Can a power ballad change the world? The astonishing true story behind The Scorpions’ Wind of Change

In June 1994, Klaus Meine received a knock on the door of his Memphis hotel room from a CIA agent. With his band the Scorpions in town to play a concert at the Mud Island Amphitheater, the singer was asked to whistle the opening bars of the Hanoverian quintet’s biggest hit, Wind Of Change. Bemused but obliging, Meine complied; satisfied, the visitor bid him a good day without crossing the threshold of his room. 

This puzzling but minor incident is the kind of detail with which the Orwell Prize-winning journalist Patrick Radden Keefe runs riot on his Podcast series Wind Of Change. The culmination of a decade’s rumination, this consistently engaging eight-episode series has as its starting point a second-hand revelation from an intelligence service ‘greybeard’ that the Scorpions’ multi-platinum worldwide mega-smash was in fact written by the Central Intelligence Agency. 

The thing is, it might as well have been. Released less than a year before the implosion of the Soviet Union, in 1991, Wind Of Change captured hearts and minds by predicting the end of the Cold War in hopeful strokes that made Give Peace A Chance sound like Friggin In The Riggin. Its detractors claim that its chief ingredient is cheese, and to an extent they’re right. But it’s a high-end product, like a Pule or a White Stilton Gold.

Keefe discovers the song’s power in an involuntary spasm that for me is the loveliest moment of his entire investigation. Attending a Scorpions concert at the Palats Sportu, in Kiev, the American greets its opening bars with an instinctively joyous exultation, this despite being previously impervious to its authors’ soft-metal charms. In pursuit of his story, he then proceeds to run headlong into countless brick walls. 

As a series, Wind Of Change offers spectacular scenery on a journey towards a doubtful destination. But on a hop that takes the listener from New York to South Florida, Hanover, New Jersey, Ukraine, Moscow, and beyond, it is Keefe’s obsession with spooks that is the least engaging, and least persuasive, aspect of its narrative. The most compelling are the parts that already reside in the public square, albeit seldom told, and which require no added spice from the guiding hand of The Man.

The story begins with one Harold ‘Doc’ McGhee, a key conspirator in the largest drug deal in the history of the United States. A manager of low-ranking bands in the seamy Miami music scene of the 1970s, McGhee supplemented his income by co-financing the smuggling of cocaine and marijuana. So bountiful were his returns that he would order a 100-bottles of Cristal champagne in the bars of boutique hotels. He made so much jingle that he burned out the motors on three cash-counting machines. 

In 1982, McGhee sank funds into an operation that trafficked 270,000 lbs of marijuana into the wetlands of Louisiana. According to Steve Kalish, a fellow member of the crew, the bounty netted “tens of millions of dollars”. Kalish took his own eight-figure haul to Panama, the money-laundering capital of the world, and lent his private plane to its leader, Manuel Noriega, so the dictator could fly to Washington DC and meet with William J. Casey, the Director of Central Intelligence. 

Back in the United States, the smugglers were being pinched and sent to the Big House. By the time Doc McGhee faced the beak, in 1988, he was the manager of Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, and the Scorpions, among others. Jon Bon Jovi wrote a six-page letter to the judge admitting 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”. The plea worked: McGhee escaped with a $150,000 fine and five-years probation. 

Doc McGhee, rock manager, former drug trafficker and mastermind of the Moscow Music Peace Festival – Getty

The pair remain friends to this day. “On Saturday night I’ll be sitting at [Jon Bon Jovi’s] table as he’s inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” McGhee told the Unwritable Rant Podcast in 2018. 

Burnished by his slippery exit from court – even the truck driver of the Louisiana operation breakfasted on porridge for three years – in 1989 the manager announced his decision to stage the Moscow Music Peace Festival. Held over two nights at the Central Lenin Stadium, on August 12 and 13, McGhee revealed that the concerts would raise money for Muscovites suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol. 

In a towering irony, he enlisted the services of Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe, who between them were among the most drug-dependent performers in the history of popular music. Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Cinderella, and the Scorpions were also co-opted onto the bill. The line-up was completed by Gorky Park, a homegrown hard rock act from the Federal City whose very existence reflected the rapidly changing nature of Russian politics. 

The Scorpions in Beirut, 1996 – AP

Asked by Patrick Radden Keefe if the concerts were part of a CIA operation to dazzle 160,000 Russian youths with the brilliant stupidity of songs such as Crazy Train and Wild Side, McGhee answered that “it had nothing to do with it… it just happened by accident.”

The Moscow Music Peace Festival wasn’t the first time that Western rock music had punched a hole in the Iron Curtain. After the state had turned down entreaties from The Doobie Brothers and America, in 1977, in 1977 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were granted permission to become the first US act to perform on Russian soil. Eleven years later, the Scorpions themselves appeared over five-nights at the SSK Arena, in Leningrad, as well as at the KGB-fronted Leningrad Rock Club. As they did so, unseen forces ransacked their hotel rooms. 

But Doc McGhee’s caravan was an entirely different beast. Aboard a private Boeing 747 festooned with a psychedelic paintjob by the artist Peter Max, the travelling musicians carried on like characters in the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. “It was like a massive drunk tank,” remembered Dave ‘Snake’ Sabo, the guitarist with Skid Row. “I need to pee!” screamed Ozzy Osbourne before kicking down the door of a toilet in which sat a reporter from MTV.

