Could the CIA Have Planted Hair-Metal Propaganda During the Cold War?
What if it turned out your favorite song had been written by the CIA? That’s exactly what a new podcast aims to determine.
In 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, West German band the Scorpions released their prescient ballad “Wind of Change.” With earnest lyrics about togetherness and the “children of tomorrow,” the song sounds like an anthem to the end of the Cold War. But, according to The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe, there’s reason to believe the hit ballad could have been a CIA concoction created to aid in the West’s fight against communism.
In the eight-part podcast Wind of Change, produced by Spotify, Pineapple Street Studios, and Crooked Media, Keefe takes listeners along on his reporting journey, through interviews with musicians and their fans, ex-CIA spooks and historians, as he tries to piece together the true story of the song.
Part spy caper, part Cold War-era music lesson, Wind of Change discusses the U.S. government’s history of exerting cultural influence overseas, especially through music, like in the 1950s and early 1960s, when President Eisenhower sent jazz performers Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong to introduce the American art form to listeners in the Middle East and Africa, respectively.
Keefe, whose 2005 book, Chatter, was about the National Security Agency, also covers the gradual infiltration of Western music into the Soviet Union, and the roles both superpowers’ governments played: In the 1970s, Moscow officials chose SoCal country rockers the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to introduce rock & roll to the U.S.S.R., after rejecting the Doobie Brothers’ “loud, passionate,” “hard rock” and nixing the Beach Boys because of their lyrics about cars and girls. In 1989, the Moscow Music Peace Festival brought Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, Skid Row, and other hair-metal acts — including the Scorpions — to Russia for an event billed as pro-sobriety and anti-drugs. That camaraderie of the festival experience purportedly prompted Scorpions frontman Klaus Meine to pen “Wind of Change.” Unless, as the decades-old rumor Keefe heard goes, he didn’t write it at all.
“You hear a song and it affects you emotionally, almost physiologically,” says Keefe, whose podcast dropped May 11th and has recently released two additional installations. “There’s a natural tendency to want to think of that as an undiluted, pure interaction between the listener and the song. Part of what I was trying to do [in the podcast] was point out that throughout the Cold War, there were moments when it was more complicated, and the hand of government was there.”
The first bonus episode, released last week, tells the story of a California musician who smuggled punk rock in and out of the Soviet Union, and a new one, out now, covers the U.S. government funding anti-Hugo Chávez, racist songwriting in Venezuela.
Keefe spoke to Rolling Stone about reporting on classified information, feeling like a conspiracy theorist, and what it would mean if the American government wrote one of history’s bestselling rock songs.
So when you decided on a podcast, how did you start reporting on a CIA rumor? And how was reporting for audio different from print?
I’ve written about the world of intelligence before, so I was familiar with the hazards of writing about secret worlds. What was really tricky was reporting for audio. In the past I’ve had sources who will talk to me, and we meet up, and I take notes, and I’m not recording — and they trust in that situation. It’s another thing altogether when you’re asking someone to speak into the microphone. There was the kind of crazy OPSEC [Operations Security] that we had to employ to talk to Rose, a clandestine officer, where we changed her name and used an actress. But we tried to have fun with it, and it hopefully gives you insight into what it’s like to do this kind of reporting.
You got a pretty strong warning from the CIA officer you call Rose, who told you she wasn’t sure this was a story worth telling, because it might put a CIA method or even a person at risk. Did that make you nervous about pursuing this?
Obviously it didn’t stop me from pursuing it. As to the idea of jeopardizing a method, I’m not sure at the end of the day that I like the notion of intelligence agencies secretly tinkering with pop culture, so I wasn’t too worried. Jeopardizing a source is different, but I feel as though so much time has passed that I doubt anybody would lose their lives. It’s part of the ethos of the CIA that it’s an ironclad commitment: If you help us, we’ll protect you and never reveal that you helped us. So I feel as though for somebody like Rose, that was her career, and she’s gonna feel very strongly about that. For me, in terms of my assessment of risk, I didn’t worry about it as much. Having said that, that’s another thing I was trying to do in the podcast. There were a couple of moments where people kind of question the whole enterprise. They say to me, “Hey, what are you doing?” It was important to me not to edit that stuff out. It’s another way of looking at it. As long as I’m going around accusing other people of being propagandists, I wanted to have the moment where somebody says to me, “Hey, wait a second. Maybe you’re the propagandist.”
What did you think would be the greatest challenge going into this? Were you right?
