Greatest Hits No 5: Wind of Change

  • 15.12.2023

For the latest instalment in our Greatest Hits series, Andrew Dickson celebrates a MacGuffin-fuelled, hairspray-filled Cold War investigation like no other

Rock on ... The Moscow Peace Festival in 1989. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons
Rock on ... The Moscow Peace Festival in 1989. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

No one is sure where the word “MacGuffin” originates. One theory holds that the term comes from “guff”, British slang for something useless — a puff of hot air. Another tale goes that it’s related to a legendary Scottish shaggy-dog story, in which strangers meet on a train and discuss whether one of them is carrying equipment used to trap lions in the Scottish Highlands (did it make more sense at the time? Maybe not). In other versions, tigers are being trapped. Appropriately enough, then, the word Alfred Hitchcock used to describe an ultimately irrelevant red herring — the plot device that builds drama and suspense, dangled in front of an audience until it is whisked away and revealed to be an illusion — might be something of a red herring.

Perhaps it seems odd to describe the obsessive focus of Wind of Change , the eight-part 2020 podcast written and hosted by Patrick Radden Keefe and produced by Henry Molofsky for Crooked Media and Pineapple Street, as a MacGuffin. The question Keefe sets out to solve is certainly worth pursuing: did the CIA write one of the bestselling power ballads of all time, the 1990 song “Wind of Change”? You know the one, performed by the German rock band the Scorpions – the one so associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communist Eastern Europe, the one that seemed to be on repeat during the heady days of 1990 and 1991 as Europe was being remade. That song. The one with the whistling.

The theory that the CIA did in fact write “Wind of Change” has rattled around on bulletin boards since the birth of the internet, an innocent meme from an era before memes, and has never quite been dispelled. Keefe is a respected and garlanded investigative journalist for the New Yorker, one who – as we learn in the very first episode – was once granted top-secret CIA clearance. Surely if anyone can get to the bottom of this mystery, it’s the guy who nailed the Sackler family and dug up what really happened to El Chapo?

Yet one of the most impressive things about Wind of Change — arguably its most addictive quality, which keeps the story churning until the closing seconds — is the issue that, in the world of espionage, often things are never entirely true or untrue, proven or disproven. Or if they are, those of us in the real world never know. As Keefe reminds us multiple times as the narrative unspools, the spooks even have a phrase for it: they “can neither confirm nor deny” that a certain event or operation took place. Creative ambiguity is the point. Shades of grey are all we see. Yet one of the series’ masterstrokes is that Keefe — and us — are still desperate to run down the answer to this particular bit of trivia, and convinced that the truth is somehow out there.

As the podcast opens, he relates he first heard the tale from his pal Michael, a shady-sounding character who once lived in that world and heard it from a friend (who heard it from another friend, as these things go). As they banter, the theory that boffins in Langley somehow composed one of the biggest rock tracks of the late 20th century seems like improbable dinner-party gossip, practically laugh-out-loud.

But then we hear the phonecall Michael makes to the friend — Michael’s side of it at least — and detect panic in the guy’s voice that the question is even being asked. Is there more here than meets the eye? Have Keefe and Michael stumbled across genuine classified information, the Cold War conspiracy to end them all?

That question keeps ticking as we follow Keefe’s quest – and, for once in podcasting, the word “quest” doesn’t seem overblown, as he flies from pre-invasion Ukraine to hear a Scorpions gig (they’re still very much going, and hugely popular among nostalgic ex-Eastern Bloc audiences) to Washington DC to interview sources, to Moscow, to take a boat trip down the Moskva River like the one that supposedly inspired the song (“I follow the Moskva / Down to Gorky Park / Listening to the wind of cha-a-a-ange”).

In a way, though, it’s Wind of Change’s byways and cul de sacs where the real story glory lies. We get a section on CIA disguise techniques and covert photography, revealed via absorbing interviews with surprisingly chatty former spooks. There's another on the way intelligence services undeniably used cultural propaganda and soft power to further Cold War objectives on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The tale of “Doc” McGhee, the Scorpions’ former manager, who turns out to have involved in a Nicaraguan drug ring — and thus might have every reason to collaborate with the US government and organise a hard-rock festival in Moscow — might, in other instances, merit a podcast series in itself. Here it’s merely the cherry on top. The eye-popping details of what happened on the plane, as the world’s biggest and wildest metal bands flew into Russia as Communism was collapsing around their ears, are the sugar coating.

Patrick Radden Keefe and the Scorpions
Patrick Radden Keefe and the Scorpions

Keefe has described Wind of Change as being like “some big international spy thriller, if it had been directed by the Coen brothers”, which gets the brilliant oddity of its tone right. It’s somewhere between a serious espionage thriller and something more buffoonish, a clown-car escapade in search of a mystery that no one has thought important enough to solve, yet which might hold the key to it all. That it holds together is in fact largely down to Keefe himself, and the sheen of his writing, which maintains the tension and intrigue without resorting to the melodramatics that so often drag down detective-style podcasts.

What is the truth, ultimately? In classical Hitchcockian style, the climax is held off until episode 8 and the final act. Keefe finally beards the Scorpions’ lead singer, Klaus Meine, in Hanover, and asks him the fateful question: did you actually write your most famous and royaltied song, or were US intelligence services behind it? It’s no spoiler to say that Meine’s chuckling insistence that he alone is responsible is likely to leave you convinced that nothing has quite been solved. I swear I heard the sound of MacGuffin disappearing into thin air.

Listen out for: The moment when Keefe heads to – of all things – a GI Joe convention in Ohio and emerges with some surprising revelations.

Hit replay: "Hello, Klaus", the episode where Keefe and Klaus finally meet in a Hanover conference room is a masterpiece of ambiguity: John Le Carré with extra hairspray.

See also: Sweet Bobby, S-Town, The Rest is History.

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