You Can Call Me Al
|"You Can Call Me Al"|
|Single by Paul Simon|
|from the album Graceland|
|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 August 1986, "You Can Call Me Al" became one of Simon's biggest solo hits, reaching the top five in seven countries.
Background and composition
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.
Jon Pareles noted that 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 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."
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 that regard, because most songs on the record were recorded in numerous locales worldwide.
Some of the saxophone textures heard on "You Can Call Me Al" were created by Adrian Belew on a guitar synthesizer. "I had written a variety of saxophone emulations from baritone to alto which had a realistic yet unorthodox quality. He [Simon] spelled out each part exactly as he wanted them for the iconic beginning of the song. They may have added real saxophones later but my synthesized saxophones are definitely there as well. I’m sure very few people realize that."
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 Simon's long-time engineer Roy 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.
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, Halee used tape delays feeding separately into the two audio channels, which made the vocals clear.
Billboard said it was one of Simon's most intricate verbal tour de forces, and said that "the melody moves along to beguiling Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms."
In the United States, "You Can Call Me Al" 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 reached the top 10 of several European charts. In the UK, it became his biggest solo hit, spending five weeks in the top 10 and peaking at number four in October 1986. It has since been certified double platinum in the UK.
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 alumnus 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 ft 4 in (193 cm) Chase moving in unison with the 5 ft 3 in (160 cm) Simon also provides an amusing juxtaposition.
- Paul Simon – lead vocals, backing vocals, 6-string electric bass
- Rob Mounsey – synthesizer, horn arrangements (uncredited on album)
- Adrian Belew – guitar synthesizer
- Ray Phiri – guitar
- Bakithi Kumalo – bass
- Isaac Mtshali – drums
- Ralph MacDonald – percussion
- James Guyatt – percussion
- Ronnie Cuber – baritone saxophone, bass saxophone
- Dave Bargeron – trombone
- Kim Allan Cissel – trombone
- Randy Brecker – trumpet
- Jon Faddis – trumpet
- Alan Rubin – trumpet
- Lew Soloff – trumpet
- Morris Goldberg – penny whistle
- Ladysmith Black Mambazo – backing vocals (uncredited)
|Denmark (IFPI Danmark)||Gold||45,000|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||2× Platinum||1,200,000|
Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.
In popular culture
- 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.
- The music video is parodied in Mikal Cronin's 2015 music video, "Say".
- ^ "Watch David Byrne and Paul Simon sing 'You Can Call Me Al'". March 15, 2022.
- ^ "An artistic conversation of brillianace [sic]" by Kelly McNoldy, The Sandspur, October 17, 2008
- ^ Eliot, Marc (2010). Paul Simon: A Life. John Wiley & Sons. p. 194. ISBN 9780470900871.
- ^ Pareles, Jon (August 31, 1996). "The Dance Within the Hit Parade". The New York Times. Retrieved August 25, 2014.
- ^ Director & Producer: Jeremy Marre (November 25, 2016). "Classic Albums: Paul Simon: Graceland". Classic Albums. BBC. BBC Four.
- ^ Zollo, Paul (April 1990). "Paul Simon: Spirit Voices Vol. I". SongTalk.
- ^ a b c d e Buskin, Richard (September 2008). "Paul Simon 'You Can Call Me Al': Classic Tracks". Sound on Sound. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
- ^ "The Story Behind The Artist: Adrian Belew, part 3: 1981-1984 (guest appearances and solo albums)". The Music Aficionado. April 22, 2020. Retrieved May 14, 2021.
- ^ "Reviews". Billboard. August 9, 1986. p. 73. Retrieved August 4, 2022.
- ^ Trust, Gary (March 28, 2015). "Rewinding the Charts: In 1987, Paul Simon's 'You Can Call Me Al' Reignited". Billboard. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
- ^ a b "British single certifications – Paul Simon – You Can Call Me Al". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved January 21, 2022.
- ^ "" Pop Up Video: Paul Simon , 'You can call me Al'" by Paul Simon | Music Video". VH1.com. Retrieved August 25, 2014.[dead link]
- ^ "Paul Simon – "You can call me Al"". Mvdbase.com. Retrieved August 25, 2014.
- ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992. St Ives, NSW: Australian Chart Book. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.
- ^ "Paul Simon – You Can Call Me Al" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
- ^ "Top RPM Singles: Issue 0751." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved August 13, 2015.
- ^ "Top RPM Adult Contemporary: Issue 8790." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved October 20, 2022.
- ^ "European Hot 100 Singles". Music & Media. Vol. 3, no. 44. November 8, 1986. p. 19.
- ^ Nyman, Jake (2005). Suomi soi 4: Suuri suomalainen listakirja (in Finnish) (1st ed.). Helsinki: Tammi. ISBN 951-31-2503-3.
- ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – You Can Call Me Al". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
- ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – week 46, 1986" (in Dutch). Dutch Top 40. Retrieved October 20, 2022.
- ^ "Paul Simon – You Can Call Me Al" (in Dutch). Single Top 100. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
- ^ "Paul Simon – You Can Call Me Al". Top 40 Singles. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
- ^ "South African Rock Lists Website, SA Charts 1969–1989 Acts (S)". Rock.co.za. Retrieved August 25, 2014.
- ^ "Official Singles Chart Top 100". Official Charts Company. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
- ^ "Paul Simon Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
- ^ "Paul Simon Chart History (Adult Contemporary)". Billboard. Retrieved October 20, 2022.
- ^ "Paul Simon Chart History (Mainstream Rock)". Billboard. Retrieved October 20, 2022.
- ^ "Kent Music Report No 650 – 29 December 1986 > National Top 100 Singles for 1986". Kent Music Report. Retrieved May 15, 2022 – via Imgur.
- ^ "Jaaroverzichten 1986" (in Dutch). Ultratop. Retrieved October 20, 2022.
- ^ "Top 100–Jaaroverzicht van 1986" (in Dutch). Dutch Top 40. Retrieved October 20, 2022.
- ^ "Jaaroverzichten – Single 1986" (in Dutch). MegaCharts. Retrieved October 20, 2022.
- ^ "Top 100 Singles". Music Week. January 24, 1987. p. 24.
- ^ "Australian Music Report No 701 – 28 December 1987 > National Top 100 Singles for 1987". Australian Music Report. Retrieved December 11, 2019 – via Imgur.
- ^ "Danish single certifications – Paul Simon – You Can Call Me Al". IFPI Danmark. Retrieved January 4, 2020.
- ^ Portlandia karaoke sketch summary. Retrieved November 10, 2015
- ^ "Exclusive: Watch Paul Simon Stop by Portlandia for Awkward Q&A by Joe Lynch, Billboard, March 2, 2015. Retrieved November 10, 2015
- ^ Minsker, Evan (May 27, 2015). "Mikal Cronin Pays Tribute to Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" in His "Say" Video". Pitchfork.
- Bennighof, James (2007). The Words and Music of Paul Simon. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-275-99163-0.
- Kingston, Victoria (2000). Simon & Garfunkel: The Biography. Fromm International. ISBN 978-0-88064-246-0.