R.E.M. was one of the most successful, genre defining, and critically praised rock bands ever. The terms ‘College rock’ and ‘alternative rock’ were basically invented for them. They put out 4 fine albums in the mid-‘80’s, broke through big on 2 albums in the late ‘80’s, and completely blew up with 2 albums in the early ‘90’s (‘Losing My Religion’, their colossal worldwide hit from the first of those two albums, 1991’s Out Of Time, was seemingly the defining video of the glory era of MTV). And yet, my favorite R.E.M. record was their next one, 1994’s Monster, which was an almost complete departure from what they’d done before, or would ever do after (the band amicably broke up in 2011). Why? It’s just the sound of the guitar.
R.E.M., to-date, had created a signature ‘College Radio’ sound: atmospheric melodies; deft, precise vocal harmonies; and jangly guitar (in fact, an understated mandolin was the predominant instrument on ‘Losing My Religion’). But on Monster, guitarist Peter Buck discovered the reverb knob. His deafening, distorted guitar sound was revelatory, and essentially obliterated the defining characteristics of what Rolling Stone had just recently declared as “America’s Best Rock & Roll Band.” And it happened in an instant: The first 10 seconds of the album-opening track, ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth’, are just Buck, alone, blaring three punishing, ringing chords. When the band joins in after that, we already know it’s definitely not the same R.E.M. Sometimes a perfect sounding guitar intro is all you need; they could’ve done just about anything over the nearly 4 minutes that followed and I still would’ve loved the song. Fortunately, what did ensue was more of the fuzzy combustion of Buck’s guitar in overdrive, underpinning the song’s explosive force throughout.
And what, by the way, of the song’s seemingly inexplicable title, and its inscrutable lyrics? I’m really not sure how widespread this story was, but in 1986 Dan Rather – yes, CBS Evening News anchorman Dan Rather – claimed to have been attacked by a man on Park Avenue in New York City who, while pummeling him, was repeatedly screaming, “Kenneth, what is the frequency!?!” The story was so bizarre, and completely without witnesses, that most doubted the veracity of Rather’s account for years. But oddly enough the assailant, a guy by the name of William Tager, was ultimately identified 11 years later following his killing of an unrelated NBC employee. Tager claimed to have believed television networks were beaming signals into his brain, and at the scene of the murder had been trying to force his way into an NBC studio in order to find out the frequency the networks were using to attack him so that he could block it. So, there’s that. Now, why R.E.M.’s enigmatic bandleader and lyricist Michael Stipe chose to memorialize Rather’s rather disturbing incident in a pop title, or whether any of the remainder of the song actually draws any connection whatsoever to said incident (not to mention, why madman Tager called Rather “Kenneth”), that’s all still anyone’s guess. Really, I don’t care. As long as it had Buck’s raucous guitar.