REM – What’s the Frequency Kenneth?

REM really let loose on their album Monster. I love the tone on Peter Bucks guitar and the loud in your face production. Peter Buck played the late Kurt Cobain’s Fender Jag-Stang, which he plays upside-down because Cobain was left-handed.

This song is about an incident that took place on October 4, 1986, when the CBS news anchor Dan Rather was attacked on a New York City sidewalk by a crazed man yelling “Kenneth, what is the frequency.” The man turned out to be William Tager, who was caught after he killed a stagehand outside of the Today show studios on August 31, 1994. Tager, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison, said he was convinced the media was beaming signals into his head, and he was on a mission to determine their frequencies.

Lead singer Michael Stipe says this is an attack on the media, who overanalyze things they don’t understand.

The song slows down at the end because of bassist Mike Mills. They noticed he was in pain, but everyone followed him and finished the track. After they were done, Mills was taken to the hospital and it was discovered he had appendicitis. They never got back to redo the song.

This song peaked at #21 in the Billboard 100 in 1994.

 

From Songfacts

When Michael Stipe wrote the lyrics, Tager had not yet been identified as Rather’s assailant. He wrote the song after becoming intrigued by the case and the media reaction to it, calling it “The premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century.”

Tager got out of jail in 2010.

After this song came out, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth” became a catchphrase and was a running joke on The David Letterman Show (for a short time, “Kenneth” also became a term used for a clueless person). Rather had a good sense of humor about it and later appeared on the show, singing this with R.E.M. backing him.

Peter Buck remembered the experience in the liner notes for In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003: “I like Dan Rather. He’s a fine newsman, an interesting person to talk to, and quite a bit nuttier than most of those media types (I consider that a good thing). That said, nothing in my rich and varied life prepared me for the experience of performing behind him as he ‘danced’ and ‘sang’ ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?'”

There is a song by Game Theory on their 1987 album Lolita Nation called “Kenneth, What’s the Frequency?” It was produced by Mitch Easter, who was R.E.M.’s producer for Chronic TownMurmur, and Reckoning. Coincidence? 

Despite his painful ordeal, Mills notes this as “one of my favorite rockers in our canon, touching on pop culture and yet with balls” in Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011.

The line, “Richard said, ‘Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy,'” refers to Richard Linklater, director of Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993). More recently, he directed Waking Life (2001) and the acclaimed “Before” trilogy: Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013).

In the liner notes for the compilation album Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011, Stipe says he quoted the director “to aid in a fictional narrative that details a generational belly flop the size of Lake Michigan.”

This was the first single released from the album, which indicated the harder edge that R.E.M. took on Monster, their ninth album.

This single was the first piece of music to be released by R.E.M. that included a lyric sheet. The first R.E.M. album to include printed lyrics was Up, from 1999.

The music video, directed by Peter Care, shows the band performing this song under multicolored flashing lights and is notable for debuting new looks for Michael Stipe, who shaved his head, and Mike Mills, who grew out his hair and decked himself out in a rhinestone suit borrowed from Gram Parsons.

This was featured on Friends in the episode “The One with Two Parts: Part 2” and on Beavis and Butt-Head in “Wet Behind the Rears,” both in 1995. It was also used in the 1999 Martin Scorsese film Bringing Out the Dead, starring Nicolas Cage and Patricia Arquette.

What’s The Frequency Kenneth?

“What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is your Benzedrine, uh-huh
I was brain-dead, locked out, numb, not up to speed
I thought I’d pegged you an idiot’s dream
Tunnel vision from the outsider’s screen

I never understood the frequency, uh-huh
You wore our expectations like an armored suit, uh-huh

I’d studied your cartoons, radio, music, TV, movies, magazines
Richard said, “Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy”
A smile like the cartoon, tooth for a tooth
You said that irony was the shackles of youth

You wore a shirt of violent green, uh-huh
I never understood the frequency, uh-huh

“What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is your Benzedrine, uh-huh
Butterfly decal, rearview mirror, dogging the scene
You smile like the cartoon, tooth for a tooth
You said that irony was the shackles of youth

You wore a shirt of violent green, uh-huh
I never understood the frequency, uh-huh
You wore our expectations like an armored suit, uh-huh
I couldn’t understand

You said that irony was the shackles of youth, uh-huh
I couldn’t understand
You wore a shirt of violent green, uh-huh
I couldn’t understand
I never understood, don’t fuck with me, uh-huh

 

Author: badfinger20 (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

41 thoughts on “REM – What’s the Frequency Kenneth?”

