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"What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"

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“What's The Frequency, Kenneth?”
Written by Bill Berry, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe (1993)
Performed by R.E.M.

The Music

It makes sense that R.E.M., a band whose lyrics were often cryptic and indecipherable, would find inspiration for a song in the mysterious circumstances surrounding a physical attack on newsman Dan Rather. “It was the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century,” said singer Michael Stipe. “It's a misunderstanding that was scarily random, media-hyped and just plain bizarre.”

Though the title was lifted directly from a phrase uttered by one of Rather's assailants, the song itself tackled a much broader subject. Stipe said, “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.”

As the first single from the band's 1993 Monster album, “What's The Frequency, Kenneth?” went to #21 on the charts (but only after the phrase “Don't f*** with me” was edited out for the radio version). Two years later (in a surreal moment that fits with this story), Dan Rather joined the band on stage in New York to warble along on a performance of the song.

Here's the official video:

And here's R.E.M. with guest vocalist Dan Rather:

The History

At about 11 pm on the night of October 4, 1986, CBS anchorman Dan Rather was walking along Park Avenue in New York, on the way back to his apartment. Just as he neared the building's entrance, he was accosted by two well-dressed men. One asked, “What is the frequency, Kenneth?” Rather replied, “You must be mistaking me for someone else . . .” With that, the man knocked Rather to the ground, and as he kicked and punched him, he repeatedly asked his strange question. Rather called out for help, and a moment later, as the doorman and the building's super arrived on the scene, the assailants fled.

The police took a statement, but no one was ever arrested or charged.

So was it just a random, unprovoked attack? A case of mistaken identity? Were the attackers some kind of secret agents delivering a message to Rather to back off a particular news story (at the time, he was researching the Iran Contra affair and was set to expose new information)?

Rather himself had no answers. “I got mugged,” he said shortly after. “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.”

Future Shock

The incident was strange, but it got even stranger. In 1994, a North Carolina man named William Tager shot and killed an NBC technician, Campbell Montgomery, outside the sound studio of the Today Show. Tager had tried to enter the the studio with an assault rifle, and Montgomery died in an attempt to block him. Tager was arrested and reportedly told police that the television network had been monitoring him for years and beaming secret messages into his head. He apparently came to NBC looking for a way to block those transmissions.

Tager was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in Sing Sing prison.

His story took a sci-fi twist when he told a psychiatrist that he was a time traveler from a parallel world in the year 2265. A convicted felon in the future, Tager said he was a test-pilot volunteer in a dangerous time travel experiment. If he was successful on his mission, his sentence would be overturned and he would be set free. The authorities in the future kept tabs on him via an implanted chip in his brain. During the examinations, Trager also confessed that he had attacked Dan Rather because he mistook him for the Vice President of his future world, one Kenneth Burrows.

When Rather saw a photograph of Tager, he identified him as his assailant.

And there's yet another strand of intrigue to the tale. In 2001, Paul Limbert Allman wrote a speculative piece about the incident for Harper's Magazine. In exploring the work of post-modern fiction writer Donald Barthelme, Allman had discovered in his stories a recurring character named Kenneth and the phrase “What's the frequency?” Both Rather and Barthelme were the same age, hailed from Houston, Texas and as young men, worked as journalists. Allman thought it was reasonable to assume that their paths might've crossed. Furthermore, in one of Barthelme's books, there's a character named Lather, a conceited editor who bears a resemblance to Rather. The unspoken question was: Did Barthelme somehow inspire Tager's attack on Rather?

Barthelme died in 1989, and his brother Frederick, also a writer, has refused to comment on any connection.

There was also a theory that maybe Rather misheard his assailant's words, or even invented them. After all, this was a newscaster known for his colorful off-the-cuff analogies and descriptions that came to be called “Ratherisms.” Examples: “This thing is as tight as the rusted lug nuts on a '55 Ford” and “You would sooner find a tall talking broccoli stick to offer to mow your lawn for free.”

In 2010, William Tager was released from prison on good behavior. He currently lives in New York City, where he is closely monitored by parole officers and mental health counselors.

Rather retired from CBS in 2005. At 81, he continues to be active as a writer and occasional correspondent. He lives part time in New York City.

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40 Years Later: Watch The Johnny Cash Christmas Show
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Over the course of his career, Johnny Cash made a series of Christmas TV specials and recorded a string of Christmas records. In this 1977 TV performance, Cash is in great form. He brings special guests Roy Clark, June Carter Cash, The Carter Family, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison ("Pretty Woman" starts around 23:50), Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers. Tune in for Christmas as we celebrated it 40 years ago—with gigantic shirt collars, wavy hair, and bow ties. So many bow ties.

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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


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First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


Paramount Pictures

In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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