"What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" is a song by the American alternative rock group R.E.M. from their 1994 album Monster. It was the first single taken from the album, released three weeks later. It peaked at number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at number 9 on the UK Singles Chart and by its success and the bands liking to the song, it was placed on R.E.M.'s Warner Bros. Records 'best of' compilation In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 in 2003 and was the only song from Monster to feature on the album.
"What's the Frequency, Kenneth?' is notable for being the first song in history to debut at number one on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.
This song is one of the band's most-played songs at live gigs, and has been played at every show of their 2008 Accelerate tour so far. A live recording features as the opening track to the encore (disc two) of R.E.M. Live.
Background and recording
R.E.M. began work on Monster
in August of 1993 and "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" came about two months later in October 1993. This song was written and recorded at Kingsway Studio, New Orleans
, where the band also wrote and recorded "Tongue" and "Crush with Eyeliner" . In 1994, the year of Monster
's release, and the year of the "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" single release, lead singer Michael Stipe
said about the song:
"I wrote that protagonist as a guy who's desperately trying to understand what motivates the younger generation, who has gone to great lengths to try and figure them out, and at the end of the song it's completely fucking bogus. He got nowhere."
The title of the song is not original to the band, which guitarist Peter Buck explains in the liner notes to In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988-2003. It refers to an incident in New York City in 1986, where news anchor Dan Rather was spontaneously attacked by one or two unknown assailants who, between beatings, would ask, "what's the frequency, Kenneth?" (although the phrase Dan Rather says he actually heard was, "Kenneth, what is the frequency?"). One of the assailants has been since identified as William Tager, who so attacked as he thought the media had taken control of him.
Although not obviously audible, the song slows down slightly towards the end (from an original tempo of 96 BPM down to 94 BPM) because of bassist Mike Mills, who was in severe pain but, following his lead, the band continued to record the song until the end. Mills was then taken to the hospital and it was discovered he had appendicitis, which disrupted parts of the 1995 Monster tour (resulting in dates between 10 July, 1995 and 20 July, 1995 to be cancelled ). R.E.M. never got around to re-recording the song.
"What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" made its first live television debut on 12 November, 1994 for Saturday Night Live
, recorded at NBC Studios, New York City
. The set on the show opened with "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" and was followed by two other songs from the new album, Monster
, "Bang and Blame
" and "I Don't Sleep, I Dream". The following year, on June 22
, at Madison Square Garden
, news personality Dan Rather (who was attacked by the assailants who first introduced the world to the phrase, "what's the frequency, Kenneth?") accompanied the band during a sound check performance of the song. The clip was shown prior to R.E.M.'s performance of "Crush with Eyeliner
" on the Late Show with David Letterman
the following night.
The song is now recognized as one of R.E.M.'s most famous singles and still receives regular airplay around the world, as well as played by the band frequently at live concerts.
The musical style of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" is dramatically different from R.E.M.
's previous singles (the most recent being the soft, more acoustic "Find the River
") as it features more prominent electric-guitar elements, such as a lot of overdrive on the rhythm guitar, additional fills and a reversed guitar solo. "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" is one of the few R.E.M. songs to feature a guitar solo, and the solo from this song changes quite often when played live as well as differing from the one on the original recording, unlike the famous solo from "The One I Love
", which has become immediately identifiable over the years. As the opening track to Monster
, the song establishes the general musical style of the whole album, which is very guitar orientated, experimenting with effects such as tremolo
Single packaging and artwork
The eccentric front cover to the maxi-single release of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" features the title of the song at the top of the cover, and the name 'R.E.M.
' written in yellow on a gray text box, all over a photograph of multicolored drink glasses (resembling the trademark design for the Coca-Cola
glass bottles) within a bigger glass. The title of the song is written in bright orange (the same shade seen on the sleeve to Monster
with strange symbols around the main letters. Each letter is surrounded by a circle, and a dot in the upper-right corner of each circle contains a number for the rank of frequency that particular letter occurs in the English language. Dots and slashes beneath each letter make up the Morse code
for that letter, and within the circles of each letter are the semaphore
flag positions. The large question mark
('?') symbol at the end of the title has no additional features to its surrounding circle as there is no Morse code, frequency rank or semaphore position for it.
A 'radio edit' version of the song was mixed and marketed (through mainly promotional release) due to the word 'fuck' in the original album recording. The 12" and maxi-single of the song both feature the radio edit, whereas the 7", CD single and cassette release of the single feature the uncensored album version. The version of the song found on British chart hits compilation album Now That's What I Call Music! 29
from 1994 also featured the radio edit. The version released on the 2003 best of
album was the original uncensored album version.
The music video, directed by Peter Care (who directed some videos for songs off R.E.M.'s previous album
and much of the promotional videos for the Monster
tour of 1995 (which can also be found on the video Parallel
)), features the band playing along to the song under bright blue, red and yellow flashing lights. Michael Stipe
appears timid behind the microphone until the first chorus, breaking into an energetic dance. In the video, prominent in the guitar solo, Peter Buck
uses Kurt Cobain's Jag-Stang
that he received as a gift from Courtney Love
after Cobain died and plays it upside-down as Cobain was left handed. Bassist Mike Mills
new look (long-hair and the use of Nudie Suits
) prominent in the 1995 Monster
world tour, was first seen in this promotional video. The one seen in the music video was in fact owened by Parsons.
The DVD companion to In Time, entitled In View: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988-2003 (featuring the promotional videos to most of the songs on In Time) featured the music video to "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?".
All songs written by Bill Berry
, Peter Buck
, Mike Mills
, and Michael Stipe
12" and CD maxi-single
- "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" (radio edit) – 4:00
- "Monty Got a Raw Deal" (live) – 4:22
- "Everybody Hurts" (live) – 5:41
- "Man on the Moon" (live) – 5:22
7", CD single, and cassette
- "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" (album version) – 4:00
- "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" (instrumental version) – 3:59
The live recordings of "Monty Got a Raw Deal", "Everybody Hurts" and "Man On The Moon" were recorded at the 40 Watt Club, Athens, Georgia on November 19 1992. The performance, a benefit for Greenpeace, was recorded in a solar-powered mobile studio.
- of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" from Monster.