Alternative rock bands don’t get much bigger than R.E.M. They were a hugely popular rock band throughout their thirty-year run, releasing plenty of hits along the way.
Amongst all their hit records however there is one with a strange tale: the song What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? On its surface, the song is about the media’s influence on society.
But dig a little deeper and the song was inspired by a physical assault on a well-known TV personality and accusations of mass mind control and even time travel. So, what’s the frequency Kenneth? Let’s try and find out.
Most rock fans will be familiar with R.E.M, but for the uninitiated let’s start with a quick overview of the band being the song. R.E.M. was one of the very first alternative rock bands. The group was formed in Athens, Georgia by four young University of Georgia students with Bill Berry on drums, Peter Buck playing guitar, Mike Mills on bass, and Michael Stipe finishing things off with his iconic vocals.
R.E.M. ‘s unique sound blended elements of alternative rock, jangle pop, and folk rock. Over the years, R.E.M. released a series of critically acclaimed albums, including Murmur, Automatic for the People, and Out of Time, which showcased their distinctive lyrical style and melodic hooks. Their hit songs like Losing My Religion and Everybody Hurts gained widespread popularity and solidified their place in music history.
The band’s music often conveyed introspective and socially conscious themes, earning them a reputation as pioneers of the alternative rock scene. But one of their strangest songs was What’s the Frequency Kenneth?, a tune that has fascinated conspiracy theorists for decades.
In the stellar discography of the band, one could argue that What’s the Frequency Kenneth? doesn’t really stand out at first. It originally appeared on the band’s ninth studio album, Monster, which was released in 1994.
The song saw a middling release in the US, peaking at number 21 on the US Billboard Hot 100 but did much better in Canada where it reached number 2 in the charts, and also did well in the UK where it topped out at number 9.
The band began working on the album as a whole in August of 1994 but didn’t get around to writing What’s the Frequency Kenneth? until October of the same year. It was written and recorded at Kingsway Studio in New Orleans alongside other album entries Tongue and Crush with Eyeliner.
The band’s lead singer, Michael Stipe, has stated in the past that the song is about the rise of Generation X in contemporary mass media. He goes on to say that the song is narrated by an older critic who struggles to understand Generation X because he gets all of his information from traditional media. Or, as Stipe put it in an interview:
“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 ****ing bogus. He got nowhere.”
But where did the song get its name, and who is Kenneth? This is where things get pretty strange.
What is the Frequency?
The song’s title is actually a reference to a strange incident that occurred in 1986. Famed CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather was walking through the streets of Manhattan one night when he was stopped and attacked by two masked men on Park Avenue.
As they attacked the anchorman one man kept repeating the same phrase over and over again, “Kenneth, what is the Frequency?” At the time Rather made little of the attack, putting it down to a particularly strange mugging, this being the New York of the 1980s after all.
But it was odd enough that a lot of people thought Rather had made it up in an attempt to put himself in the spotlight, it wouldn’t have been the first time a celebrity staged a publicity stunt. People only began taking his story seriously after a doorman and building supervisor at a nearby building who had aided Rather confirmed his story.
So why write a song about it? Well, the same year that R.E.M. was working on Monster, the Kenneth incident became national news once again. In 1994 a man from North Carolina called William Tager traveled to New York and shot dead an NBC technician, Campbell Montgomery, outside the sound studio for the Today Show.
The crazed Tager had been attempting to storm the studio with a rifle and the brave Montgomery died attempting to stop his entry. Thankfully, no one else was hurt and after being arrested Tager explained that the TV network had been watching him for years, beaming secret messages directly into his head.
At the same time, he confessed to attacking Rather but since the 5-year statute of limitations had expired this assault was never investigated. Ten years later New York District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau wrote a piece in the Times stating that he believed Tager had been Rather’s assailant, saying, “the defendant suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and had long believed that the television networks were bugging his home in North Carolina.”
The story was so bizarre that it inspired R.E.M. to write their song. It’s story of a man struggling to understand the media incredibly similar to the staunchly anti-media Tager attacking Rather.
But Who Is Kenneth?
But the tale takes one more strange turn. Who’s Kenneth? Why would Tager attack a famous person called Dan Rather but keep calling him Kenneth throughout the assault? As it turns out it was a very weird case of mistaken identity.
Tager was found to be mentally ill and in 1996 was sent to Sing Sing on charges of manslaughter. During his stay, he explained to a psychiatrist that he was actually a time traveler from the year 2265. As a convicted felon in his own time, he had volunteered to be a test pilot for a time travel experiment in exchange for a commuted sentence.
Tager claimed he had attacked Dan Rather because he had mistaken him for the Vice President of his world, Kenneth Burrows. He had simply been after the frequency of the chip the future government had planted in his head. Obviously.
Tager went on to serve out his sentence and was released in 2010 on good behavior. Thankfully, he got the help he needed while incarcerated and is still closely monitored by mental health counselors and has stopped his search for the frequency.
Rather retired in 2005. He took all the strangeness in his stride, going as far as performing the song alongside R.E.M at Madison Square Garden in 1995. As for R.E.M., they surprised fans by disbanding in 2011. No conspiracy theories there, they simply wished to end the band on their own terms while still creatively vibrant, rather than fading away.
Top Image: What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? Appears on R.E.M.’s 1994 album Monster. Source: Brett Jordan / CC BY 2.0.