    1. I liked it the first time I heard it also. The guitar and the line ” irony was the shackles of youth”… it’s way up there with my favorite REM songs.

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  1. On that album Stipe seemed to go back to the earlier REM years -where it was hard to understand what he was singing. Saw them on that tour.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Who was it that had a hit with it around that time- Motley Crew? It was funny to hear them play it- REM not something I was expecting.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes it was them. I grew up of course on the Brownsville Station version… It doesn’t fit REM I will say that…heck bubble gum music fits them more than that one.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I was a HUGE R.E.M. fan, and it took me a bit of time to warm up to this album. I do like it now. I never knew about the appendicitis story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would be something to remember a song by…glad he got to finish it. It’s a different type of song from some of the other stuff they did.

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  3. A great song. they had a terrific sense of when to change so as not to sound stale. ‘Monster’ was written in a direct attempt to both make songs that would really work in arenas played live and to not sound like they were trying to just re-make ‘Automatic for the People.’ They succeeded. The line ‘withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy’ always stood out to me.

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  4. Another great pic Max!
    Monster is my fav from the REM catalog.
    I bought the deluxe version from iTunes last year and really got into the demos which were mellow and the live Chicago show from 95 was killer.
    They also had a remix of the album included which had a whole different vibe to it.
    It was an interesting listen.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a pricey package so I bought it on iTunes as it was about $80 cheaper! I was lucky that they showed up here in Tbay back in Nov 2004.
        They played of course Frequency Kenneth but the surprise was Star 69! Great show glad I caught em.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember that Rather incident. I didn’t know the guy killed someone, later and was caught (and named). Damn.

    I agree with Ron. Stipe is sometimes clear and other times, he slurs. The music is good either way.

    If there was a slowdown, I couldn’t catch it. I’m sorry for him. Yikes.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have now…I’ve listened to a few songs…I liked what I heard…jangly driven songs like Erica’s Word…cool stuff.
        This beats the hell out of a lot of the 80s stuff…well to me…and it didn’t get played as much or I really just missed them.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes…I believe it’s a Rick turned to 11. That is the guitar I want man…more than any other .
        I never noticed the slowdown.

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      2. Man I’m an IDIOT… I wrote that! lol. Buck plays a Rick though alot and that is what I was used to…

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      3. I mean…dude this working from home every day for 6 weeks is starting to warp the brain man.

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      4. Since I’m in IT I can do everything pretty much from home but I thought about going in one day for the hell of it. There are only 4-5 people in our corporate office right now…so I won’t come in contact with anyone.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Noticed here on the second hand guitar there was a Japanese replica of the Cobain mustang for sale. Beautiful guitar…did some reading on it — so didn’t immediately think of your post. Funny though…you’re writing too much mate!

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I must be man..I thought it was pretty cool when I read it.
        I LOVE those old sixties cheap Japanese guitars….many of them were full of buttons…some of them are great guitars.

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  6. I heard the newer version of the album, or most of it, that Deke was talking about (the 25th anniversary re-release). Scott Litt , the producer, remixed the entire album, says it was the one record he did with them he didn’t like (didn’t like his work that is, not the songs) when he mixed it first. Some of the songs sound really different. All in all, I kinda liked the newer versions of some more, kind of a cleaner, blder sound, but I thought the “new” What’s the Frequency Kenneth was inferior. He took out all the tremolo and some of the guitars.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll have to listen to that but you cannot take out the tremelo…I LOVE that. See Dave…that is why I would not be a good producer…Wah Wah and tremolo…I would use them more than the average guy lol…instead of “cowbell” my mantra would be more tremolo.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like them too! I remember hearing Peter buck at one time saying they put the “wah” effect in ‘Stand’ basically as a joke to make it as un-cool as possible, but I always thought it was great… and in Canada at least, it was the first of their songs to really break through into regular “top 40” radio so I wasn’t alone in that.

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