Scorpions' 'Wind of Change': The Oral History of 1990's Epic Power Ballad

How the German hard rockers' whistle-along hit became an anthem for the end of the Cold War

The Scorpions' "Wind of Change" served as a soundtrack of sorts to a political and cultural revolution. Credit: Aaron/Redferns/Getty

In the 1980s and very early Nineties, every hard-rock and metal act worth their leathers scored big with a power ballad or two. But only Germany's the Scorpions can say that one of theirs — in this case, 1990's "Wind of Change" — also served as a soundtrack of sorts to a political and cultural revolution. The song's sentiments of hope and peace, broadly stated by vocalist Klaus Meine ("The world is closing in/Did you ever think/That we could be so close/Like brothers?"), not to mention an accompanying, Wayne Isham–directed video that employed footage of the construction and tearing down of the Berlin Wall, led to its being inextricably linked to the end of the Cold War and the reunification of East and West Germany. 

Interestingly, especially in light of the Scorpions' background — the band hails from the city of Hannover, roughly 200 miles west of Berlin — "Wind of Change" was about neither the Berlin Wall nor their German homeland. Rather, its origins trace to the former Soviet Union, and specifically the Moscow Music Peace Festival, a two-day "hard-rock Woodstock" staged in August 1989, in the city's 100,000-seat Lenin Stadium. The event, which saw the Scorpions, Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Cinderella and Skid Row perform alongside homegrown bands like Gorky Park and Brigada-S, marked the first time Western heavy-metal acts had been permitted to play in the Soviet capital. Broadcast in dozens of countries and on MTV in America, the festival was a triumph (if not without drama behind the scenes), and it inspired Meine, who had grown up in the looming shadow of the Iron Curtain, to begin writing "Wind of Change."

Roughly three months later, the Berlin Wall came down. Soon after, the Scorpions — which included guitarists Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs, as well as then bassist Francis Buchholz and drummer Herman Rarebell — recorded "Wind of Change" for their 11th studio album, Crazy World. In early 1991, the song was issued as the record's third single. And though it climbed only to Number Four on the Billboard 200, "Wind of Change" became a worldwide smash, topping the charts in numerous European countries and giving the Scorpions — then 25 years into their career, and associated more with lewd album covers and loud tunes like "Rock You Like a Hurricane" than gentle, whistling-adorned ballads — their biggest hit to date.

Since then, "Wind of Change" has reportedly become one of the best-selling singles in history. And it is certainly the only power ballad to have been personally performed — and numerous times, at that — for former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (most recently in 2011, at his 80th birthday gala in London). Over the years, the Scorpions have also recorded the song in Russian and Spanish, and played it, in various configurations, with orchestras, children's choirs and even as a duet with Spanish opera tenor José Carreras. In 2005, viewers of the German television network ZDF named it the "Song of the Century," while in this country it remains a pop-culture touchstone — it was recently heard in the 2014 comedy The Interview, in a scene in which Seth Rogen and James Franco, the latter cradling a small puppy, flee North Korea by boat as Meine's serenely whistled melody plays in the background. 

These days, the Scorpions, still led by Meine, now 67, and Schenker, 66, continue to rock worldwide audiences like a hurricane. They're set to release their 18th studio album, Return to Forever, stateside on September 11th (you can pre-order it here) and, also this month, are embarking on a U.S. tour celebrating 50 years as a band. But first, in anticipation of the 25th anniversary of "Wind of Change" (in November), the two Scorpions, along with key players in, and eyewitnesses to, the song's history, take us back to Moscow and the "magic of the moment." 

