. . .
File Under Irony
Of course, by the time Monster — AKA “The Scary One” — came out two years later, everything was different. And I do mean everything.
I had moved out of Fresno and was living in Oakland, and had just discovered the World Wide Web, soon to be the source of the career path I’m still on. Also, the Wild Blue in Fresno had closed, cutting off a major venue for local bands, including one called “Kenneth, What’s The Frequency?” that had formed around the time Automatic For The People came out, but I think had broken up by then.
In the wider world, there wasn’t a World Series that year — sorry, Montreal Expos — and Kurt Cobain had killed himself, sending shockwaves throughout the music world about which I still cared deeply. The deaths of the Blue and Cobain, I think, were a major spur for me getting the hell out, as was leaving my job at the Video Zone, where I’d been since 1985. All of that stuff happened within a month or so of each other, a clear message that it was really now or never, I had to decide.
And so I did, moving up to Oakland in June to take a job at a small, weird ad agency, and was still trying to deal with all of the changes in my life when Monster showed up in September, 1994.
Which was why when my roommate asked me if I thought they could make another Murmur, I thought that the question wasn’t so much whether or not they could make another Murmur, it was whether or not we could?
Narrator voice: we couldn’t.
And in fact, Monster definitely wasn’t what the punters wanted, because while it did top the Billboard albums chart, it subsequently became one of the most infamous used-CDs ever, the bright orange cover no doubt making it stick out that much more. And no doubt, the folks who returned Monster probably didn’t know or care that the liner note stating that the songs on it were “administered in all that is known as our world by Warner-Tamerlaine Music” was just the latest iteration in a career-long running joke.
That said, as R.E.M.’s first flat-out rock-oriented album since Green or maybe even Document, I was really looking forward to Monster, as a change of pace from their previous two albums, especially since I really loved the lead single, the glammy, strutty “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” which started off with a Peter Buck guitar riff that was somehow brite and dirty at the same time.
“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
After the crystal-clear preciseness of the last two records, I loved the druggy, hazy sound that R.E.M. conjured up on “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”, Mike Mills’ once bass sitting louder in the mix that Michael Stipe’s voice — though Bill Berry’s drums seemed kinda rote — while Peter Buck dragged shimmering echos from his guitar.
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
While “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” was inspired by the 1986 incident where newsman Dan Rather reported being attacked by a pair of assailants chanting “Kenneth, what’s the frequency” — as you do — it could also be read as Stipe struggling against the bubble that massive stardom stuck him in, while also kinda reveling in the freedom it gave them do put out an album like Monster, which the vast majority of the millions of folks who purchased it might not even like.
Also reveling in their freedom: Peter Buck, who stuck in a backwards guitar solo just for the sheer fuck of doing it.
In the end, they extend the chorus — Mike Mills providing timely harmonies all along — while Stipe keeps complaining “I couldn’t understand” each time, until he warns at the very end, “don’t fuck with me” as the song ends.
With the “don’t fuck with me” part swapped out for one last “the frequency,” — and significant MTV airplay, natch — the single of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth” did better than any of the Automatic For The People singles, making it all the way to #21 (“Bang and Blame” did slightly better, clocking at #19) on the Billboard Charts.
“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”
“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” official musical video
“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” live in 1995
“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” live in Koln, 2001
“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” live in Germany, 2003
“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” live in Dublin, 2005
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