New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe looks into the rumor that the intelligence agency was behind power ballad "Wind of Change."

By Clark Collis
May 15, 2020 at 11:14 AM EDT
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Investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe is known for his serious writing, including last year's book Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, for which he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. Now, with a new podcast titled Wind of Change, Keefe has turned his attention to pop culture and, in particular, the rumor that the CIA was behind the Scorpions' hit song of the same name, hoping that the track's pro-change message might hasten the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

"This whole thing started for me in 2011," says Keefe. "I got an email from a friend of mine. This is a guy who knows a lot of spies, current and former spies, my friend Michael. Initially he just said, 'Wikipedia the song ‘Wind of Change’ by the Scorpions.' He’d had dinner with an ex-CIA guy who’d told him that that song had been written by the CIA. So, that was 2011 and I just plunged down the rabbit hole."

Think it sounds like a crazy idea? Then you clearly have never worked for the CIA.

"I interviewed all these former spies," says Keefe. "Some of them just recently came out of the CIA, some of them have been out for years. I kept thinking I would find somebody who would say, 'Oh no, we would never do that' or 'We could never do that.' Literally, nobody had that response. Everybody was like, 'Oh yeah, I could see that.'"

Below, Keefe talks more about the Scorps, the CIA, and the possibility of a Wind of Change season 2.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Listening to the podcast I would sometimes think, well this rumor is clearly nonsense, and then someone would saying something and I'd think, well, maybe this is true. I’m assuming it was the same for you but tenfold.

PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE: Normally, as a journalist, I’ll get a tip that almost seems too good to be true, and I’ll kick the tires on it a little bit and check it out, and a lot of the time you immediately start thinking, it’s probably not true, it is too good to be true. With this one, what was strange is that the more digging I did, the more plausible it became.

It was just this mash-up of two different passions of mine. I grew up loving music, music meant a lot to me, and still does, and I also love spy stories, and grew up on John Le Carré and James Bond movies, and the like. And it turns out that it’s not just the Scorpions, there’s a whole history of espionage and music during the Cold War — that to me was pretty irresistible.

There are these fascinating digressions into the way the CIA has attempted to influence people through culture and about the organization itself. Aside from the Scorpions themselves what was the area of investigation which most fascinated you?

My first book (2005's Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping) was about surveillance and espionage, so I felt I knew a fair bit going in about the world of intelligence. But the more I dug into, it the more I heard about spies doing things you just don’t normally think of spies doing. So, whether it’s the idea that the CIA has worked over the years with magicians, or the idea that you’d have a touring rock band with a KGB agent embedded in it and a CIA agent embedded in it traveling around, or that they would be involved in music and books and film, all of that was just upending the mental image I had of what spies do.

This could seem like a frivolous topic compared to some of the subjects you've covered. Did anyone try to dissuade you from taking this on?

I think people were always intrigued when they heard about what I was up to. I wanted to do something that would be pure fun. I did write this big book about the IRA. My next book, that I’m working on now, is about the opioid crisis. The idea of spending a year traveling around the world, trying to get to the bottom of this crazy story about ‘80s metal and Cold War espionage, was just pretty irresistible. I think that the people in my professional life thought that this was a way to blow off some steam and chase a story that I just couldn’t shake, that I’d been so fixated on all these years.

You went to see the Scorpions perform. What was that like?

It was amazing. I mean, it was a great show. It was incredible to me that they still tour a huge amount, and they put on a genuinely very good show. They’re really old, so it’s impressive that they are able to do this. You notice when you watch them onstage that they kind of cycle in and out, the focus will shift to one member of the band and you realize for a second you can’t see Klaus (Meine, lead singer) and Klaus has kind of disappeared and is taking a breather. But they were intense.

The thing that was most striking to me about seeing them in Ukraine was just the fans. I think prior to making that trip I had thought of "Wind of Change" as this very catchy song with a specific history but I hadn’t experienced first hand the passion that people, particularly people who lived in the former Soviet Union, have for that song and the outsized role it plays in their lives. For me to see that, and to kind of commune with that, was magical.

Did you ever think the CIA might be keeping an eye on you? Were you taping over the camera on your computer?

Listen, man, I was paranoid before I even started this thing! No, I think at a certain point they knew we were doing this. What was so fascinating for me was, initially I thought, oh, this is ancient history, this is about 1989 and 1990, there’s no way this would still be sensitive. Then I talked to multiple ex-spies who said one of the big reasons why [the CIA] might still be very cautious about talking about this sort of thing is if they’re still engaged in this kind of operation — influence operations of this sort.

So, has it affected the way you engage with popular culture? Do you watch the new Adam Sandler movie on Netflix and think, wow, maybe the CIA is trying to influence people with this?

It’s funny, ever since the podcast came out on Monday, I've been getting these wild messages from people. Because once you open the door to thinking this is a possibility, you start looking really hard at different pieces of culture, and the moment they hit, and the kind of impact they have, and wondering, is the hidden hand of government somehow present in that as well? I've definitely been getting all kinds of speculative emails from people about other things we should be looking at.

For me, it doesn’t change fundamentally the way in which people respond to the work itself. And this was part of what was fascinating about my conversations with Russian and Ukrainian fans. That song means so much to them. And there are other parts of the world where "Wind of Change" has become kind of an anthem. I was just talking to someone this morning who was saying that in South Africa, at the time apartheid was ending, it was a great anthem of reconciliation there as well.

Are there any other rumors out there you want to tackle?

[Laughs] I’m thinking about it. I feel like every reporter has a story like this. It’s a file on their desktop. And I was lucky enough to get to chase this one really in earnest for a year. I have some others and people are kind of coming out of the woodwork to tell me crazy stories now. So, you never know. Maybe there’ll be a season 2.

Wind of Change is a co-production between Pineapple Street Studios, Crooked Media and Spotify. All episodes are now available to hear.

Crooked Media

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