“We were looking at a daylong plane ride with nothing to do,” wrote Tommy Lee, the drummer with Mötley Crüe, in the book The Dirt. “Then, there was a so-called doctor on board, who was plying the bands… with whatever ‘medicine’ they needed. It was clear that this was going to be a monumental festival of hypocrisy.”

So precarious were the arrangements for the Moscow Music Peace Festival that, even as he entered Russian airspace, Doc McGhee was unsure as to whether the concerts would take place. More pressing still was the very real possibility that his Day-Glo 747 would be denied permission to land on the tarmac at Sheremetyevo International Airport. The fears came to naught; the visiting party wasn’t even required to produce passports.

As the plane’s passengers disembarked, roadmap-eyed, into the Moscow summer, they were quickly made aware of a screeching clash of cultures. On the line to the Department of First World Problems, Doc McGhee was required to import ice from Switzerland in order to keep his bands’ tumblers of Jack’n’Coke cold.  

“It’s a beautiful country, it really is, it’s just that people are so miserable,” said Ozzy Osbourne to MTV. “They’ve got nothing. What it does make me appreciate is what we have in the West. You can’t get toilet paper here. You can’t get toothpaste here. I saw a great big line of people yesterday, as we were driving in, [queuing] for a cabbage. That’s ridiculous.”

Not everyone was quite so humbled by the struggles of the Russian proletariat. Backstage at the Central Lenin Stadium, Tommy Lee confronted Doc McGhee in anger that Bon Jovi had been allowed to use pyrotechnics while his own band had not. After chugging a bottle of vodka, the drummer slugged his manager in the jaw and told him that his services were no longer required. Stomping off on stack-heels, Mötley Crüe were spirited home to Los Angeles on an Air France jumbo. 

By many accounts, it was the Scorpions that heisted the Moscow Music Peace Festival into a bag marked ‘swag’ and spirited it away into the Moscow night. An arena band since the days when the other acts on the bill were pulling shapes in front of bedroom mirrors, the Hanoverians were, and still are, a precision machine that takes seriously its responsibilities to an audience. As well as this, in songs such as The Zoo and Still Loving You they had to their credit some of the better hard rock of the pre-Glasnost era. 

The Scorpions rock Red Square – Abramochkin Yuryi/Sputnik

The band also recognised the power of the Russian bear in ways that were anything but abstract. Almost half a century before Klaus Meine told the crowds at the SSK Arena that he would rock them like a hurricane, the singer’s uncle had sat freezing in a Panzer tank during the siege of Leningrad. As a band from the decadent West, the ripples from the Second World War meant that the Scorpions were forbidden from performing in the Eastern half of Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. 

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

Despite the efforts of Doc McGhee, not everyone was impressed by the Moscow Music Peace Concert. Writing in the South Florida Sun Sentinel,  the music journalist Deborah Wilker asked “could there possibly be a more vapid, less talented, poorly chosen line-up ever assembled to represent Western music for such an important event?”

She added, “Why not REM? Aretha Franklin? Bruce Springsteen? 10,000 Maniacs? Eric Clapton?…” – you get the gist – “…Why not any artist who has made a worthy contribution – no matter how slight – to Western culture?”

Why not? Because when it comes to the true sound of liberty, the kids wanna rock, is why not. Despite mournful treaties on geopolitics from Don Henley and Sting, it was The Bangles that best caught the tenor of the times. “All the school kids [are] so sick of books, they like the punk and the metal bands,” sang Michael Steele on Walk Like An Egyptian, a three-and-a-half minute gem that features the words “call the Kremlin”. It’s hard to imagine a more cleverly disguised, or a more subversive, piece of protest music. 

At the Central Lenin Stadium, Russian youth took a heavy tumble for the kind of vernacular rock’n’roll that it had previously heard only on bootleg cassettes. Two summers later, Metallica repeated the trick in front of half a million Muscovites at the Tushino Airfield. For my rubles, the sight of front man James Hetfield grinding his way through the monstrous Harvester Of Sorrow is the defining sight of Western rock on communist soil. It ain’t for nothing that Rolling Stone headlined its interview with the singer, “The Leader Of The Free World Speaks”. 

But it was the Scorpions that best captured the moment when times they were a changing. A month after his group’s appearance in Moscow, Klaus Meine sat in his home studio in Hanover and wrote Wind Of Change on a small Yamaha keyboard. In the absence of a collaborator, he whistled its now famous melody over the opening refrain. Unbelievably, he wrote and dated the lyrics in a notebook adorned with the image of Mickey Mouse. 

“I had a feeling this could be something special,” he said. “But of course not knowing that the wall would come down in November, 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.”

Three decades on, the Hanoverians’ status as Germany’s most significant rock act has been surpassed by Rammstein. A better band who make better, and more provocative, art, the Berliners sing in their native tongue about their country’s complicated relationship with its recent past while advertising concerts in American stadiums by promising supporters that “we’re going to build a wall (of fire) and you’re going to pay for it”. 

But none of this would be possible without the Scorpions. In 1991, the band issued a Russian-language version of Wind Of Change that reportedly brought Mikhail Gorbachev to tears. On December 14 1991, the Russian premier invited Klaus Meine to sing the song at the Moskovskiy Kreml in Red Square. Less than a fortnight later, on Christmas Day the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin for the final time.

The Wind Of Change podcast is available in full on Spotify. Episodes are available weekly on other platforms

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