You Can Call Me Al
|"You Can Call Me Al"|
|Single by Paul Simon|
|from the album Graceland|
|Released||September 5, 1986|
|Studio||The Hit Factory, New York City|
|Paul Simon singles chronology|
"You Can Call Me Al" is a song by 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 one of Simon's biggest solo hits, 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 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 arranged and conducted the horn section – eight brass and a bass saxophone – and 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 Saturday Night Live alum Chevy Chase lip-synced Simon's vocals, with gestures punctuating the lyrics as Simon lip-synced to the backing vocals and brought in various instruments to play when they respectively appear in the song. (The 6'4" Chase moving in unison with the 5'3" Simon also provides an amusing contrast.)
"You Can Call Me Al" became one of Simon's biggest hit singles 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 experienced a resurgence in sales and airplay. After making a second entry on the Billboard Hot 100 in March, the song rose to a peak of number 23 in May 1987.
The song fared even better outside of the U.S., making the top ten of several European charts. In the UK, it spent five weeks in the top ten, reaching number 4 in October 1986.
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
- Morris Goldberg – penny whistle
- Ladysmith Black Mambazo – background vocals (uncredited)
In popular culture
- A live performance of "You Can Call Me Al" is included in the 2009 DVD release The 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts.
- The song is performed in a 2009 episode of The Office, Season 5, Episode 22, "Heavy Competition" in an a cappella style by Andy Bernard and his band.
- The song is referenced in a 2011 episode of Family Guy, Season 10, Episode 9 when the character Lois plays the main riff on saxophone.
- The song was referenced in a 2015 episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Season 1, Episode 5 when Paul Simon performed as "Alan" the lead singer of a fake Paul Simon tribute band called "Troubled Waters". Colbert asked the singer, "Can I call you Al?"
- The song is performed in a 2015 episode of Portlandia, Season 5, Episode 9 "You Can Call Me Al". The performance features an appearance by Simon himself.
- Vance Joy covered it in 2016 (mixed with "Cheerleader" by OMI) on his Fire and the Flood tour.
- The music video is parodied in Mikal Cronin's 2015 music video, "Say".
- The song is featured in a 2016 episode of This Is Us, Season 1, Episode 8, "Pilgrim Rick".
- The song has been played for many years by the University of Florida band at men's basketball games (typically at the less-than-8-minutes-remaining time-out in the second half).
|Australia (Kent Music Report)||2|
|Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)||2|
|Netherlands (Single Top 100)||5|
|Finland (Suomen virallinen lista)||9|
|New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)||6|
|South Africa Top 20||2|
|UK Singles (OCC)||4|
|US Billboard Hot 100||23|
Certifications and sales
|Denmark (IFPI Denmark)||Gold||45,000|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Platinum||600,000|
sales+streaming figures based on certification alone
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