NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and believe it or not I’m still in school.
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Here’s a neat trivia question for ye, that came to me out of nowhere a day or two ago. What do the songs “Hey Jude” by The Beatles and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen have in common? I wasn’t counting on doing yet another Beatles trivia question so soon, but this was too cool not to share. So, “Hey Jude”, recorded in 1968 by The Beatles, and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” recorded in 1975. What do those two songs have in common? I’ll have that answer, and a little bit more, at the end of the show.
Now, in order to talk about this REM hit from 1994, we need to roll back the clock a little bit more, to 1986. At that time, the anchorman for the CBS Evening News was Dan Rather. One evening in October of that year, Mr. Rather was in Manhattan, walking down Park Avenue to his apartment, when he was attacked and pushed by a man who asked him repeatedly, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” It was such a weird story that some people thought it wasn’t true, despite the fact that there were two people who came to his rescue and spoke up as witnesses.
So let’s fast-forward briefly to 1994, when a man named William Tager was arrested for shooting an NBC stagehand outside Rockefeller Center. His reason for doing so, he said, was that he was distrustful and suspicious of the news media. Specifically, he thought that messages were being broadcast to him on the evening news. At that time, Tager admitted to being the guy who assaulted Dan Rather, but because the statute of limitations was up, nobody bothered following up on it. But in 1996 the forensic psychiatrist who interviewed Tager decided to do a little digging and spoke with Tager about the event, and Tager knew some things that the general public didn’t. Then he shared a photo of Tager with Dan Rather, and Rather said that this was definitely the guy who’d assaulted him. But none of this became public until early the following year, in January of 1997. So for eleven years, the incident was just a weird mystery.
And it’s in that context that we move now to early 1993, when the band REM was making plans for their immediate future. They hadn’t toured since 1989 and drummer Bill Berry was especially insistent that their next album be more of a rocker than the previous two. And the band as a whole agreed with this. They wrote something like 45 songs for possible inclusion on the new album, and demoed a whole bunch of them in a studio in New Orleans. It was all very experimental stuff, and in February of 1994 they moved to Atlanta and began recording. But these early sessions were done as though they were live in concert—PAs, monitors, everyone standing up—just to get them into that performance mindset. There were a bunch of interruptions during that period, which made some of the work tougher. For instance, Mike Mills and Bill Berry got sick on separate occasions, and this was also around the time that Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix both died, and they were good friends of Michael Stipe, so he briefly left to visit family and friends there.
In April the band moved again to Miami, where recording was again interrupted because Stipe had an abscessed tooth. By the time they moved to Los Angeles to finish the album, tensions were rising among the band, and there was a brief period where they were rarely in the studio at the same time. Finally, according to Mike Mills, they met specifically to resolve their issues, and the project began to move forward again.
Michael Stipe still had the Dan Rather incident kicking around in his head. According to Mental Floss, Stipe called it “the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century,” which at the time was true. But Stipe took that phrase and attached it to a guy who’s a little older and just desperate to understand the mindset of the younger generation. And, Stipe explains in the same article, [quote] “he’s gone to great lengths to try and figure it out. And at the end of the song, it’s completely bogus. He got nowhere.” [unquote] In other interviews, he’s said that it’s a broader attack on the media, who tend to overanalyze things they don’t understand.
There’s also a line in the song where Stipe sings, “Richard said, ‘Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy,’” which is a reference to Richard Linklater’s 1990 film Slacker, which features a scene involving a character handing out cards with “oblique strategies written on them. One of the cards reads “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.” Not quite the same thing, but close enough. And what are Oblique Strategies cards? They’re a set of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, first printed in 1975. Each card has a method intended to promote creativity. Stipe said in the liner notes for the Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011 compilation album that he quoted the Linklater “to aid in a fictional narrative that details a generational belly flop the size of Lake Michigan.” For what it’s worth, you can still buy Oblique Strategies cards, but they’ll cost you close to fifty bucks, plus shipping.