Rudolf Schenker, guitar: We were actually supposed to play in Moscow in 1988. When we released the Savage Amusement album there was a plan for us to do five shows there and five shows in Leningrad. But the authorities, they were afraid that when rock & roll comes into their country, especially to Moscow — because there are many different nationalities from the eastern part of Europe living there, as well as Russians — they thought maybe a riot could happen. So they didn't allow us to play in Moscow, but offered to let us to play more shows in Leningrad. We were a little disappointed but we took the offer and played 10 shows there. And it was fantastic. It was a dream come true to play in Russia because, from our point of view, because of our German history, we did so many bad things in Russia that we wanted to do something good. We wanted to show the people in Russia that here is a new generation of Germans growing up, and they're not coming with tanks and guns and making war — they're coming with guitars and rock & roll and bringing love!

Klaus Meine, vocals: I guess we had opened a door by being one of the first western rock bands to play a big show in the Soviet Union. So when we played in Moscow the next year with Ozzy Osbourne and all these American bands, people knew who we were. 

Schenker: The Moscow Music Peace Festival was organized by our manager, Doc McGhee, and Stas Namin, who was a big name in Russia — he was a music guy, and his uncle was the inventor of the MIG, the fighter jet. Also, his grandfather had been a leader in the Soviet Union. The two of them put this thing together.

Doc McGhee, former Scorpions manager: The Scorpions loved to play everywhere. I mean, we played Sarajevo around the time of the war. These guys, they love that stuff. So when they had the opportunity to be part of the biggest rock show in the history of the Soviet Union — this is not at like, you know, a 4,000-seater in Gorky Park, it's for 100,000 people at Lenin Stadium and it's televised everywhere, including in Russia— of course every one of the artists were jazzed to be part of that.

Meine: There were so many emotional moments in Moscow. I guess it could have been Bon Jovi or Mötley Crüe, any of these guys who had gone home inspired by what they saw, but for them it was like, "Hey! We rocked the Soviet Union, dudes!" For us maybe it was different. We saw so many changes from Leningrad in '88 to Moscow in '89. That was the inspiration for "Wind of Change."

McGhee: The Scorpions had a lot more understanding of the culture and the people in Moscow than a band coming from, say, New Jersey, you know?

Dave "Snake" Sabo, Skid Row guitarist: Their history is different than ours. So the significance of playing in Moscow was definitely more impactful for them. Russia was one of the countries that had split their country up. I can only imagine what growing up in that post-World War II environment must have been like — the split of East and West Germany, the separation of brothers and sisters and family and friends... and then knowing your country had perpetrated crimes against humanity that are beyond fathomable. They had to live with that history.

Schenker: One of the days we were there, there was a plan to go by boat to Gorky Park for a party.

McGhee: We were in Moscow for, like, a week, and we had press junkets and stuff to do. So I decided I was going to take everybody out on the river that goes through Moscow. And you have to remember, back then it wasn't like they had all these boats ready to go and you just rented one. They had nothing. So it wasn't like you called the concierge at the hotel and said, "I want to do a boat ride with a barbeque on it," like you would anyplace else. It was probably as monumental doing that as it was doing the show.

"We were not just a band singing about these things; we were a part of these things." —Klaus Meine

Meine: We took the boat down the Moskva River. And we were on this boat with all the bands, with MTV journalists, with Red Army soldiers... It was an inspiring moment for me [the first lines in "Wind of Change" are: "I follow the Moskva/Down to Gorky Park"]. It was like the whole world was in that one boat talking the same language: music.

Wayne Isham, video director for the Moscow Music Peace Festival: The fans in Moscow definitely knew the Scorpions — the Scorpions and Ozzy — better than they knew anybody else.

Sabo: Some of the other bands would be onstage, and you could hear the crowd chanting: "Scorpions! Scorpions!" They chanted Ozzy's name, too. Because that was all they knew. I guess they were nice to us and whatnot, but I had no preconceived notions that anybody was going to know us in Russia.

Isham: There were a lot of ego things with the bands, and things between Mötley and Ozzy and Bon Jovi and so on, because that's what it's all about. And poor Doc had to deal with all of them. But the Scorpions were so steady on the course. They were there and ready to rock. When they went on, the crowd went insane. I was watching it and I thought, "Wow, I didn't realize..."

