The Strange Origins Of R.E.M's What's The Frequency, Kenneth?

"What's The Frequency Kenneth" was the premier single off the 1994 R.E.M. album "Monster." Per Musical Charts Archive, it spent several weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 between September 1994 and February 1995, peaking at No. 21 in November 1994. It also holds the distinction of being the first song to debut at No. 1 on the Modern Rock charts, as reported by Billboard. Singer-songwriter Michael Stipe (above) has explained his conception of the song: "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 bogus. He got nowhere" (via Mental Floss). The title of the song, however, is based on an incident that Stipe called "the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century." 

On the night of October 4, 1986, iconic CBS news anchor Dan Rather was walking down New York's Park Avenue toward his apartment. As he nearly reached his home, he was approached by two men, one of whom asked him "What is the frequency, Kenneth?" When Rather replied that they seemingly had the wrong person, the man knocked him down and rained a flurry of kicks and punches down upon him as he continued asking "What is the frequency, Kenneth?" 

A bizarre attack that went unsolved for years

The apartment building's doorman and superintendent heard Dan Rather's cries for help and rushed to his aid, causing the two attackers to run off. According to Mental Floss, Rather made a police report, but no arrests or charges were forthcoming. Rather seemed to take a rather dispassionate view of the strange event, commenting "I got mugged. Who understands these things? I didn't and I don't now. I didn't make a lot of it at the time and don't now. I wish I knew who did it and why, but I have no idea." 

In 1995, Rather appeared on stage at Madison Square Garden and performed the song with R.E.M., footage of which appeared on "The David Letterman Show." (Video of Rather with the band apparently practicing the song at The Mastering Studio in Burbank, California is available on YouTube.) In a 2015 interview with Salon, former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills said of the collaboration, "[Rather] came over to soundcheck and sort of talked his way through it. Dan was a good sport and a fan of the band as well."

R.E.M.'s "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" was not the first song inspired by the strange attack. California power pop band Game Theory released a song called "Kenneth, What's The Frequency" on their 1987 album "Lolita Nation." According to Rolling Stone, singer-songwriter Scott Miller, who was known for his pop culture references and extensive cultural influences, had found the story "charming in its bizarreness." 

Did R.E.M. know the Game Theory song that came first?

Game Theory producer Mitch Easter went on to tell Rolling Stone about how Scott Miller's song "Kenneth, What's The Frequency" came to be years before R.E.M.'s (above) "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?: "I think we just created the whole thing in my studio and made it sound like he was on the street. He just wanted to refer to it. That was the idea. "Monster" came out a bit later and they had a song [with a similar name] and it was like, 'That's weird.' I don't know if they were aware of the Game Theory thing; they probably weren't." 

Miller himself discussed his song in 2002 on his personal website, noting "To tell the truth, I would be flattered and not even the tiniest bit irked if they somehow unconsciously got the idea from my record, but I think Michael Stipe probably wrote the lyric, and I think Pete Buck was the only R.E.M. member who knew Game Theory at all, so it probably doesn't quite add up that it was a direct influence."

Dan Rather's attacker was finally discovered in 1997

The mystery of Dan Rather's attacker was solved in 1997 when, per The New York Times, it came to light that a man named William Tager arrested for the 1994 fatal shooting of Rockefeller Center stagehand Campbell Theron Montgomery was the same man who'd accosted Rather. When Tager was arrested for the shooting, he took responsibility for the attack on Rather, but no one pursued his claim, as the crime was by then out of the five-year statute of limitations. 

However, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, who examined Tager, wanted to know if Tager was lying about the incident and so asked Rather about his memories of the attack. Several details revealed by Rather in the questioning matched those provided by Tager. Rather then looked at photographs of Tager and confirmed that he was the man who'd attacked him. According to Dietz, Tager was under the impression that the evening news was broadcasting messages directly to him. Tager was convicted of shooting Montgomery and sentenced to a 12.5 to 20-year sentence for manslaughter.