In 1994, I may have been branching out my musical tastes, but R.E.M. was still my favorite band. During the summer, radio stations claimed that the band would release a “rock album”, after two acoustic-based albums (Out of Time, and Automatic For the People). Naturally, this excited me as I was a big fan of Document.
In the fall, the stations announced that the lead single of Monster, “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” would soon be played. I had to hear this song before the album came out. This would be the song, that would make the kids in my class understand why R.E.M. was so important, so good. It had to. By the DJ’s descriptions of it being a big loud rock song, everybody would listening to it. R.E.M. would be cool to 7th graders. I wanted to be the kid that told everybody that I had been listening to them for years. I was already talking about how great the song was before I even heard it.
As fate would have it, it seemed everybody else had heard “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” before me. Listening to the radio in the car while my mother drove me home from school was the only way I could tune in, waiting excitedly for the song to be played. Time, unfortunately was not on my side. Just as we were about to ride home, DJs announced that the song would be played after the commercial break. In the morning, as we drove to school, they announced that it had just been played.
On a trip with my parents one Saturday afternoon, I listened intently in the back seat of my dad’s truck waiting for the moment when I could finally hear the song. This would be it. But as we drove further up into the mountains, the radio station began to fade. Luckily, I could still hear some music through the static. It wasn’t ideal, but I could deal with a radio cutting in and out. Further we drove, and the DJ proclaimed that “the new R.E.M. single would be played in the next 15 minutes”. My eyes widened, and I prepared my ears for rock heaven.
I forced myself to listen through songs I actually liked. None of it mattered. And we kept on driving through the mountains, and then the radio completely cut out. This couldn’t be happening. Not to me. I could have cried. Why did this have to happen to me? For about 10 minutes or so, there was silence from the radio. My mom who knew I had desperately wanted to hear the song, told me it would come back on in a minute. A few minutes later, the radio finally did come back in. The DJ declared that they had just played “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”. I had missed it. Again. Would I ever hear the song?
I never did hear “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” before Monster came out. The first time I heard it was when my older brother, home for the night, brought over his copy. I closely stared at orange cover with the image of the black bear for several minutes before finally popping it in the CD player in my parents’ living room. It was late, but my mom let me stay up late to listen to the album. I couldn’t play it too loud so I put my ears to the speakers and closed my eyes.
In a second, Peter’s Buck distorted guitar-riff came through the speakers. It was glorious. It was loud and thick. Even the rock of Document hadn’t prepared for me for this. Michael Stipe‘s vocals were pushed to the background. I could barely understand a thing he sang, but it didn’t matter. By the time, it slowed down for a second, I finally caught my breath. And then came the solo – a backwards wah-wah break in the middle of the song. I didn’t know that Peter Buck could play like that, and at the time it seemed like the ultimate guitar-solo. After the song finally ended, I replayed it twice before playing the rest of the album.
R.E.M. had done it. They had returned to rock after years of dabbling in a softer-style. For years, Monster was my favorite album of all time. It’s probably one of the few albums that I know every single note by heart. As the years went on, I stopped listening to it obsessively. Now I don’t even count it among my favorite R.E.M. albums. I think I wore it out too much, eventually becoming bored with it. It’s still a pretty good album, but I’ll still list “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” as one of their best.
“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”