What's The Frequency, Kenneth-

Cover art to the maxi-single release of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"

"What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" is an R.E.M. song and features as the opening track to 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. By its success and the band's like for the song, it was placed on R.E.M.'s Warner Bros. Records 'best of' compilation album In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003 in 2003 and was the only track from Monster to feature on the compilation.

"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 was played at every show of their 2008 Accelerate tour.[1] A live recording features as the opening track to the encore (disc two) of R.E.M. Live.


Background and recordingEdit

R.E.M. began work on Monster in August 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".[2] 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."[3]

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 assailants who, between beatings, would ask, "what's the frequency, Kenneth?"[4] (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[5]). R.E.M. never got round to re-recording the song.

Post releaseEdit

"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".[2] The following year, on June 22, 1995, 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.

Musical styleEdit

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 liveTemplate:Fact 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-oriented, experimenting with effects such as tremolo and overdrive.

Single packaging and artworkEdit

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 wax bottle candies (resembling the trademark design for the Coca-Cola glass bottles) within a bigger glass. The title of the song is written in bright orange (similar to the 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.[6] 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.

Radio editEdit

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 releases of the single 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 the 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 R.E.M. album was the original uncensored album version.

Music videoEdit

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 owned by musician Gram Parsons.[7]

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?".

Track listingEdit

All songs written by Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe.

  • 12" and CD maxi-single:
  1. "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" (radio edit) – 4:00
  2. "Monty Got a Raw Deal" (live) – 4:22
  3. "Everybody Hurts" (live) – 5:41
  4. "Man on the Moon" (live) – 5:22
  • 7", CD single and cassette:
  1. "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" (album version) – 4:00
  2. "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.

Chart positionsEdit

Year Single Chart Peak Position
1994 "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" Billboard Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales 24[8]
1994 "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks 2[8]
1994 "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" Billboard Modern Rock Tracks 1[8]
1994 "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" Billboard Hot 100 21[8]
1994 "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" UK Singles Chart 9[9]
1994 "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" Billboard Top 40 Mainstream 10[8]

See alsoEdit