Meine: When we started our show with "Blackout," all the Red Army soldiers, all the security, they turned around to face the stage and started throwing their caps and jackets in the air. It was amazing. It felt like the world was changing right in front of our eyes. Many young Russian kids sensed that the whole Cold War generation would be over soon. There was a feeling of hope. And that's what I tried to express in the song.

McGhee: The second night that we played in Moscow, we were in the bus coming back from the gig, and Klaus was whistling "Wind of Change." He had this idea in his head. And then the next day he pretty much had the whole song written. The actual basis of the song.

Schenker: The Wall had not come down yet, but it was here, in Moscow, where you could feel everything coming. Gorbachev was bringing glasnost and perestroika! The world was changing. Somehow Klaus picked up on that vibe.

Meine: We always said we were lucky we grew up in West Germany. It's hard to believe today, but there were only three channels on German television and one of them came in black and white from East Germany. And when you saw the East German television, it was just like a dark world. It was very confrontational for people in the West. It was like you could feel we were not very welcome over there, really. That divide between the East and West was very tense. We grew up with jeans, with Elvis, with bubblegum. Very much Americanized. But over there, they grew up with the Soviet Union. They grew up with Nikita Khrushchev, who banged his shoes on the table at the United Nations. That was like a threat, you know? When Khrushchev hit the table, it was, "Wow, the next war is just around the corner..."

Schenker: We wanted to get away from this German history. From the Holocaust, from our parents' generation being at war with all the world. We wanted to be musicians and hopefully join the international family of music. That was one of the reasons for us to sing in English. To leave behind the German history that of course you couldn't be proud of.

Meine: One thing that was important to "Wind of Change" was that we were not just a band singing about these things; we were a part of these things.

Schenker: Later on we were doing this album called Crazy World, and Klaus brought in the song.

Meine: Up to this point I very rarely wrote music. I focused more or less all those years on lyrics. But with "Wind of Change," I presented the whole song to the band. It was not so bad for a start, yes? [Laughs]

Keith Olsen, Crazy World producer: We did most of the album at Wisseloord Studios in the Netherlands. But for the first eight weeks or so we worked at Goodnight L.A., my private studio in California. That was where I first heard "Wind of Change." Rudolf and Klaus came in, and Rudolf played it on acoustic guitar and Klaus just sang. It raised the hairs on my arms. I had a copy of the lyrics and it was just, "Woah..." It was a very strong emotional statement. But it wasn't a ya ya ya, rah rah rah political statement. It was so genuine.

Meine: At least some of the words and the melody and the whole structure of the song came out pretty quick. And the beginning melody, I guess I just whistled my way through it because, I mean, I play guitar, but I'm not a lead guitarist. So I was just whistling and it went down pretty cool. I played it for the guys, and they liked the song but they were not so sure about this whistling part.

Schenker: Well, you know, rock & roll and whistling...

Olsen: That intro was supposed to be a guitar motif. The melody was established. And we tried it with guitars, we tried it with clean guitars, we tried it on a keyboard. But in the end, it was one of those things where it just worked with the whistle. Klaus said, "Well, this is how I first wrote it, and this was the first initial feeling." So I said, "Then just do it again." So he did the whistle a bunch of times and I comp'd together a perfect one. And it worked. It really worked. I loved it.

Schenker: The record company came and said, "You know, guys, the song 'Wind of Change,' it's great... but maybe you can cut the whistling out?'" And we tried it a few different ways, but we noticed immediately that when the whistling was out of the song, the song lost something.

Olsen: Doc McGhee said to us in the studio, "You know, I could just see it — you put out this record and all the promoters, they get out there onstage and they say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, here they are, the Scorpions! And they whistle!'"

McGhee: It was actually someone in my office who was talking to the record company, and the guys there were saying, "They gotta get the whistling out." I went, "You're crazy! You can't get the whistling out." It was just as much of a hook as anything in the song.