Now, one of the things you may not realize unless you’re either a musician or you’re listening closely is that the song actually slows down as it gets closer to the end. That’s one of those accidents that made it into the final product. Remember how I said that the song was beset by various illnesses throughout the recording process? This was a side effect of one of them. In an interview with Guitar World magazine, guitarist Peter Buck explained that bass player Mike Mills started to slow down while he played, so they all just followed along. Then, Buck says, he noticed that Mills was starting to look kind of strange. It turned out that Mills had appendicitis and they had to rush him to the hospital. And frankly, they never wound up redoing the song.
The single was released on September 5, 1994 as the first off of REM’s Monster album, and interestingly enough, the B-side of the 45 was an instrumental version of the song, although the time signatures don’t match up. Side A is exactly four minutes long and side B is three minutes, fifty-nine seconds. And I couldn’t tell you what accounts for the one-second difference. It also came out on a 12-inch single with the radio edit—also four minutes—plus live recordings of the songs “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” “Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon” all from the Automatic for the People album.
Now hold on there, you might be saying. If the single is four minutes long, why is the radio edit also four minutes long? I’m glad you asked. The radio edit wasn’t a cut for length but rather for vocal content. The very last line—and I’m gonna clean it up a little bit—was originally, “I never understood/Don’t F with me.” Well…stuff like that is going to hamper your airplay a little bit, so the radio version loops in an earlier line, where he’s singing “I never understood/The frequency, uh-huh.”
The single made it to Number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it also made Top 10 on the Mainstream Rock charts and Number One on Billboard’s Alternative Rock chart. It was also Top Ten in the UK, New Zealand, Poland, Norway, Ireland, Canada and it was Number One in Iceland. In Australia it went to Number 24 and it generally hovered in the low 20s elsewhere.
As far as covers, yeah, there are a couple. But I wanted to call your attention to this one specifically. It comes from a band called Apologetix, which is a Christian parody band that describes themselves as a cross between Billy Graham and Weird Al Yankovic. Their schtick is to take secular songs and re-write the lyrics to provide a Christian message.
So what you get is a fairly faithful cover musically, but a whole other set of lyrics…
…they’re also not so much with the timeliness, given that this track was released in 2017.
And I guess in the effort to avoid confusion, I should mention this next track by the band Game Theory. Now, singer-songwriter Scott Miller was also inspired by the then-unknown William Tager’s antics and he also wrote a song with a similar title, but he got on the stick much more quickly than Michael Stipe and Company did, because this is the opening track from the band’s 1987 album, Lolita Nation.
In fact it’s so short I’m going to play the whole thing for you…
…”Kenneth, What’s the Frequency?” then segues directly into the next track. So, similar title, very different song.
As far as William Tager, he did go to prison in 1996 for manslaughter, and was released on parole in 2010. And so far as I know, he’s living in New York somewhere.
Now, in that period during which Tager’s identity was still a mystery, Rather did manage to gain a sense of humor about it, and in 1995 he finally made an appearance on David Letterman’s program during a show on which REM also appeared. The audio isn’t the best, so rather than play it here, I’m going to link to some video on the website. Take a peek, you’ll probably find it worth your while.
And now, it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about what the two songs “Hey Jude,” by The Beatles, and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen, have in common. Well, my friend, it’s this:
[PIANO CLIP 1]
[PIANO CLIP 2]
Wait a second, I hear you saying. How are those alike? You’re not crazy, they aren’t. While the songs were recorded in different studios— “Hey Jude” at Trident Studios and “Bohemian Rhapsody” at FOUR different studios—it turns out that both songs used the same piano. It’s a grand piano made by the C. Bechstein Company, which has been around since 1853, and you can also hear it on Elton John’s “Your Song,” David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” Nilsson’s “Without You,” and many other songs. It’s probably the most-recorded piano in the rock and roll genre. Now, the only thing I couldn’t quite reconcile is the timelines, since most of Queen’s album A Night at the Opera wasn’t recorded at Trident, so the best I’ve got is that the piano track was done there while they still had a contract with Trident and they finished everything else at the other studios. For what it’s worth, the closing track to the album, “God Save the Queen” was also recorded at Trident, but that was several months earlier, before they went on the Sheer Heart Attack tour. And since Freddie Mercury had been noodling around with the song since about 1970, it’s possible that he had that part of the record done as well.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we meet the guy who put us all on a Jet Airliner. And no, it’s not Steve Miller.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.