“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” — R.E.M.
As a kid, I grew up listening to R.E.M. They were my older siblings’ favorite band. I had no idea how important or different R.E.M. were from most other bands. I just knew their music from the records my siblings played. Before the age of 10, I knew all of the songs off of their 80s albums by heart. Even if I couldn’t understand the words, I knew all of the melodies – even the ones off of their B-sides collection, Dead Letter Office.
By the early 90s, my siblings had moved on and out of the house, yet I still listened to all of the R.E.M. albums. In the summer of 1994 when I was 12, it was announced that R.E.M. would release their long awaited “rock album” after two albums of folk-inspired music – 1991’s Out of Time and 1992’s Automatic for the People. While I adored those albums, I had waited anxiously for a return to the louder stuff that permeated through Green and Document.
The release of this new album, Monster, would be a pivotal moment in my musical upbringing. It’s the first album I remember being excited about before it was released. I was about to turn 13, and I looked forward to discovering new music on my own during my upcoming teenage years.
As the fall rolled around, my older brother told me that he had heard the new R.E.M. song on the radio. “What’s it called?” I demanded, wanting to know every single detail. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” he said and then went on to describe it as sounding a lot like “Turn You Inside Out”–one of the big “rockers” off of Green. This sounded simply amazing. I couldn’t wait to hear it. No, I had to hear it.
Every day when my mother picked me up from school, I would turn on the radio with hopes that the DJ would play “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” For weeks, I always seemed to miss it. They had either just played it, or were about to whenever my mother parked the car. “I’m sure you’ll hear it soon,” she told me, trying to comfort me.
At school, the other kids talked about how the song “sucked” compared to newer bands like Bush and Green Day. It always kind of bothered me that they knew nothing about how good this band actually was. Whatever. They had no taste.
About a week before the album came out, I was on a car trip with my parents when the radio announced they would play “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” momentarily. My heart leapt. Finally, I would be able to hear it. Then I would finally be able to tell those kids at school how awesome the song actually was. Then to my horror, as my dad drove up the mountain, the radio signal was lost. The only thing coming through the speakers was static. “This can’t be happening,” I thought. Five more minutes of radio hissing blared through the speakers. By the time we had passed through the mountain and the signal returned, the DJ announced that the song had just ended.
I had missed it yet again. If I could have said “fuck” out loud without getting in trouble, I probably would have.
When the album was finally released and my brother brought home his copy, I raced to the stereo to put it on. It was 9 o’clock, normally past my bedtime but my mother let me stay up to listen to the album. I didn’t even care about the other songs – I just wanted to hear “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”
I turned the dial on the stereo and closed my eyes. Peter Buck‘s buzzing guitar snarled through the speakers. It was loud, noisy, and beautiful. I couldn’t understand a damn thing Michael Stipe was singing except the title of the song–but didn’t matter. Mike Mill’s background vocals took the song to a new level. By the time the song came to the bridge, Peter Buck busted out a squeaky and distorted solo – a total surprise since this guy never really played a solo. I loved every single second. As soon as the feedback ended, I hit repeat and listened to it again.
It was totally worth the wait. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” was better than anything I had expected.
For more of Matt’s thoughts about music, visit his blog: Leading Us Absurd.
- Remembering R.E.M. – Leave (wakingupto.wordpress.com)
- What’s The Frequency Kenneth? (929dave.radio.com)
- Remembering R.E.M. – Let Me In (wakingupto.wordpress.com)
- Rock icons R.E.M. split after 31 years (arts.nationalpost.com)
- R.E.M. Announce Post-Breakup Career Retrospective (beatcrave.com)
- Watch Coldplay Cover R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” (spin.com)
- RIP, R.E.M.: Shiny Happy Rockers Call It Quits (eonline.com)
- Finest Worksongs: The Best Moments of R.E.M. (jwm33.wordpress.com)
- In Defense of R.E.M.’s “Monster” (leadingusabsurd.com)
Posted on 09/28/2011, in Family Moments, Favorite Things, Musical Taste, Uncategorized and tagged alternative rock, Automatic for the People, Bush, Green, Green Day, indie music, Leading US Absurd, michael stipe, Mike Mills, music, Peter Buck, R.E.M., R.E.M. break-up, What's the Frequency Kenneth?. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.