The story of The Stranglers' controversial No More Heroes album: "We got away with murder"

The Stranglers standing in a derelict house
(Image credit: Ian Tyas/Getty Images)

One of the most infamous faces of punk rock’s Mount Rushmore – alongside Sex Pistols, The Damned and The ClashThe Stranglers always stuck out from the rest. For a start they were older than everyone else. Stranglers singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell turned 28 in 1977 – year zero for punk. Pistols singer Johnny Rotten and Damned singer Dave Vanian both turned 21. Stranglers drummer Jet Black (real name Brian Duffy) was touching 40 at the time. Sadly we lost him in late 2022. 

But it wasn’t just their age differences. It was their baaad attitude. Johnny Pistol may have invented the spiky punk hairdo, waddled around in bondage trousers and stuck safety pins in his ears, but that frightened only housewives. 

Cornwell and karate black-belt bassist/singer Jean-Jacques ‘JJ’ Burnel looked and dressed – and often behaved – like thugs. Dressed in what Cornwell now jokingly refers to as “prison clothes”, The Stranglers frightened everybody. 

“None of us were really punk,” he admits now. “But it was an opportunity. Who cares what they call us? This is our chance to get in through the door.” Plus, “the necessity of adopting a pose appealed to our provocative nature”. 

Born contrary, The Stranglers had begun in 1974 as a prog-jazz-rock hybrid sweating blood on London’s notoriously hard-to-please pub-rock circuit. Burnel was a classically trained guitarist who’d read history at university, before Cornwell got him drunk and persuaded him to become the band’s bassist. 

Black owned a fleet of ice-cream vans – one of which became the band’s makeshift tour bus – and was an accomplished jazz musician. Keyboard player Dave Greenfield was a moustachioed, Meerschaum pipesmoking piano tuner with hair down his back who dreamed of playing in Yes. Cornwell was a university graduate in biochemistry, whose first band included future Fairport Convention folk-rock star Richard Thompson. 

“We definitely weren’t like the others,” Cornwell agrees. “We didn’t dress up.” 

The Stranglers had been the runts of the pub-rock litter, considered not as good musically as Graham Parker & The Rumour, Nick Lowe and Brinsley Schwartz and other back-to-mono fetishists. But The Stranglers acquired their own staunch pub following, headlining incident-filled residencies at London flea-havens like the Red Cow, The Nashville and the Hope &Anchor. 

Most notoriously, The Stranglers had their own gang, the Finchley Boys, which Burnel described as “our Pretorian guard”. Whenever – wherever – there was ‘a situation’ at a Stranglers gig, which was worryingly often, the Finchley Boys would ‘sort it out’.

The Boys featured many ‘colourful characters’, including gang leader Dagenham Dave, who was hospitalised after one particularly brutal encounter. Three months later he committed suicide, jumping from Tower Bridge into the Thames. He would be commemorated in the song Dagenham Dave, on the second Stranglers album, No More Heroes, released in September 1977. Which we will get to.


By 1976, The Stranglers were considered elder statesmen of the burgeoning British punk scene. The Sex Pistols opened for them. “Steve [Jones] and Paul [Cook] used to come to all the shows, asking questions about how we did things,” says Cornwell. Singer John ‘Woody’ Mellor of fellow pub rockers the 101ers was another regular at Stranglers shows. “He was in tears backstage after one gig. He said: ‘I want a band like yours.’ The following week he changed his name to Joe Strummer and was in The Clash.” 

When The Stranglers opened for New York ‘punk poetess’ Patti Smith at the Roundhouse in London in May 1976, she felt threatened enough that her crew sabotaged the band’s sound system. Eighteen months later The Stranglers would be back – headlining five nights, breaking the longstanding record held by The Who and the Rolling Stones for consecutive nights there. 

Propelled by the Top 10 success of their single Peaches – banned by the BBC for its “coarse language and innuendo” – the debut Stranglers album, IV (Rattus Norvegicus), released in April 1977, was not as drooled over by the music press as the debut albums by The Damned (released eight weeks before) or The Clash (released one week before), but it outsold both easily and hit the UK Top 10. 

