Chart Week: June 23, 1984
Song: “Obscene Phone Caller” – Rockwell
Chart Position: #39, 8th week on the chart. Peaked at #35 the week of June 30.
I have always prided myself for knowing minor hits by artists who have been labeled as One Hit Wonders by the general public. Others find this trait annoying, but it’s kind of too late to change now. Not that I’m in-your-face about it. But I also do not hesitate to point out how Scandal or whoever actually had X other songs that cracked the top 40 in addition to their one, big, unforgettable hit.
So it pains me to admit I have zero memory of this song, the follow-up to Rockwell’s massive debut single, the #2 hit “Somebody’s Watching Me.” I mean, this was in the peak of my top 40 radio listening. When I listened to AT40 on Sunday mornings and The Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 Countdown on Sunday evenings. When I would switch between the two top 40 stations in Kansas City on a regular basis. When I would watch every second of MTV I could when over at friends’ homes. But when I heard this song recently, nothing about it rang a bell. Not the title. Not the melody. Nothing about the music or Rockwell’s vocal performance. I am ashamed of myself.
There’s an easy explanation for the difference in chart performance between the songs, and of why Rockwell never again hit the top 40: his boyhood pal Michael Jackson sang on the chorus of “Somebody’s Watching Me.” There is little doubt that having the biggest artist in the world drop in to sing the most memorable lines made that track stand out from all the other new music in the spring of 1984.
People were freaking nuts about Michael, and with Thriller pretty much milked of every possible hit fans snatched up anything they could get to hear new Michael. “Somebody’s Watching Me” was the biggest example. At the same time that “Obscene Phone Caller” was making its brief chart run, a recycled Michael track from the early ‘70s, “Farewell My Summer Love,” hit the charts for two weeks. There was The Jackson’s Victory album, which was mostly crap but had two top 20 singles thanks to Michael’s vocals.1 Later in 1984, big sister Rebbie had the only top 40 pop hit of her career with “Centipede,” a song that Michael wrote and produced. It’s safe to say some of Prince’s success in1984 was because of walls that Michael had battered open for him.
As Lionel Richie might have said, Michael was outrageous from late 1982 through 1984.
By the way, isn’t it a little strange that Rockwell’s two hits were titled “Somebody’s Watching Me” and “Obscene Phone Caller”? And in 1985 he had a single titled “Peeping Tom”? I’m sensing a trend, and it’s a little disturbing.
It’s also pretty fresh that Rockwell and his management began the video for “Obscene Phone Caller” with a few seconds of “Somebody’s Watching Me.” Just a little reminder of why you loved him a few weeks earlier. And always a sign that the next song isn’t going to be nearly as good.
1. Mick Jagger on “State of Shock” didn’t hurt, either.