In 2004, while I was spending a summer in Prague and working for the local English-language radio station, I got the opportunity to interview Frank Zappa’s former saxophone player Napoleon Murphy Brock, backstage at a show featuring what was left by that point of Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention. Zappa was, and is, a huge deal for Czechs: His music, along with the Velvet Underground’s, was a touchstone for the country’s dissident artists during the 1960s and ’70s, and he later served as an informal adviser to post-communist President Václav Havel—a huge Zappa head.
During the interview, Brock told me about visiting Czechoslovakia with the Mothers in 1978 and the euphoric reaction they received from fans hungry for the subversive energy of rock music. It was a great story, but it never happened. As Czech Zappaphiles quickly informed me after the piece was aired, the band never played Prague in 1978 and wouldn’t until years later. The Communist authorities would never have allowed it.
I was reminded of that story while I was listening to Wind of Change, Patrick Radden Keefe’s fascinating new podcast about the role of rock in the last days of Communism as well as the unreliability of historical memory. (All eight episodes are currently available on Spotify and are being released weekly on other platforms.) Keefe is a staff writer at the New Yorker best known for Say Nothing, his searing portrait of Troubles-era Northern Ireland, which won the National Book Critics Circle’s 2019 award for nonfiction. The more whimsical Wind of Change feels like a bit of a palate cleanser, though there’s some continuity between the two projects, which are both about the stories countries tell themselves during moments of political transition.
The inspiration for the series is a tip Keefe received from a source within the CIA, who had heard from an older agent that the agency had written the 1990 power ballad “Wind of Change” by the German band Scorpions. The hair-metal stalwarts are remembered in the U.S. mostly for “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” but they were one of the biggest bands in the world for decades, including behind the Iron Curtain, where their music was banned but circulated on samizdat cassettes. And no song was bigger than “Wind of Change,” which was released shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before the breakup of the Soviet Union. With its Russia-referencing lyrics, themes of international brotherhood, and iconic whistled intro, it served as the unofficial anthem of the end of the Cold War. It was an uncharacteristic song for a band more likely to court controversy with its NSFW album covers than its politics, which makes it a little easier to believe someone else may have had a hand in writing it.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the podcast doesn’t prove that anyone else did. Indeed, it says a lot about Keefe’s skills as a storyteller that it’s an extremely entertaining listen, despite how weak the evidence is for its central theory. Even after years of reporting, the strongest evidence that the story is true is the account of a CIA source who heard it secondhand and who refuses to be interviewed on tape.
Luckily, the story surrounding “Wind of Change” is interesting enough even without the spycraft, and the podcast format allows Keefe to follow the kind of amusing rabbit holes and subplots that would have been cut from a magazine piece. The show is at its strongest in the episodes recounting the story of the 1989 Moscow Music Peace Festival, an unprecedented event at which bands including Scorpions, Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, and Skid Row played to euphoric crowds at Lenin Stadium while engaging in a bender of historic proportions backstage. It was at this event that Scorpions frontman Klaus Meine was inspired to write “Wind of Change”—at least, according to the official story. The festival was ostensibly, and hilariously, given the acts involved, billed as an anti-drug benefit. The organization that put on the festival was set up as part of the community service for Doc McGhee, the manager of most of the bands, including Scorpions, as well as a career drug smuggler who had recently been indicted in one of the biggest pot smuggling cases in American history. McGhee is the most believable, if totally unprovable, link between Scorpions and the United States government. (McGhee denies—not very convincingly—that the government had anything to do with the concert itself.)
The reason why most of the intelligence community sources interviewed in the show aren’t willing to totally dismiss the “Wind of Change” theory is that it seems like the kind of thing the CIA would do. Even if it didn’t write it, the CIA could have helped promote or distribute it somehow. The agency has a long history of dabbling in arts promotion, from funding left-wing literary magazines, to printing copies of Doctor Zhivago, to flying an unwitting Nina Simone to a festival in Nigeria. For me, the fact that we know quite a bit about these examples—as well as far wilder CIA behavior, from the LSD mind-control experiments of MKUltra to Castro’s poisoned cigars—suggests that a story like this, involving one of the biggest songs and bands of its era, would not stay secret. But others see these stories as the tip of the iceberg, evidence that there are far worse and weirder stories we haven’t heard yet.
Keefe considers at one point that he may be the one unwittingly helping spread CIA propaganda. From Argo to Zero Dark Thirty, the agency has been adept at pushing flattering portrayals of itself into pop culture. Or maybe it’s Russian propaganda: The Kremlin has suggested that the CIA has been behind everything from the Chernobyl disaster to Netflix.
Wind of Change was reported while Russian interference in the U.S. political system was in the news, and it’s being released at a moment when both the U.S. and Chinese governments are pushing unverifiable conspiracy theories blaming the other for creating the coronavirus. While the podcast’s spandex-and-spies subject matter may be 30 years behind us, it speaks to a current moment when anti-democratic leaders deliberately use conspiracy theories and disinformation to undermine public discourse and create the sense that, as the Russian-British writer Peter Pomerantsev puts it, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.*
In this sense, Keefe’s podcast isn’t exactly helping. Since the podcast aired, Klaus Meine has been asked about the CIA claim by other reporters—he calls it “fake news”—and the song’s Wikipedia page now references the theory, with the podcast cited as the source. Keefe is a scrupulous reporter and is careful to make clear what he can and can’t verify, but the idea that the CIA wrote the song is so alluring that many will repeat it, and others will remember it as fact. It’s now part of the song’s story, whether it’s true or not. The “Wind of Change” tale may be less about political motives or disinformation than humans’ tendency to remember things in the most compelling and flattering light, whether it’s giving a German power ballad credit for bringing down an Evil Empire or giving a U.S. spy agency credit for writing it.
Ultimately, I don’t think Napoleon Murphy Brock was lying to me on purpose about the Zappa gig that never happened. It was a long time ago, and he may have been remembering a concert that happened somewhere else in Europe or mixing it up with one that happened later. He took a few true things and mixed them together into a much better story. Or maybe Frank Zappa was in the CIA, too.
Correction, May 18, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Peter Pomerantsev’s last name.