Rockwell and the pop of paranoia

Rockwell was pretty much the definition of a one-hit wonder.

But for a few minutes in 1984 you couldn’t get away from his hit single “Somebody’s Watching Me.” It spun, haunted, out of radios everywhere, helped by the presence of the then-untainted Michael Jackson singing the insanely catchy chorus. It tapped into that universal phobia – “I always feel like / somebody’s watching me.

Rockwell had a niche, and he was good at it. He could sell suspicion – “People call me on the phone, I’m trying to avoid / But can the people on TV see me or am I just paranoid?” – and his songs were filled with bouncy keyboards and drum machines providing a catchy beat. For some reason, this very American singer periodically put on a dire British accent, which just added to his askew appeal.

The delightfully creepy/silly video for “Somebody’s Watching Me” features Rockwell repeatedly showering (while wearing shorts!), standing at his own grave (!!) and being haunted by strange white people. It’s amazing

The common thread coursing through both of Rockwell’s major albums was an unsparing paranoia about the world – it’s a surprisingly bitter perspective that stands out in the glossy era of ‘80s pop hits. He followed up “Somebody’s Watching Me” with another stalker anthem, “Obscene Phone Caller.” It’s another ridiculous earworm of a tune, with its heavy-breathing phone call chorus and Rockwell’s pained delivery of awkward lines like “Why did you have to pick me / out of all the people in the directory?” 

He covered George Harrison’s extremely cynical “Taxman,” and for the difficult second album Captured, his next singles were songs like “Peeping Tom” (the phone caller’s distaff cousin, I guess), “He’s a Cobra” and “Captured (By An Evil Mind).” The back cover of Captured is a kitschy delight, with Rockwell pictured shrunken down in a gilded birdcage with a giant woman staring in at him. They’re always watching him, you see. 

I spun my cassette of his album Somebody’s Watching Me an awful lot in 1984. It’s still a delightfully cheesy slab of ‘80s synth-Motown. Follow-up Captured didn’t do very well – but I bought that cassette. I might’ve been the only one. Then Rockwell pretty much vanished after putting out a third and final album that nobody ever heard of. 

I had absolutely no clue who Rockwell really was back in the day; he was like another Ray Parker Jr who had a huge hit and never topped it. Turns out he was actually the son of one of the biggest men in music, Motown founder Berry Gordy, and was born Kennedy Gordy and changed his name to avoid appearances of nepotism. Instead of a one-hit wonder, Rockwell was actually from the house of endless hits.

What was it that made Rockwell’s music so freaked out about the world around him? And why did he vanish as quickly as he arrived? Post-fame, Rockwell hasn’t had a great run of it, including some arrests and lawsuits.

“I needed to just be a regular guy, and that’s why I disappeared. I came from a king, Berry Gordy, and I’m like a prince,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. 

I always wondered if Rockwell’s background played a part in the very specifically constrained, paranoid perspective of his best songs. Was there something there about growing up the son of a rich, famous music legend that made him want to sing about obscene phone callers and peeping toms and tax men?

One of more endearingly clumsy bits on “Somebody’s Watching Me” goes, “And I don’t feel safe anymore, oh, what a mess / I wonder who’s watching me now (Who?!) – the IRS?” First single off his first album and the guy’s already worried about the government coming after him.  

I wouldn’t argue that Rockwell was some great lost legend – his voice was on the average side and his albums outside of the paranoid singles tended to be swamped by overproduced painfully generic dated ‘80s R&B. He always sounded vaguely insincere when singing about love instead of fear – for example the ballad “Knife,” in which love, you guessed it, cuts just like one. But I still have a guilty enjoyment of his two extremely tense, worried albums, where everybody is out to get you and you always feel like there’s somebody watching you. 

Am I just paranoid? Baby, in 2021, that almost feels like a prophecy. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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