Tell me is it just a dream?: Rockwell’s paranoid synth-pop hit “Somebody’s Watching Me” (1984)

By on October 28, 2019

In early 1984, mysterious Motown Records recording artist Rockwell lamented his lack of privacy in a batshit crazy haunted house-themed video for “Somebody’s Watching Me.”

It’s included in Night Flight’s “Take Off to Rock & Horror,” which originally aired on October 25, 1986, and you’ll now find streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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The video — directed by Francis Delia — features a number of bizarre, horrifying sequences.

Blood pours from a showerhead, a baby pig is served up on a tray, the singer spies his name on a tombstone while a ghoulish cadaverous-looking man watches, and a zombie-fied mailman delivers the correct newspaper after first delivering one printed in Chinese.

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Rockwell’s paranoid synth-pop hit arrived at the very height of Thriller-mania, in January 1984 — about a month prior to the release of Rockwell’s self-titled Motown debut LP — and received regular airplay on MTV.

Almost immediately, everyone began asking just who exactly was this mysterious singer “Rockwell” anyway?

Many thought he might be British, only because Rockwell was half-singing/half-talking with an obviously-faked English accent (Rockwell initially told rock journalists he was from “Portsmouth, England”).

It turned out that Rockwell was Kennedy William Gordy, the 18-year old son of legendary Motown Records founder Berry Gordy.

At the time, Kennedy was actually estranged from his famous father and living with Ray Singleton, his father’s ex-wife, and the mother of his older half-brother, Kerry Gordy.

Singleton — who executive produced the Rockwell project — occasionally played demo tracks for Berry, who usually panned everything he heard.

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Berry Gordy writes in his autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, that he’d heard his son’s music before:

“In the past, whenever he tried to get me to take one of his songs to any of my established stars, I had rejected the material. In addition to not being up to my standards, I explained to him that it would be a conflict of interest, since I had turned down much better songs that the artists wanted to do. But Nancy Leiviska, the mother of my youngest son, Stefan, really went to bat for Kennedy. When she played me some of his new songs, I realized what a talent he had become and okayed a budget to produce an album on him.”

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According to an interview he did with Rolling Stone, Kennedy says he’d prayed to God that he’d be granted “the creativity to write a song that’ll go to the top of the charts and tickle the taste buds of the music connoisseur.”

What came next — sometime over the next two days — was that Kennedy wrote “Somebody’s Watching Me,” which he demoed on a portable 4-track recorder in the one-bedroom Hollywood apartment he shared with his girlfriend.

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Lyrically, Kennedy says that one verse — “When I’m in the shower/I’m afraid to wash my hair/’Cause I might open my eyes/And find someone standing there” — was actually inspired by the fact that he liked to surprise his girlfriend while she was taking a shower.

He would sometimes sneak into the bathroom and scare her by pressing his face up against their glass shower door.

Read more about Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” below.

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At first Kennedy played the track for his father, who basically told him, “Don’t give up your day job, young man. Keep writing and you’ll come up with something one day.”

He’d also struggled to get anyone at Motown’s Jobete publishing wing to listen to his rough demo.

Only Curtis Anthony Nolen believed that the song had potential.

They booked time in a 24-track studio facility and worked out a different arrangement, but Nolen thought it still needed another vocalist help out on the song’s chorus.

At the time, Michael Jackson was likely one of the biggest stars on the planet, but he was close to Kennedy because his brother Jermaine was married to Kennedy’s step-sister Hazel.

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In the summer of 1983, Nolen and Gordy, armed with their 24-track tape, went to Jackson’s home in Encino, and played him the song, which Jackson loved.

After first not showing up to the scheduled recording session — Jackson was apparently visiting an amusement park with Donny Osmond — Nolen and Gordy scheduled a second session.

This time they drove Jackson directly to Arne Frager’s Mars Studios, where Jermaine Jackson also helped out with backing vocals.

Michael Jackson agreed to allow for his participation to go uncredited — he was no longer on Motown Records, and signed to Epic Records, a subsidiary of CBS Records — but as soon as everyone heard the track they recognized his voice anyway.

Kennedy told Rolling Stone that he had ended up getting a recording contract with Motown without his father’s knowledge, and later turned down Berry Gordy’s offer to manage his career.

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Aware that using his real name would like bring about charges of nepotism, Kennedy was apparently uncomfortable with using his real name, which he thought would take away from his legitimacy as a real artist.

He used the name Rockwell,  the name of a high school band he’d played (they knew how to “rock well”).

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“Somebody’s Watching Me” reached #2 on the Billboard‘s Hot 100 (kept from the #1 spot by Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose”), and #6 on the UK’s single charts.

It also topped the R&B charts for five straight weeks, ultimately earning Rockwell his one and only gold record, selling more than 500,000 copies three months after its release.

Watch Night Flight’s “Take Off to Rock & Horror,” now find streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.