Twelve years ago, a catchy New Wave anthem appeared on the internet with no information about who wrote or recorded it. Amateur detectives have spent thousands of hours since trying to figure out where it came from — with little luck. Inside the question that’s been driving the internet crazy for years
With its rigid beat and dry, monotone vocals, the song sounds like a synth-pop hit you would have heard in a dance club in the Eighties. (Or at least on an Eighties Spotify station.) Close your eyes and you can imagine a music video: awkwardly lip-synching musicians, exploding lightbulbs, foggy streets. It’s familiar. But the name of the artist or band doesn’t come to mind.
That’s because, right now, no one knows anything about it: who wrote it, who sang it, or even when it came out. And for about a dozen years, a dedicated gaggle of music obsessives from around the world has been searching for any information about these three minutes of music. Throughout this quest, which intensified this summer, thousands of man-hours have been devoted to unearthing anything at all about what these zealous investigators are calling “the most mysterious song on the Internet.”
The hunt embodies every conversation anyone has ever had with a devoted music nerd happy to share every morsel of information about an obscure song — in this case, one supposedly taped off European radio about 35 years ago. It’s the story of people longing for community in the digital era. But it’s also become something bigger. “Everything about this song is mysterious, from the creation to the lyrics to where it played on the radio,” says amateur song detective “Mkll,” who prefers to be identified only by his internet handle. “It’s not often that songs of this age are dug up, and the fact that a search has been happening for over a decade on the Internet really made this case unique.” Even if the case is never solved, it has briefly returned the pre-Google mystique to music, set to a Sprockets-appropriate beat.
“The Most Mysterious Song on the Internet”
If we are to believe the somewhat furtive people involved, we may know where the story starts. Between 1982 and 1984, Darius S. (who asked to use an abbreviation for this article for the sake of privacy) says he was a teenage music fan in the town of Wilhelmshaven on the north coast of Germany; like many in the pre-streaming era, he would record songs he heard on the radio onto a cassette deck. One of his go-to programs was Musik für junge Leute (“Music for Young People”) on the German public-radio station NDR 1. One of those tapes, which Darius calls “cassette 4,” includes then-new songs from 1984 by XTC, the Cure, and one of 25 cuts Darius deemed his “unknown pleasures” — songs he liked, but knew little about.
Darius isn’t certain that he taped the bleak but compelling tune off that particular broadcast, since the cassettes sometimes include tracks from different sources. But he knows he didn’t record an intro by a DJ or anything else that would identify it. “It was just one of many songs I recorded and didn’t know the artist,” he says. “I believe I didn’t hear an announcement. Maybe I heard it partially and missed the artist’s name. Everything is possible.” Combining the release dates of the other known songs on the tape and the fact that the Technics tape deck he says he owned at the time was manufactured in 1984, he’s fairly certain he made the recording that year.
“Everything about this song is mysterious, from the creation to the lyrics to where it played on the radio.”
For over two decades, Darius held onto his tapes. But in 2007, his sister Lydia H. (who has also requested anonymity) needed to know who was behind the song. “All the years of passively searching for the lyrics on the internet hadn’t brought any results, so I thought, it’s time to become more active and reach out for a bigger audience,” she says. Calling herself “Anton Riedel” (and alternately going by “bluuue”), she posted a digitized snippet of the song — one minute and 14 seconds, thinking this would help avoid copyright hassles — on a German site devoted to Eighties synth-pop as well as a Canadian music site, spiritofradio.ca, which enables fans to upload obscure songs for identification purposes. (In some ways, it’s a crowdsourced version of Shazam.) “I had just found out about newsgroups and Usenet,” she says, “and somehow got the idea this could be the place where people could help.” (A 2007 upload of the clip from bluuue is still available on the site.)
That portion of the song bounced around on the web — Nicolás Zúñiga of Dead Wax, an indie label that specializes in synth-pop and post-punk bands, was among those who heard it and were entranced by it — but no one stepped forward to claim credit or supply any useful background about its origins or creators. That same portion was uploaded to YouTube at least as early as 2011 but received fewer than 10,000 views.
