This is probably some kind of sacrilege or something, but when The Clash first took over my life, my favorite member wasn’t St. Joe Strummer, but rather Mick Jones. Even at the time, my working theory about punk rock wasn’t that it was the utter destruction of rock ‘n’ roll, but rather the next phase of rock ‘n’ roll.
And Mick Jones — the Keef-haired guitar hero who wrote and sang the the poppier songs — was the human face of that theory. He was the guy who was able to point the way forward while respecting the past. Or something: I was 16 when I came up with this particular theory.
In any event, all of that Mick Jones love started with “Stay Free,” his love-letter to a mate who is getting out of prison. On an album full of songs about drugs and guns and punks and wars, it almost seems, well, innocent:
We met when we were in school
Never took no shit from no one, we weren’t fools
The teacher says we’re dumb
We’re only having fun
We piss on everyone
In the classroom
With the guitars less intense than the rest of the album (the guitar riff is almost a reggae riff, while Simonon and Headon are just playing a straight rock riddim) and Jones’ friendly-not-to-say-tender singing, “Stay Free” just might be the only song I love this much that rhymes “school” and “fool.”
As the song progresses they all get thrown out of school and without it as a unifying force in their lives, they drift apart. Mick Jones becomes a musician and they become thieves. And not very good ones, I guess, since they all got caught and tossed in jail.
I practiced daily in my room
You were down at the Crown planning your next move
Go on a nicking spree
Hit the wrong guy
Each of you get three years in Brixton
At this point, Mick starts letting his guitar comment on the proceedings. It starts to kick in after he declares himself a musician, and as time passes, his guitar continues to make comments, complimenting his happiness that his mates are getting out of prison.
And I’ll never forget the feeling I got
When I heard that you’d got home
And I’ll never forget the smile on my face
‘Cause I knew where you would be
And if you’re in the Crown tonight have a drink on me
And at this point, the song breaks down because Mick Jones wants to make sure that everybody gets his next piece of advice, as wise as any political utterance that either he or Joe ever made:
That’s it. Try not to be a fuckup. And the end of the day, is there any better advice that anybody can give? Just not being a fuckup is pretty good goal for any life.
And after that, Jones uncorks a beautiful guitar solo that takes us out of the song. At the end of the solo is one of my favorite bits of production on any Clash record. Definitely a musical moment to die for: at the very very very end of “Stay Free”, as the Mick Jones guitar solo and the overly-echoed drums are fading out, an acoustic guitar comes up out of the mix for just a couple of strums and fades into oblivion with the rest of the song.
I’ve always loved (and been somewhat obsessed with) that guitar strum. Does it mean that there was an otherwise unheard acoustic guitar in the mix for the entire song? Was it added at the very end? Five seconds before the song faded out? And if so, why? Who played it? What possible purpose did it serve, except to have music geeks like me wonder why it was there at all?
Guessing that these days, even Mick Jones doesn’t even remember. And that’s probably as it should be.
Fan-made video for “Stay Free”
Stay Free performed live in 1980