The opening phrase in this song – ‘It was written that’ – refers to the idea that one’s fate is indeed ‘written’ in the stars. ‘Calico skies’? Who knows what that might be. I might’ve heard the phrase somewhere, but I’m claiming it. I know calico is a kind of cotton cloth that came originally from the city I knew as Calcutta, now Kolkata, and it would be nice to think that this song increased the popularity of calico.
‘Calico Skies’ was written on Long Island, New York, in August 1991, at a time when the category-three storm Hurricane Bob made landfall.
Today I was looking at some sleeve notes associated with the release of the album Flaming Pie, which this song was on, and it reminded me of how it happened. They had finally started giving boys’ names to hurricanes, and a powerful one they called Bob had caused a power cut on Long Island, and everything was out. Now that’s a nice opportunity, when the world shuts off, for you to create. I’m always looking for that, anyway. If I’m writing a song in a house, I will try to get as far away from the action as possible, which often means a cupboard, a closet, or a bathroom. Somewhere that I can be the hermit in the cave. So, when these power cuts happen, suddenly you don’t have to secrete yourself here or there, but you can go down to the basement and just totally be at one with the song.
If you’re writing a song, you’re going to make it rhyme; it tends to work better than a sort of prose song. So, once I’ve got an idea and I know there’s a good possibility I’m going to rhyme something with ‘eyes’, I’ll just start running through potential options. I like to think my dad solved crossword puzzles in a very similar way, just shuffling through a few of the word possibilities in his head. So, in writing a song, I just look ahead and know there’s going to be a rhyme and I try to make it a good one – one that advances the plot. For this song, the word ‘skies’ came, so I thought I’d open my eyes on a day with ‘cloudy skies’, ‘dark blue skies’, ‘deep blue skies’ or even ‘Calico Skies’. You look for a context for that word.
‘While the angels of love protect us / From the innermost secrets we hide’. Each of us has loads of stuff going on inside, but the idea of love and respect and decency protects us from innermost secrets that might not be terrific. You might not be thinking well of someone, but unless they’ve really angered you, you’re not going to say it, and that’s the angel of love protecting you. I think this goes on all the time. This can also be called your conscience. I mean I love the idea that there are two people in my head. Well, at least two.
‘Long live all of us crazy soldiers’. There are certain politicians, presidents, prime ministers that we don’t like, who can lie willfully, and I’ve fought against them in my own way throughout my life. To me, the sort of protest that this line represents is like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, ‘We Shall Overcome’. I put that in a romantic song, and coming as the third verse it’s a bit of a wake-up call, because until this point it hasn’t really been about politics or society as much as about individuals. But this puts us all into a crazy soldier brigade – we band of brothers – one that I’m very happy to belong to.
A memorial service for Linda McCartney was held on 8 June 1998 at St Martin-in-the-Fields church in London. The Brodsky Quartet played a series of songs written by Paul for his wife: ‘Golden Earth Girl’, ‘Dear Boy’, ‘Calico Skies’, and ‘My Love’.
In the studio
‘Calico Skies’ was recorded in Sussex, England, on 3 September 1992.
At the time McCartney was working on the Off The Ground album. Also recorded on 3 September was another Flaming Pie track, ‘Great Day’, and ‘When Winter Comes’, which would remain unreleased until 2020’s McCartney III. All three songs were the earliest to be recorded for their respective albums.
I made a track called ‘Calico Skies’ a while ago, which George [Martin] produced. And at the same time, because I was in the studio and had an extra minute or so, I had this other song, so I said, ‘let me knock this one off.’ That was ‘When Winter Comes’, and I mention George because it was on a George Martin produced session, but is just me on the guitar. It was nearly going to be a bonus extra that was going to be on a reissue of Flaming Pie, but I’d just been reading that great book on Elvis, Last Train to Memphis, and it mentioned a song and said you’ve probably never heard it because it was buried as a bonus on the B-side of an album. So I thought, no, I’d rather have this one as a proper track. And we finished the album with it because it was the reason for doing the whole thing, because me and my mate Geoff Dunbar, who’s an animation director, were talking about making an animated film to that song. So that’s where the opening and closing tracks come from, which got me into the studio in the first place.
A version of ‘Calico Skies’ arranged for string quartet was released on McCartney’s 1999 album Working Classical.
On 20 March 2003 McCartney re-recorded ‘Calico Skies’ with his touring band for the Hope album, a 2003 album by various artists, released by War Child in aid of victims of the Iraq war.
Paul McCartney first performed ‘Calico Skies’ on 25 March 2003 at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in Paris, France, on the first night of the Back In The World Tour.
A recording from the same tour, from Osaka, Japan, can be heard on Back In The World.
McCartney performed the song again during his 2004 summer tour.
On 27 June 2007 he played a one-off show at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, Los Angeles, which included a performance of ‘Calico Skies’. The full recording was released on 12 July 2019 as Amoeba Gig.
‘Calico Skies’ was again performed during McCartney’s 2009 summer tour. A recording from New York City’s Citi Field stadium from July 2009 is available on Good Evening New York City.