How Many Times Was Joe Strummer Arrested?

Considering that the riotous British punk group The Clash got some of their first major American airplay with a cover of The Crickets' "I Fought the Law," it is no surprise that their lead leader, Joe Strummer, frequently got in trouble with the boys in blue.

According to Chris Salewicz's biography of Strummer, "Redemption Song," one of the punk rocker's first encounters with the law occurred before he had even given himself the name Joe Strummer, when he was a busker on the streets of London going by the name Woody Mellor (his birth name was John Mellor, but he adopted Woody as a nod to his hero Woody Guthrie). While playing at London's Oxford Circus train station, Strummer claimed that a loudspeaker above his head announced that his performance was illegal and that officers had been dispatched to arrest him. Strummer later admitted that the moment reminded him of George Orwell's 1984, and fed into his later activism and anti-authoritarian lyricism. 

The punk explosion began in Britain in 1976, and by 1977 The Clash was one of the movement's most exciting acts. But that year also saw Strummer arrested twice alongside the band's drummer Topper Headon: once for spray-painting "The Clash" on a hotel wall, and once again for theft, after leaving another hotel in possession of one of the room's pillowcases.

The Clash in the clink

As time went on and the atmosphere at The Clash's live performances became increasingly charged, the band's encounters with the police became more serious. According to Chris Saelwicz – who was in attendance — one such incident occurred in Glasgow in 1978 at the Apollo Theater, which was notorious for the gratuitous violence its bouncers used against punk audiences.

So upsetting was the sight of the audience being beaten that Strummer and his band left the stage, only to be confronted at the stage door by fans accusing the musicians of failing to intervene. Guitarist Mick Jones remembered (via The Daily Record): "When Joe came out the back door, he was so angry he smashed a bottle and was immediately jumped on by plainclothes policemen and he was arrested." Paul Simonon, the band's bassist who later wrote the incendiary anti-police anthem "Guns of Brixton," reportedly tried to help Strummer, but was hit with a truncheon and also arrested and spent the night in jail alongside his lead singer.

Strummer was arrested once more during his time with The Clash, this time in Hamburg, Germany, in 1980, when, after audience members repeatedly took his mic to tell the band they had sold out, Strummer struck an audience member on the head with his Telecaster, drawing blood and horrifying the crowd. He was arrested for assault. Strummer later identified the moment as a "watermark," when he realized that violence had gotten the better of him, per Saelwicz. He later claimed: "Since then I've decided the only way you can fight agro in the audience is to play a really boring song."