Following the release of London Calling in 1979 The Clash had become undoubtedly the most important band in Britain. At a time when Margaret Thatcher was appointed as Prime Minister, Joe Strummer had concurrently become the face of the disillusioned youth fighting back at those in power.
However, the following year was a strenuous one for the band and, on one fateful night exactly 40 years ago in Hamburg, the anger which resonated from their music saw the frontman take it a step too far when he attacked a fan with his guitar.
1980 didn’t go quite how the band had imagined. Struggling to get on the same page as CBS Records, The Clash hoped to release a brand new single every month for the entirety of the year—an unprecedented feat which proved to be miles ahead of its time. However, CBS immediately baulked at the idea and refused to sanction it with ‘Bankrobber’ being the only single announced ahead of the release of their new record Sandinista!—their most experimental release by some margin.
During a tour of Germany in May of the same year, the built-up frustration that the label issues had created were beginning to take their toll and Strummer wasn’t in a good place personally or 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.
The Hamburg incident wasn’t an isolated one, either. In the very same German tour, where punks thought The Clash had gone too mainstream, the heavy-hitting fans were about to make sure Strummer knew exactly how they felt. In an interview from 1980 to promote the release of Sandinista! with Paul Du Noyer who worked for NME at the time, Strummer revealed: “In Berlin, there’s some German skinheads and they were saying ‘Oh, my grandmother likes The Clash’. Understandably, they were pissed off about that.”
Once the tour rolled into Hamburg, the vitriol that arrived at the hands of the band had escalated into violence, with Strummer adding: “But 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?”
Strummer, going more depth about the incident and how it made him take a moment to reflect on his own actions, admitted it led him to change him for the better, disclosing: “It was like nothing you’ve ever seen. They were all down the front, and if they could grab hold of a microphone lead they’d pull, and it was a tug of war. And then it started getting really violent—and that was my fault in a way. 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.
Strummer continued, “And there was blood gushing down in front of his face. It wasn’t much of a cut, but it looked real horrorshow. And the howl out of the audience—you shoulda heard it. From then on it was jump in and punch.”
Strummer added: “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. And that’s what I mean by it was a watershed—violence had really controlled me for once. I became very frightened that violence had really taken me over. So since then I’ve decided the only way you can fight aggro in the audience is to play a really boring song.”
Strummer, who was able to reflect on the incident years later, was immediately arrested by German police but cleared shortly after.