How The Clash fought the law from a public toilet armed with a monkey wrench

To mark a retrospective of the band’s music, Ian Burrell hears the stories behind some of their greatest hits
  • @iburrell

The three surviving members of The Clash have revealed some of the band's long-held secrets during a landmark radio interview at the BBC.

The finale to the anthemic "I Fought The Law", it turns out, was recorded in a public toilet to create an echo chamber effect, with drummer Topper Headon playing on the pipes with a monkey wrench.

"Guns of Brixton", another Clash cllaassic, features the sound of the band members pulling the Velcro on the back of the recording studios.

Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Headon, dressed in sharp suits, regaled the BBC6 Music presenter Cerys Matthews with anecdotes from the early history of one of the most influential English bands of the second half of the 20th Century.

In a poignant moment, Jones recalled an incident when Joe Strummer, The Clash frontman who died in 2002, once jumped into a canal to save a drowning man. “That was the kind of man Joe was,” he said. Headon then drew laughter from the 200-strong audience by comparing the episode to the TV show Baywatch.

In a further tribute to Strummer, Jones observed that “it's Joe's words more than anything that have carried us here.”

The interview was part of the launch of Sound System, a major retrospective of the band’s music. Designed by bassist Simonon the box set recording is almost a work of art, resembling one of the ghetto-blaster cassette machines that The Clash carried round with them on tour.

Inside the flip-top carton are the band’s five key albums (The Clash, Give Em’ Enough Rope, London Calling, Sandinista! and Combat Rock)  – each one remastered by Jones – along with three more CDs laden with rare recordings. There are also badges, posters, stickers, reprints of the band’s fanzine Armagideon Times and a new edition edited by Simonon. It is the ultimate fans package and the title and design reflect the seminal punk band’s interests in reggae and, later, in early hip hop culture. The death of Strummer in 2002 sparked a wave of Clash merchandise and re-issues and Simonon told the 6Music audience that the release was a way of The Clash taking ownership of their legacy. “Everything that is important to us is in this box set... but not in a nostalgic, misty-eyed sort of way.”

Headon talked of his delight that the three band members were spending time together. “It's just a really nice feeling - something I thought I had kissed goodbye to.”

As a further element in a frenzy of Clash activity this weekend as a “Black Market Clash” exhibition of memorabilia opens on Saturday (7 September) in a pop-up store in London’s Berwick Street.

The interview with Cerys Matthews will be broadcast on 6 Music on Sunday 6 October at 10am. It took place at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, within earshot of the Westway traffic system that inspired the The Clash in their accounts of London life. A short walk away were pubs like the Chippenham Hotel and the Windsor Castle where Strummer played his earliest gigs with The 101ers during his days as a squatter.

Matthews said she was thrilled to have been given the chance to do the interview. “Their music questioned and defined the world around them and with a folk troubadour mentality and a boom box aloft they created a potent soundtrack for the times.”

Sound System is released by Columbia on September 9