This April, though, the mystery and the song gained traction — and more listeners — by way of a 16-year-old student in São Paulo, Brazil. Even though he was born decades after the birth of post-punk, Gabriel da Silva Vieira can hardly get enough of the genre and bands like the Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim. “Guitar, synths and gothic vocals are something that always interested me,” he says. On Dead Wax’s YouTube channel, he heard the segment of the song and became equally fascinated with its unknown backstory. “I really liked the song,” Vieira says, “so I started searching intensively until I found something relevant.”
Vieira uploaded bluuue’s clip of the song onto his own YouTube channel and a handful of Reddit communities, with the hope that someone would be able to identify it. With that, the hunt went viral. The song became a subject of an episode of the YouTube series Tales from the Internet, which has been viewed over 390,000 times since July. Then, in July, came sonic paydirt: A Reddit user posted the entire song, which is just under three minutes long. The full song had apparently leaked out when Lydia says she received an email from someone asking for the full track; after uploading it using Lycos, she was still concerned about the legalities and quickly removed the link after the fan of the song downloaded it.
On Reddit and Discord (a popular chat-room site for gamers), several thousand users got in on the pursuit, posting theories and possible contact info, and dissecting the song in ways that would rival the most dedicated Dylanologists. Based on the singer’s accent, is the band from Germany or, perhaps, Poland or Austria? Is it even a band, or a one-man-group operation? Is the unknown singer intoning, “hear the young and restless dreaming” or “here you’re under arrest for screaming”? Is the song a comment on the Cold War? Is the song called “Like the Wind,” after its not entirely decipherable opening line? Or is that voice singing “Locked Away”?
One obvious source for information, the DJ who may have played it on the show Darius says he taped, is himself baffled. British-born Paul Baskerville, who still works at NDR, has no memory of the track and isn’t even sure he played it on his show. If he did, it could be sitting in his collection of 10,000 vinyl records, which includes the music he spun on-air. But, he adds, “If you’re a collector, you know most of what you have.”
Baskerville does recall playing tapes from underground Eastern rock bands, some mailed to him from over the Berlin Wall. Yet he’s not convinced the musicians heard on the tape are even Teutonic. “It sounds like the bad English that Germans might sing,” he says, “but it could be Polish or Russian. If [Eastern European musicians] sing in English, it can sound a bit austere and severe.” But he says that the typed-out-playlists from the period have long been trashed, and a fellow NDR DJ who could have played the song died three years ago.
“This needs a lot of time. It will presumably last several years.”
Along with former record store workers and other radio station employees in Germany, Baskerville has been contacted by the “Mysterious Song” crowd. The names of these potential sources all appear on a detailed spreadsheet set up to keep track of leads: Deine Lakaien has been “ruled out” but someone claims to recognize it as “the B-side of a demo tape.” Another song detective lamented they’d been unable to reach out to a particular company that “managed in-store music for Whole Foods in 2003, where one YouTuber said they were ‘100 percent sure’ the song was played.” Phonebook-thick guides to Eighties New Wave records have been scrutinized. Others have scoured GEMA, a German music database, and have come up empty. Someone else transcribed it into sheet music, seemingly for the hell of it.
False leads have been rampant. Was it an early track or outtake from Joy Division or Depeche Mode? (No.) Other obscure, supposedly German or European bands — Mental Alchemy! Isurks! — have been floated but not confirmed. (A supposed friend of Isurks posted that the song is called “Check It In” and dates back to 1982, and that the lead singer is dead.) There are also many false leads generated by trolls: Hopes were raised when one poster said he knew the band and its name, but those dreams turned to despair when the person wrote it was the last song the mystery band made “before all being shot dead while attempting to climb over the wall and escape to West Berlin.”