I think it was mainly the secrecy: How do you tell a story about the covert world that doesn’t feel like you’re just glancing around the edges? And that was a challenge, but I’m really happy with the way we put it together in the end because there’s a bunch of stuff in there that has not really been known up until now. Not just the Scorpions’ story but, I mean, the Nina Simone story. This guy Hugh Wilford, this academic, had gone into the files and discovered that Nina Simone basically got sent to Nigeria unbeknown to her by the CIA in 1961. That one may have hit me especially strongly, because I grew up listening to Nina Simone. Of all the artists we talk about in the show, she’s probably the one who has meant the most to me for the longest, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that had she known, she would have been pretty furious. I guess what I’m saying is I think the challenge was, how do you tell a story that is both delivering the goods — in terms of things that are secret, and that people haven’t known before, and chronicling the secret history — but also is candid about the challenges and the things that we don’t know and will never know?
How did you get so many ex-CIA people to talk?
Slowly. We actually interviewed more ex-CIA people than are in the final podcast. There were some we just couldn’t work in in the end. It was a slow process. In some instances I had introductions from people, which helped. I think the intelligence community is like any other subculture. It really helps to have somebody who can be a referee or a broker who can vouch for you. It was tricky particularly because we didn’t want to tell people right upfront we’re making a podcast about whether the CIA wrote “Wind of Change.” If you announce that in your initial overture, nobody’s going to say yes.
What’s your understanding of why some former CIA officers can speak so much on the record — Jonna Mendez, who you interviewed, gives TED Talks, for example — and others can’t speak to you at all?
It has to do with where you were, what you were doing, how much time has passed, and to what extent you want to go through the whole process. Jonna has to get everything she says or writes approved through a board to make sure there’s nothing classified in there. There may be other people for whom it’s just not worth the effort. So it’s a combination of factors, but it was kind of interesting for us for exactly the reason you said: There were some people who could be really forthcoming, though you’ll notice that was mostly people talking about something that happened longer ago. In Jonna’s case she can tell us all sorts of stuff but literally when we wanted her to say the country she lived in she was like, “You have to bleep that out. I can’t tell you where I lived 25 years ago, because it’s still classified.”
Did you feel like you were chasing a conspiracy theory or a piece of music history?
Part of the fun of this whole experience was that sometimes I felt like I was chasing a really fascinating untold piece of music history, sometimes I felt like I was chasing a crazy decades-long government conspiracy, and sometimes I felt like a complete tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist. So my emotions about what I was engaged in were vacillating throughout the process. I wanted to kind of implicate the listener in that, and make you feel the same way, give you a sense of what it means to start cracking open these types of secret worlds and whether you can trust your own eyes and ears when you’re in the middle of a story that is inescapably a hall of mirrors.
How much did you know before you started reporting about CIA cultural-influence operations? How do you feel about them now?
I knew a little bit, because during the years when this was a back-burner thing for me, I had done some research. Frances Stonor Saunders wrote the book the Cultural Cold War, which is amazing. It’s about the earlier years, and it’s very much about high culture. So there was this aspect of this whole thing if you look at the Fifties and Sixties, the CIA was basically these very elite white guys who all went to Yale and what they focus on is abstract expressionism, the Paris Review, and jazz. So they have this sense that high culture should be the vehicle for this type of influence effort. Part of what was fascinating was just knowing that, and looking at the way, you know, by 1990 it was much more about pop culture. By 1990, the CIA is not going to be pinning their hopes on Jackson Pollock paintings to win the Cold War.
In terms of how I feel about them in the grand scheme of covert action by the CIA, the stakes are probably lower than they would be with fomenting a coup or a targeted assassination or torture, but I also think that part of what I wanted to try and capture in the podcast was the way we feel about music. It kind of gives me the creeps [knowing about the government’s involvement] and it makes me question the natural reaction I have when listening to a song. I wanted to tell these stories in such a way that people would reexamine these moments in history where government started tinkering with music.
How would your impressions of the CIA be affected if they had, in fact, written this song?
I’ve thought about this constantly, as I was working on the podcast but then also just over the years. On the one hand I think there are a bunch of people, including CIA people on the podcast, who say how impressive would that be? What an amazing psy-op. I think there’s a kind of undeniable level of mastery you would have to credit them for, taking this song and sending it out there, and suddenly half of Russia is listening to “Wind of Change.” At the same time, it’s unsettling to me to contemplate. Those are sort of the two parts of the cocktail that is this podcast. There’s this gee-whiz craziness to it, but also, I think there are ways in which when you start unpacking these stories the implications can be troubling.
Do you think this is it for this rumor you heard, or do you think you’ll keep pursuing it?
That I haven’t figured out yet. I feel as though I sort of did everything I could as a journalist, and yet there are still questions in my mind. You’re asking me on a good day. We just launched the podcast. I feel as though this is a piece of work that is complete. But check back in with me in a few months’ time and we’ll see how I feel.
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