Label Warner Bros.
|Genre Pop rock
|Released September 5, 1986 (1986-09-05)|
Recorded April 1986 The Hit Factory, New York City
Length 4:40 3:55 (Single Version)
"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.
- Recording and production
- Music videos
- Chart performance
- In popular 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 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 lip-synced Simon's vocals, with gestures punctuating the lyrics.
"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.