The Attack That Spawned An R.E.M. Favorite

R.E.M. in 1994
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Chris Carroll/Corbis via Getty Images

One of R.E.M.'s many memorable songs of the '90s wouldn't have happened if news anchor Dan Rather hadn't been the unfortunate victim of an attack in New York City on Oct. 4, 1986.

The CBS news anchor was walking to his apartment when he was accosted by two men: one of whom chased and attacked the reporter, the other of whom kept repeating a question: "Kenneth, what is the frequency?"

"Who understands these things?" Rather later told The New York Times. "I didn't and I don't now...I wish I knew who did it and why, but I have no idea.”

Almost exactly eight years later, R.E.M. released their first single off 1994's Monster, featuring a very similar title. But frontman/lyricist Michael Stipe didn't take further inspiration from the incident. "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 fucking bogus," Stipe was quoted as saying. "He got nowhere."

For all the trouble that came before - and some that came after (Rather's assailant was eventually identified as a disturbed man who shot a stagehand outside NBC Studios in 1994) - the veteran newsman took R.E.M.'s reference on a mega-selling album in stride. He even appeared with the band at a soundcheck, reciting the lyrics in his distinctive news voice. "He's a fine newsman, an interesting person to talk to, and quite a bit nuttier than most of those media types (I consider that a good thing)," R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck wrote of Rather in 2003. "That said, nothing in my rich and varied life prepared me for the experience of performing behind him as he 'danced' and 'sang' 'What's the Frequency, Kenneth?'"

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