Friday Jukebox: What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

by Steve

1994. A new REM album. They were one of the biggest bands in the world. Certainly the most credible of the biggest bands in the world. More than just a merchandising machine.

In 1986 the newsreader Dan Rather was attacked in the street. He was chased and beaten by two men, one asking him “Kenneth, what is the frequency?”

There were rumours about the album. Out was the clarity and restraint of Automatic For The People. In was the murkiness and obscurity of their earlier albums. There were whispers that this was REM’s grunge album. Even in 1994 that didn’t sound like a great idea.

People doubted the Rather attack story. Had he misheard? Had he made up the weird questioning? It became one of those strange pop culture references.

What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? was the lead-off single for that new album, Monster. I remember watching the video and finding the whole spectacle exhilarating.

In 1994, the year What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? was released, William Tager shot and killed an NBC technician, Campbell Montgomery, when Montgomery tried to stop him from entering The Today Show studios.

The song was, still is, incredible. Perhaps Peter Buck’s finest hour – a great riff, a pleasing fuzziness. A weird, catchy backwards solo. Michael Stipe hard to hear, yet the odd phrases spewed out are intriguing, beguiling. The song manages to be pop-like yet far from obvious, the distortion, the lyrics (when you could make them out), the backwards guitar giving the track a really satisfying opaque feel. It is the kind of song I’d play over and over, trying to decipher it – not just the lyrics, but the melody, the composition.

Psychiatrists interviewed Tager. He told them he believed he was a time traveller. He admitted attacking Rather back in 1986. 

The video too. The framing of the shots, with the band’s heads cut out of shot. Stipe then appears with a freshly shaved head. Mike Mills in a country-style nudie suit. This is a band both dodging the obvious, dodging the biggest band in the world stuff, and reinventing, remaining relevant, vital. I’m not sure that feeling lasted for long, but I still love the song, still really like Monster. They didn’t take the easy option.

Dan Rather identified Tager from a photograph. ”There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the person.”

In 1995 Dan Rather sang with REM.