The only rule to being a rock star is there isn’t any. It’s one of the few professions on earth where it is actively encouraged to be as wild, volatile and reckless as possible. If you don’t act in such a manner then you end up being lumped in with the likes of Coldplay and Imagine Dragons. Although it may seem like it from the outside, it turns out that just being a rock god doesn’t give you a pass from breaking the law and there are (sometimes) consequences.
However, that hasn’t prevented an endless list of musicians from finding themselves spending cold nights in foreign prisons while on tour and, quite often, the reasonings for some of these deviate from the bizarre to the downright absurd. This list is evidence of the result of when ego becomes inflated to such a degree that these rock stars believe they are above the law. In fairness, with crazy antics often celebrated, who can blame them for occasionally overstepping the line?
Bono once declared, “A rock star is someone with a hole in his heart almost the size of his ego,” which is a tongue-in-cheek statement that is hard to disagree with. When your whole life is devoted to appeasing the masses of strangers who are turning out to hero-worship you, where does that line stop and, more importantly, when do you stop acting the fool in order to impress people you’ve barely met?
This feature is full of artists who couldn’t manage to switch that part of their brain off, one which makes them amazing performers but an absolute nightmare to have a quiet beer with after the show. Some on this list are examples of when the adrenaline and endorphins took over, others are simply impossible to explain — nevertheless, all ten incidents resulted in these icons of music finding themselves in a pair of handcuffs.
Let’s dive in!
10 famous rock star arrests:
Johnny Cash notoriously always did things his own way. While his maverick attitude to life is often an endearing one, it would also land the country singer into a spot of bother and, with it, he became no stranger to getting arrested occasionally. However, his most bizarre arrest came in 1965 after he was caught red-handed picking flowers.
The singer had spent the evening drinking in true Johnny Cash fashion, a wild night which led to him becoming heavily intoxicated and, after deciding to take a walk through a farmers field following a gig at Mississipi State University, he would end up in the hands of the authorities. Cash, wholly wasted, was supposedly arrested for trespassing and, in his defence, he claimed to be taking a shortcut to try and find a store that was still open to buy some cigarettes. Either way, whatever his motives, it didn’t matter as he would spend the night tossed inside a jail cell.
Some years following his death, Johnny Cash would eventually be pardoned in 2007 as part of the town’s Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival which saw citisens of the town hold a ceremonial pardon for Cash on the campus of Mississippi State University.
In 1965, Frank Zappa found himself in cuffs but, in true Zappa fashion, his arrest had a wild backstory. As often stories with the mercurial musician do, it all started with a chance encounter with a fan after a show in Chicago.
Following the show, Zappa was approached by who he believed to be a used car salesman following the show who offered him $100 dollars for an audiotape of the musician making love. It was too much money for Zappa to turn down at that point but, little did he know, it was actually an undercover cop and not a used car salesman. Zappa decided to fake the sex noises and thought he’d made himself an easy $100. However, the following day when Zappa was about to hand over the tape, he found himself arrested with conspiracy to commit pornography and the police then stripped his studio of all documented material.
To make matters even worse, the media were tipped off about the incident leading to the following day’s The Daily Report to say: “Vice Squad investigators stilled the tape recorders of a free-swinging, a-go-go film and recording studio here Friday and arrested a self-styled movie producer”.
The Who’s Pete Townshend
The Who’s tour of the States in ’69 was undoubtedly iconic. However, one moment that they’d rather forget arrived when they were performing at the Fillmore East in New York and Pete Townshend’s landed himself in big trouble. The group were running through their epic rock opera Tommy across the United States and their scheduled New York debut was one of the most prized stops — but it ended in disaster.
The group were in the middle of performing ‘Summertime Blues’ when a plain-clothed police officer attempted to jump onto the stage. He began wrestling the mic from singer Roger Daltrey, who himself is no slouch with his fists, and it prompted him to defend himself abruptly. Townshend, seeing the fracas, swiped at him with a heavy boot.
What the band didn’t know, however, was that on the other side of the wall smoke had begun to creep into the theatre. The smoke had begun to cascade into the venue from a grocery store next door that was on fire. The undercover policeman was trying to warn all those inside of the impending danger and instead received a swift kick to the crotch from Pete Townshend. The show was later rescheduled for the upcoming Sunday, which was fortunate as The Who had their lead guitarist in a jail cell and fined a staggering $30 — which he just about managed to afford.
During a 1980 tour of Germany in May, the built-up frustration that had built up with The Clash’s label issues had begun to take its toll and Strummer wasn’t in a good place personally nor professionally. The result, it would seem, was his frustration turning into a fit of anger which would see him being arrested during The Clash’s Hamburg show.
Strummer once described the incident, stating, “In Hamburg these kids attacked us, going ‘You’ve sold out, you’ve sold out’. But I figured that they hadn’t come to that conclusion, it was rather a trendy supposition that they thought ‘Oh, we’ll follow that’. I don’t think they worked it out using their own brains. A tough year. I mean, it’s changed my mind a lot. That Hamburg thing was kind of a watershed, y’know?
“How much can a man take, y’know? I was playing and I saw this guy, sort of using the guy in front of him as a punch-bag, trying to be all tough. So I rapped him on the head with a Telecaster, I just lost my temper. After that, after I’d been taken down the cop station and charged with assaulting a German citizen by striking him over the head with a guitar, I began to think that I’d overstepped my mark.”
The Lizard King found himself on the wrong side of the law on a plethora of occasions but perhaps his most notorious arrest came whilst he was on-stage. In 1967, Morrison became the first rock star to be arrested while performing on stage as he fronted The Doors. It will forever be known as ‘The New Haven Incident’.
