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 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, 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 Chevy Chase lip-synced Simon's vocals, with gestures punctuating the lyrics as Simon brought in various instruments to play at different times. (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" 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.
- In The Office season 5 episode "Heavy Competition" (2009), an a cappella version of the song is sung by Andy Bernard and his band.
- The University of Florida’s marching band, The Pride of the Sunshine, plays the song at Florida Gators football games. The school's mascot is an alligator named Albert.
- Musician Mikal Cronin's 2015 music video for his song ″Say″ is a parody of Simon's music video and features guest appearances by comedians Jonah Ray, Kurt Braunohler, Nick Thune, and Nelson Franklin.
|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)||Platinum||600,000|
sales+streaming figures based on certification alone
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- The-25th-Anniversary-Rock-Roll-Hall-Of-Fame-Concert cast Retrieved on November 10, 2015
- The-25th-Anniversary-Rock-Roll-Hall-Of-Fame-Concert Retrieved on November 10, 2015
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- Late Show with Steven Colbert summary Retrieved on November 10, 2015
- Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992. St Ives, NSW: Australian Chart Book. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.
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- "British single certifications – Paul Simon – You Can Call Me Al". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved February 19, 2019. Select singles in the Format field. Select Platinum in the Certification field. Type You Can Call Me Al in the "Search BPI Awards" field and then press Enter.
- 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.