Meine: There were songs before "Wind of Change," from guys like John Lennon and Axl Rose, with whistling in them. But there was this whole thing in the studio where everyone wanted to replace the whistling. And we couldn't, because it worked perfectly. There was no way to put a lead guitar or something in there.

Schenker: So we said, "Fuck it! We keep the whistling."

Meine: I don't understand why this was such a big deal.

Schenker: When we came out with Crazy World at the end of '90, the first single was "Tease Me Please Me." Then it was "Don't Believe Her." It was actually the French people who put out "Wind of Change" as a single first. They always liked the slow songs very much. "Still Loving You" [from 1984's Love At First Sting], we say that was the song of the French baby boom — people were making love to it and making babies to it. So "Wind of Change" became very popular there. And from that came the kind of revolution of this song, from one country to the other. In the next few months, the song was Number One everywhere. The Wall had come down in Germany and this song became the soundtrack of the most peaceful revolution on earth.

Meine: The funny thing is, it's not even a song about Germany or the Wall. It's a song about Moscow. "I follow the Moskva..." People in America will run into me in an elevator or somewhere and they'll say, "Klaus, 'I follow the Moskva?' What is that?" And I just go, "Man, it's like, 'I follow the Mississippi...'" It's something we were experiencing. But the strength of "Wind of Change," or the magic of it, is that it was written before the Wall came down. That didn't happen until a few months after I wrote the song. And the single and the video didn't come out until '91, and by that time the world had completely changed. So then it made a different connection.

Isham: I got the phone call that they were doing a video for the song. So I went to Berlin, where they were playing a show, and I met with everybody there. We sat together and had a conversation about what they wanted to do. All the guys had an opinion on what was happening. Of course they did — they're Germans. More than anybody it was Klaus — he retold the story about how he wrote this song. But they all talked about what direction they wanted to take the video in. And there was talk that it had to be more than just a live performance.

McGhee: Normally, your video should be an infomercial for your live show, OK? That's the way I've always done it. But this was different. This was a song about change. And it was coming out as the world was actually changing. So you can have power ballads and do your big performance piece and all that on any song but this song. This song meant something.

Isham: It's no question that they wanted to have images of the Wall coming down [in the video]. And that was the inspiration to have more than just images of the Wall coming down. They wanted to make it more inclusive. More universal. From politics to the environment. 

Schenker: The footage of the Berlin Wall is the strongest material [in the video], no question about this. All the other things, let's say the birds in oil and stuff like this, compared to this they are weak parts. The strongest parts are the parts where you can see the Berlin Wall, where you can see the happiness of the people.

Isham: They said, "Do what you're gonna do." So we told the story with this music and these awesome images of what was an incredible time period in our lives. And we took it pretty far. Some people at the record company thought it was too far. Too political. But the guys, they loved it.

Olsen: We never even knew if it would be a single. I have a feeling that it was one of those tracks that the promotion guys at the label said, "We'll never be able to get 'Wind of Change' on rock radio. We may be able to get it on Adult Contemporary." And what happened, I think, was it went to AC first and then instantly crossed over into pop and rock. And then it started climbing around the world.

Meine: In America it was played on the adult radio stations, which is so different from rock radio. Year after year, you come to America, you present your new album, you go to all the rock radio stations, they can spell your name, no problem. All of a sudden with "Wind of Change," we hit those adult stations and it was totally different. It was like we were a new band again.

McGhee: It went to AC and Hot AC and all that stuff, because it's a ballad. And at first it made more of an impact there than at Top 40 or rock radio. But then it crossed over to all formats.

Schenker: I think it went to Number One in something like 10 countries.

Meine: I'm not sure how many places it hit Number One. I know that as a single it has sold maybe 15 million copies.

Schenker: I told Klaus, "You know what would be very good? If you would sing this song in Russian." Because the Russian people have to know the message as well. And they don't understand English. So we recorded a Russian version. And the private radio in Russia, it would start at six in the morning with "Wind of Change" in Russian, and at two in the morning it would end with it, too.