The rebellious Morrison, as he often did, met with a girl and took her backstage for a tour of the grounds. According to keyboardist Ray Manzarek, the two were “making out” in a shower cubicle backstage at the New Haven Arena when they were approached by a police officer looking to cool proceedings down. The officer then took the mace, a non-lethal pepper spray, out of his holster and declared “last chance” to which Morrison replied: “Last chance to eat it.” The officer then apologised as even though he was employed to look after the band, he just pepper-sprayed the lead singer and caused the show to be delayed.
Then came the moment that may have sealed his fate. He told the crowd, “I’m just like you guys, man – he did it to me, they’ll do it to you.” The cops did not hold back and soon responded by jumping up on the stage and stopping the show. This action naturally led to a whole crowd of disgruntled fans turfed out on to the streets leading to 13 further arrests. Morrison was formally charged with inciting a riot, indecency and public obscenity. He quickly posted bond and the charges were later dropped.
March 12th, 1969, is a monumental day in the history of The Beatles for two polar opposite reasons. Just as the London police service launched a suspiciously well-timed drugs raid conducted on George Harrison’s estate, his bandmate Paul McCartney was on the way to the church to marry his fiance, Linda, on the very same day.
The ‘random’ search was headed up by Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher who claimed to have found no less than 120 joints on their Esher estate as well as a generous portion of hasheesh inside one of Harrison’s shoes—the latter, coincidentally, was an aspect of the search that Harrison strongly denied.
The Harrisons were found guilty by the court of possession of cannabis and were each fined £250 plus 10 guineas each in costs. However, it was the couple losing their freedom of movement rather than the financial implications that proved the real punishment. As he left court George Harrison pleaded: “I hope the police will leave us alone now.”
The man behind the planned raids, Sergeant Pilcher, was later convicted of planting drugs in other cases and sentenced to jail in 1972.
When Guns ‘N’ Roses brought their raucous show to St. Louis on July 2nd, 1991, they ended up finding themselves being banned from the city and frontman Axl Rose being arrested following a performance that is down in the history books for all the wrong reasons.
Rose’s temperament completely snapped when he clocked a fan filming the band, he furiously pointed his finger at the crowd and barked to security: “Wait, take that! Take that! Now! Get that guy and take that!” The maverick frontman then took things into his own hands as he seized the camera, proceeded to assault members of the audience as well as the security team before being pulled out of the crowd by crew members. Rose then grabbed his microphone and said: “Well, thanks to the lame-ass security, I’m going home!” before slamming his microphone on to the stage and didn’t return.
This left his bandmates in an awkward predicament and forced Slash to think on his feet which, admittedly, wasn’t a great idea as he panicked and informed the crowd: “He just smashed the microphone. We’re out of here.” This understandably infuriated the audience who then set off on a mass three-hour riot in which resulted in dozens being injured.
Former Oasis man Liam Gallagher frequently found himself on the wrong side of the law throughout the height of his hedonistic heyday for minor drug offences but his worst incident came in 2002. Oasis were on tour in Germany when Gallagher and his bandmates sans Noel decided to have a night out on the tiles in Munich following a show, a decision which led to a mass brawl with police who claimed that he kicked a police officer in the ribs before losing several of his teeth — which the musician remains adamant was at the hands of German police.
Gallagher and two other band members got themselves involved in an altercation with five Italians in the nightclub, the Bayerischer Hof. “The boy didn’t look good. Several of his teeth were punched out,” said Munich police spokesperson Christoph Reichenbach.
“Here’s what I think happened,” Gallagher said to The Guardian in 2018. “It all went down after I kicked a copper at some point in the fucking lobby, I think because after that I woke up in the fucking nick. So I think they give me a whack over the head in the back of the fucking van and I think they’ve just gone, ‘Fuck you, you cunt’, later on. Because they were pulled out completely perfect.”
Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon’s arrest came before the band but it’s just too good to leave off the list. While studying political sciences, Gordon and a friend escaped from school-work and spent the day at Disneyland. Searching for a release, the two friends headed into a cave on pirate-themed Tom Sawyer’s Island and began smoking a joint until the Disney police spotted them.
“They took us underground,” Gordon said to The Guardian when remembering how she spotted a “Mickey Mouse with a walkie-talkie,” in the unusual setting in which she and her friend spent all night held in a cell while creepy officers asked her: “Does your mother know you’re not wearing a bra?”
Gordon added: “I was writing this paper in my head about Disneyland and how fascist it was. It confirmed my beliefs about American consumerism. Consumerism is killing us.”
Pete Doherty has likely been arrested more times than anybody else on this list combined. His most comical arrest came in 2019 which resulted in him being banned from driving after being caught red-handed riding an electric scooter in the middle of the night while searching for one of his huskies.
Doherty didn’t realise he was breaking the law as two police officers who had stopped him in Broadstairs for a selfie told the former Babyshambles singer that it was fine to ride the electric scooter if he stayed on the pavement. He did this but then he was later spotted by police who saw him riding on the scooter with his two huskies in the middle of the night after he found his missing dog and they told him he couldn’t ride the vehicle.
Seeing The Libertines man riding an electric scooter whilst being flanked by two huskies is a sight so comical that he deserved to be let off the hook but unfortunately, Margate Magistrates Court had other ideas. He pleaded guilty to both charges in addition to another of driving a car without insurance in August, before his initial ban. Doherty received a £2,000 fine for each offence, totalling £6,000, and given six points on his licence, taking him over the 12 point limit meaning a two-year disqualification from driving.