You Can Call Me Al
|"You Can Call Me Al"|
|Single by Paul Simon|
|from the album Graceland|
|Released||September 5, 1986|
|Paul Simon singles chronology|
"You Can Call Me Al" is a song by the American singer-songwriter Paul Simon. It was the lead single from his seventh studio album, Graceland (1986), released on Warner Bros. Records. Written by Simon, its lyrics follow an individual seemingly experiencing a midlife crisis. Its lyrics were partially inspired by Simon's trip to South Africa and experience with its culture.
Released in September 1986, "You Can Call Me Al" became Simon's biggest solo hit, reaching the top five in seven countries.
The names in the song came from an incident at a party that Simon went to with his then-wife Peggy Harper. French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who was attending the same party, mistakenly referred to Paul as "Al" and to Peggy as "Betty", inspiring Simon to write a song.
Recording and production
"You Can Call Me Al" was recorded entirely at The Hit Factory in New York City in April 1986; it differs from much of Graceland in this regard, as most songs on the record were recorded in numerous locales worldwide.
After the song's completion, it was mixed at The Hit Factory alongside the rest of Graceland, at an average of two days per song. Simon's vocals on the song are rather quick-paced, which made them difficult to mix over the numerous instruments in the backing track. After much work on the track, Simon's long-time engineer Roy Halee used tape delays feeding separately into the two audio channels, which miraculously made the vocals clear.
The lyrics can be interpreted as describing a man experiencing a midlife crisis ("Where's my wife and family? What if I die here? Who'll be my role model?"). However, as Paul Simon himself explained during the Graceland episode of the Classic Albums documentary series, by the third verse the lyrics move from a generic portrait-like perspective to a personal and autobiographical one, as he describes his journey to South Africa which inspired the entire album.
The song opens simply, with its protagonist wondering aloud why his life is difficult, amid other questions. Simon structured the song's lyrics in a way that listeners would be given the simplest information first, before getting abstract with his imagery in the song's third verse: "Because there's been a structure, [...] those abstract images, they will come down and fall into one of the slots that the mind has already made up about the structure of the song."
Synthesizer player Rob Mounsey contributed heavily to the track's arrangement and groove. The song features a bass run performed by Bakithi Kumalo; the solo is palindromic as only the first half was recorded, and was then played backwards for the second half. The decision to reverse the recording was made by Halee, who noted in a later interview that this type of experimentation was common in order to make the songs more interesting. The penny whistle solo was performed by jazz musician Morris Goldberg.
Paul Simon did not like the original music video that was made, which was a performance of the song Simon gave during the monologue when he hosted Saturday Night Live in the perspective of a video monitor. A replacement video was conceived partly by Lorne Michaels and directed by Gary Weis, wherein Chevy Chase (wearing a wig to look like Art Garfunkel) lip-synced all of Simon's vocals in an upbeat presentation, with gestures punctuating the lyrics.
The two men enter a pastel pink-walled room, sit down, and shake hands; Simon begins to sing, but stops and looks puzzled when Chase commandeers the vocal line instead. From time to time, Simon steps out of the room to bring in other instruments such as a bass guitar and conga drum for later use. He only sings to provide bass harmony on the "If you'll be my bodyguard" and "I can call you Betty" phrases during the chorus. Simon mocks playing a penny whistle solo following the second chorus, after which the two men perform a rhythmic dance step in unison during the bridge, with Simon and Chase appearing to play alto saxophone and trumpet, respectively. After the third chorus, Simon plays a conga drum solo, then switches to bass guitar for the fade-out instrumental and dance as the two men exit the room. He maintains a bored expression throughout much of the song, only showing enthusiasm when playing an instrument.
"You Can Call Me Al" became Simon's biggest hit single as a solo act. In the United States, however, it initially fared poorly, reaching number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1986. As sales and acclaim for Graceland grew, culminating in a win for Album of the Year at the 29th Annual Grammy Awards in February 1987, the single began to re-enter the charts. After making a second entry in March, the song rose to a peak of number 23 in May 1987.
Credits and personnel
- Paul Simon—lead vocals, six-string electric bass, background vocals
- Ray Phiri—guitar
- Adrian Belew—guitar synthesizer
- Bakithi Kumalo—bass
- Isaac Mtshali—drums
- Ralph MacDonald—percussion
- James Guyatt—percussion
- Rob Mounsey—synthesizer, horn arrangement (uncredited on album)
- Ronnie Cuber—bass and baritone saxophone
- Jon Faddis—trumpet
- Randy Brecker—trumpet
- Lew Soloff—trumpet
- Alan Rubin—trumpet
- Dave Bargeron—trombone
- Kim Allan Cissel—trombone
- Hank Goldberg - pedal steel Kaisatsuko, backing horns
- Morris Goldberg—penny whistle
- Ladysmith Black Mambazo—background vocals (uncredited)
In popular culture
- A live performance of "You Can Call Me Al" by Paul Simon is included in the DVD release The 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts/Time Life presents Ravin' Films, Tenth Planet; directed by Joel Gallen. Imprint New York: Time Life, c2010. This videodisc features live and previously unseen performances from two New York concerts at Madison Square Garden that aired originally on HBO.
- The song is the basis for a karaoke sketch in the Portlandia season 5 episode of the same name, which also features a guest spot from Simon himself.
- In the Family Guy season 10 episode "Grumpy Old Man" (2011), Lois plays the song with her saxophone, in so-called "phone sax" with Peter.
- Simon appeared on a Late Show with Stephen Colbert episode, as "Alan", leader of a supposed Paul Simon tribute band named "Troubled Waters", and on being addressed as "Alan" by Colbert, who then asked Simon, "Can I call you Al?"
- Vance Joy performed the song mixed with "Cheerleader" by OMI during his Fire and the Flood tour in 2016.
- The song is featured in the season 1 episode "Pilgrim Rick" of This Is Us.
|Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)||2|
|Netherlands (Single Top 100)||5|
|Finland (Suomen virallinen lista)||9|
|New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)||2|
|South Africa Top 20||2|
|UK Singles (Official Charts Company)||4|
|US Billboard Hot 100||23|
Certifications and sales
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Silver||250,000^|
*sales figures based on certification alone
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