemoneit / Sygma / Getty Images

“It’s weird,” he stated in that interview. “In my wildest dreams, I can’t think about how that song would connect with the CIA.” “I never heard this. I am very much surprised. Someone wanted to take credit for the song?” (As someone who listened to the entire podcast, the front man really did sound sincere).

From His Mouth to Our Ears

Although he denied the CIA’s involvement, he also thinks the idea isn’t that far-fetched. “If the CIA had a song like that to send a singer and put it out behind the Iron Curtain, that would make sense. It’s a little weird to think about it. But, on the other side, it underlines the power of music, in a big way.”

The Scorpions posing together wearing all black in front of an orange and pink backdrop
The Scorpions 1984. Photo by Ross Marino / Getty Images

He continued, “All of a sudden, half of Russia is whistling Wind of Change, and they don’t know why.” Even Keefe, after a decade of research, eventually confessed that he doesn’t know if he believes that there’s some kind of connection.

Songs Have Power, But This Is “A Joke”

To Keefe, Meine sounded, for the most part, amused by the whole story. “It just shows that music has so much more power than just being the music we hear sometimes on the radio or dance to or make love to,” Meine said.

Klaus Meine posing backstage with a friend
Klaus Meine backstage at a concert. Photo by Jim Steinfeldt / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

But to Meine, Keefe’s theory is “a joke,” and he doesn’t take it seriously. The longtime singer admitted to being in awe of the impact his song has had on the world. He jokingly added: “It adds another chapter now with the CIA. At the end of the day, the song became bigger than life. It’s one of those songs that make their own way, and there’s nothing I can do.”

Rock You Like a Hurricane

The Scorpions’ other massive hit single has a story of its own. Rock You Like a Hurricane is the old school classic that turned the German heavy metal veterans into unlikely sex symbols. The band’s road to success was a long one, though.

Matthew Jabs of the Scorpions playing guitar and singing
Matthew Jabs of the Scorpions. Photo by Paul Natkin / Getty Images

By the time they were established as one of the world’s biggest rock bands, they had already put in some 20 years of active music-making and live-performing service. 1982’s Blackout album finally propelled them to the top of the growing heavy metal tree, with No One Like You and Can’t Live Without You.

Bigger, Better

And just like that, the band became a major force on U.S. radio waves. No One Like You was the most-played song on American radio stations in 1982. “That was pretty crazy,” guitarist Rudolf Schenker recalled. From there, they started headlining shows in the U.S., with Iron Maiden and Girlschool.

The Scorpions posing together while leaning forward
Photo by Richard E Aaron / Redferns / Getty Images

Once the Scorpions started working on their next album, Schenker knew they needed more – bigger – singalong anthems. “We were really riding on this high wave, and so I was thinking even bigger… what could I write next, you know?” (We know, man, we know).

Big, Bold, and Catchy

The Blackout recording sessions were plagued with problems. For one, Klaus Meine had to make a temporary departure to deal with a serious vocal issue. But the troubles only brought them closer together, and all the hard work paid off.

Klaus Meine and Rudolf Schenker posing together for a portrait
Klaus Meine and Rudolf Schenker. Photo by Koh Hasebe / Shinko Music / Getty Images

Newly inspired, Schenker presented the band with a new song he had just written while on the Blackout tour. The new track was big, bold, and catchy as hell. The only thing missing were some lyrics. Dieter Dierks, the band’s producer, tried to come up with lyrics, writing a total of nine drafts.

Gimme More Rarebell

But every time, Dierks would say “No!” or “That isn’t working!” Then, they turned to their drummer, Herman Rarebell. He was the go-to guy for double meanings and innuendos, and, before long, the song was written and ready.

Herman Rarebell posing in front of a large photograph of a scorpion on a red backdrop
Photo by Fryderyk Gabowicz / picture alliance / Getty Images

“The b***h is hungry, she needs to tell, so give her inches and feed her well.” Yup, it was sexual, it was crazy, it was rock ‘n’ roll. “It just felt right, you know?” Schenker recalled. “You have to remember that this was the ‘80s!” Once it was released in 1984, the ground almost literally shook.

Milking It for All It’s Worth

Schenker recalled, “American girls came up to us, saying, ‘We love you guys! Rock you like a hurricane!’” It was at that point, more or less, that they saw that the big rock anthems were obviously working. The song is widely regarded as one of the hard rock anthems of the ‘80s.

The Scorpions backstage at their concert
Photo by SGranitz / WireImage / Getty Images

Rock You Like A Hurricane became a permanent fixture in the band’s live sets for the following three decades. That’s not to mention all the TV shows, movies, and commercials that milked the song for all its juices. And really, who here can’t remember this song? I bet you’re singing it yourself right now.