This song was inspired by a classmate of Clash guitarist Mick Jones - a man named Robin Crocker. In an interview with The Guardian in 2008, Crocker explained: "Mick Jones and I sat together at Strand boys' grammar school [in south London]. We had a fight over who was better - I thought Chuck Berry and he thought Bo Diddley. It was a hugely disciplinarian school. The headmaster used to have a wooden leg, so he got the nickname Hobbler. We were marched down to Hobbler's office to explain ourselves and Mick said, 'We were arguing about rock'n'roll, sir.' Hobbler raged, 'Rock'n'roll is not on the curriculum in this establishment!' and was so furious that all this gob landed on his lapel. Me and Mick fell about laughing and that was it - firm friends and the end of any respect for authority for ever. Mick had the longest hair and tightest trousers in school. I was a hooligan, basically, because I was bored.
After school I was working as a journalist and got laid off. I fell in with a bunch of people and we decided to rob some banks. I ended up in the Old Bailey. It was like being back in Hobbler's office. I ended up in a maximum security jail on the Isle of Wight. By the time I got out Mick had formed the Clash. One evening he came over with an acoustic and played me 'Stay Free.' Somebody once said to me it's the most outstanding heterosexual male-on-male love song, and there is a lot of truth in that. It's a memento of a glorious band, a glorious time and a glorious friendship. Unfortunately, I didn't Stay Free. I did a wages snatch in Stockholm and got banged up again."
"Stay Free" was recorded in 1978 in Basing Street studios for the Give 'Em Enough Rope album, and features a bass-heavy mix and very subtle extra instrumentation in the form of acoustic guitar and organ (the latter being played by The Rumour's Bob Andrews.
Robin Crocker, the subject of this song, nearly ruined the recording of the entire Give 'Em Enough Rope album before it had even started. Noted producer Sandy Pearlman, who was to produce the album, came to visit the band before a show in late January 1978, not realizing that there was a strict rule on the band and management being the only ones allowed in the dressing room before shows. Crocker, at this point working as a roadie/hired hand for the band, didn't know who Pearlman was and denied him entry, which led to Crocker punching Pearlman in the face! Legend has it that The Clash themselves were unmoved by the incident and simply stepped over the fallen Pearlman as they headed onstage, with manager Bernie Rhodes left to clean up Pearlman's bloodied nose. Luckily, Pearlman wasn't too offended by this incident, and still went on to produce the album.
In some biographies, Robin Crocker's name is incorrectly listed as Robin Banks. This was a humorous nom de plume that he used when working as a journalist for ZigZag magazine, making a joke of his previous criminal record.
"Stay Free" was first played on the 1978 On Parole tour and was a live favorite for the rest of Mick Jones' time in The Clash, featuring on successive American tours in 1979, '80 and '81. Amusingly due to the British colloquialisms in the lyrics, Jones would have to explain the meanings of some of the words to non-British audiences, particularly American ones. At a show in Chicago in 1979, he explained: "This is the appendix: Butlins means the nick. The nick means the penitentiary!"