Meine: We also did it in Spanish. With a lot of those hits that make it big and go around the world, the record companies want you to come up with a Spanish version. But to do the Russian version was the challenge. It wasn't easy. And until this day I don't know how good it is. But even now, when we play in Russia I sing at least one chorus of the song in their language.

McGhee: It was such a topical song, and it just connected. I mean, even Gorbachev's grandchildren loved the song. So we went to Moscow to meet with him and his family. Stas Namin, he was born near the Kremlin and he knew everybody there. He called me up one day and said, "Gorbachev would like to meet you guys." I said, "We're comin'!"

Meine: This was like the Beatles meeting the Queen, you know? We didn't know until the very last day if it would come together, but one of the reasons I think it did was that "Wind of Change" had become a worldwide hit. And when we recorded the Russian version of the song, we thought it would be really nice to give something back to the people, because they were the inspiration. So we connected it to a Russian charity for kids.

McGhee: The band performed "Wind of Change" for Gorbachev, at the Kremlin.

Schenker: There was a photo session, and after that Gorbachev sent out all the journalists and everyone, and he just wanted to be with the band and our managers and closest people. We sat with him and [his wife] Raisa, and he talked about glasnost and perestroika.

Meine: The most memorable moment probably is when I said to him, "Mr. Gorbachev, when I was a kid, Nikita Khrushchev was in power and he took out his shoe and hit the table at the United Nations. We were all in shock that there would be another war." And Gorbachev looked at me and he said, "I think that was rock & roll, wasn't it?" [Laughs] He was a very charismatic figure.

McGhee: I tried to manage him when he left office. I said to him, "People are not going to understand that you are the man who changed the world. You need to tell that story and you need to be out there. You need to have the movie and book rights to your life." But it didn't happen. 

Meine: Something like that just goes to show that music is a very strong tool for building bridges. And that's what we always tried to do. Coming from Germany, with these two world wars behind us, we saw the chance to do something good with music. I think that "Wind of Change" did something good.

Schenker: I heard about how it was voted the "Song of the Century" [by viewers of the ZDF German television network]. We have heard so many things like this. Because it is a song of hope.

Meine: What comes to my mind is that still, after all these years, wherever we go and perform that song it creates a lot of emotions. You see generations of fans in the audience, and sometimes they're crying. And of course it's not everywhere the same. But when we go east — and we just came back from doing some shows in Russia — it's amazing how the song goes down and what kinds of emotions it creates.

Schenker: I remember that in 2000 or 2001 we played in Seoul, South Korea. And in those days there was a kind of possibility that the North and South would come together again. So they invited us and Art Garfunkel and some Korean bands to play, in front of 50,000 people. And I know they asked us to do it because of "Wind of Change" — because of this symbol. I think "Wind of Change" has given us the possibility to be invited to play many different places. In Lebanon we came after the war and played. A little bit later on we played in Israel.

Meine: In fact, we just played in China for the very first time in early May. The Chinese authorities wanted to see all the songs and the lyrics up front, and I thought "Wind of Change" might be an issue. But it went very smooth. We were invited to come back next year. And to see a Chinese audience singing "Wind of Change," it was fantastic. We've even heard Chinese versions of the song.

Schenker: In the Scorpions we have this kind of saying: Love, peace and rock & roll. The love stands for "Still Loving You." The rock & roll stands for "Rock You Like a Hurricane." And the peace? That's for "Wind of Change." That is the message of the song. It's a song about the desire for people all over the world to live in peace together. And now it has reached people in all parts of the world.

Meine: Was I trying to write something that would be so universal? I was not thinking about it. It just came out. And I had written anti-war songs before — there was one on Love at First Sting called "Crossfire," which was about living between East and West. So sometimes, in between the "Bad Boys Running Wild"s and the "Rock You Like A Hurricane"s, I was able to squeeze in a song with a deeper meaning. And one of those songs was "Wind of Change." It was just something I wanted to say. I needed to say it.