In late August, Darius came home from work, switched on the radio and heard a report on German media about the search, followed by the song itself. “I nearly got a heart attack,” he says. “It was my song! The song I was trying to identify for 35 years!”(It should be noted that some were skeptical of these siblings when they emerged this summer claiming to own the original tape. “At this moment we cannot prove it all,” Lydia admits of the tape. “The pictures of the tape my brother took can be fake. And even the tape that still exists could (at least theoretically) could have been recorded only last week. But I am not one of those persons who only need some attention. There’s no need for my brother or me to create such a big hoax, which only takes plenty of time and efforts.” Vieira, for one, believes she didn’t make up any of this, “especially since she shared a file of this song with a slightly better quality.”)
“Mkll” says he devotes “three to four hours a day” to the hunt; Vieira says he has spent “many sleepless nights” on research, but now limits his time to “a few hours” every day. “I’m amazed at the energy devoted to this online,” says B. George of the Archive of Contemporary Music, a music library and research center in New York that was contacted by the Reddit group. “The posts read like the live commentary and betting strings that accompany bootleg sports sites.”
“It’s exactly the fact that people cannot locate it in four seconds that makes it interesting.”
At this point, glimmers of sonic hope remain. NDR has found 21 recorded shows in its archive — out of hundreds — and are now in the process of listening back to them and hunting down playlists. Meanwhile, in Hamburg, Holger Roloff, currently the owner of the Amöbenklang label, taped hours and hours of music from NDR music shows that showcased rock from the West. He’s pretty sure his cassettes include some of Baskerville’s shows, but has no idea if the mystery song is on any of them. Nonetheless, Roloff has began the slow, laborious process of listening back to all his cassettes, most of which aren’t dated and simply have handwritten notations like “Deutsch New Wave” or “New Power Musik.” “This needs a lot of time,” he admits. “It will presumably last several years.”
Exactly why so many people are investing so much time and energy into this search baffles someone like Baskerville. “I don’t want to sound like a traitor to the cause, but I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” the DJ says. “If I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, I probably would be more interested, but I don’t think it’s a particular interesting song.” For his part, “Mkll” insists it’s about acknowlegement, that “the people behind the song get proper credits for their work.” A mysterious poster claimed credit for the song and put it on Spotify, but others determined he wasn’t even born when it was released.
But at a time when any tidbit about anything can be called up online in a matter of seconds, the song that may be “Like the Wind” is a source of fascination and wonder for thousands of people dedicated to finding the people who created it. “I think the fact that I’m so interested in this isn’t even because of the song itself — it’s understanding why this song is so mysterious and why nobody can find anything about it,” Vieira admits. “It’s simply surreal.” In other words, as Zúñiga puts it, “Apart from the song itself being so catchy, it’s exactly the fact that people cannot locate it in four seconds that makes it interesting.”
Should this who-sung-it be solved, some involved are already wondering about the harsh realities that could result. Would the singer and/or musicians involved (assuming they’re alive) be dragged out of obscurity and thrust in the limelight — only for fans of the song to realize they’re retired, out of practice and only had one decent song? What if the song was actually released on a small label in the Eighties? Would it then become an overpriced collector’s item out of reach of anyone who’d want to own it? “How many hundreds of people will have more money to spend than me and will ban me from purchasing an original?” Zúñiga asks. “Would that be fair?” What if everyone involved in the search simply moves on to something else once they know?
For his part, Vieira says he’ll be “very glad” if the song is identified, especially after so many fakes have infiltrated the chat rooms. In late August, one of the searchers reached out to Rolling Stone. “If we get a writer interested … would make a great article and boom maybe someone identifies it,” one of them posted in Discord. As of this moment, the search continues. But maybe it would be better if it remained unknown — if no one exposed the synth-man behind the curtain. In data-heavy 2019, perhaps the biggest contribution the makers of “Like the Wind” — or whatever it’s called — could make would be ensuring that something in the world remains a mystery.
All Rights Reserved for David Browne