But instead of that success garnishing the band’s reputation, The Stranglers became the black sheep of the original Brit-punk era. Increasingly despised by the then influential music press (one critic described them as “the gloomiest, nastiest band ever”), and at war with their peers (Burnel sneeringly dismissed the Sex Pistols as “a comedy act”), they seemingly went out of their way to provoke anyone who crossed their path. 

Sitting in the London studio where he recorded his latest solo album, Moments Of Madness, Cornwell, now 73, is marvellously unrepentant. “People would go: ‘I’m not sure about the lyrics to Peaches. A bit sexist.’ The ones who said that had no sense of humour.” 

Looking largely unchanged from the rail-thin reprobate of The Stranglers’ 1977 annus mirabilis, only his thinning hair betrays any signs of age. “It was like we discovered we had this ability, and we were using it. ‘Oh, we can wind people up. Great. Well, let’s wind them up a bit more.’”

Meanwhile, their popularity with mainstream audiences grew. Older hippie-types took comfort in what they properly perceived to be a musical lineage going back to The Doors and Love. The younger hard-rock renegades saw The Stranglers in the same glamorous dark light as other then-new, give-no-fucks outsiders like AC/DC and Thin Lizzy

“Two years before, our best-paying gigs were weddings and bar mitzvahs, knocking out covers of Tie A Yellow Ribbon by Dawn and Dionne Warwick’s Walk On By. We were called punk like Elvis Costello and Blondie were called punk. But we never thought of ourselves like that.” 

Determined to make their own rules, The Stranglers began work on their second album while their first was still bunging up the charts, and released the first single from it, Something Better Change, another Top 10 hit, while Peaches was still in the Top 40. 

Were you thinking: “We need to follow up our success, we better get something out quick”? 

“Not really,” says Cornwell. “Something Better Change was left over from the first album, as were some of the others. It helped having songs that were hanging over from Rattus, they felt just as good. Add a few more and then suddenly, hey presto, you’ve got the second album.” 

The mesmeric title track, No More Heroes, was brand new and written as the album was almost finished. With its swirling keyboard riff, ear-worm chorus and Cornwell’s typically witty lyrics – including special mentions for Leon Trotsky, Sancho Panza, Elmyr de Hory and William Shakespeare-o – No More Heroes was an instant summer-of-punk classic.

“It was a very poignant summer,” Cornwell recalls. “I wrote it the same week Elvis and then a few days later Groucho Marx died. They were there my whole life, pillars of my cultural upbringing. Both struck down. It was like President Kennedy had been shot. Groucho’s gone, fuck. Elvis is gone, fuck. In the same week, it was stunning.” 

As for the ice pick that made Russian revolutionary Trotsky’s ‘ears burn’, “I was a big fan,” he explains. “The amazing thing about Trotsky is that the Revolutionary Council needed someone to run the Red Army, but no one wanted to do it. Trotsky said: ‘Well if no one else wants to, I could do it.’ They asked what military training he’d had, and he said Boy Scout. But he came in and he did a remarkable job of training that army.” 

The very best line in the song, though, concerns those Shakespeare-os – an inspirational moment born of necessity. “The first version, that didn’t go in there, went: ‘Whatever happened to… Helen Shapiro’ – who I’d supported with Richard [Thompson] when we were at school. But in The Stranglers it didn’t really fit,” he says with a chuckle. “So I came up the word ‘Shakespeare-o’ because it rhymed with ‘Shapiro’. I’ve got it written on an envelope somewhere, with the original ‘whatever happened to Helen Shapiro…’”


The No More Heroes album became known for deliberately get-up-your-nose tracks like opener I Feel Like A Wog – the sort of thing you’d be cancelled for these days. But again, check out Cornwell’s lyrics: ‘I feel like a wog people giving me the eyes, but I was born here just like y-y-you…’ “The word was everywhere in those days – Westernised Oriental Gentleman. It was like a swear word. I was using it for shock effect, but it was to put across a feeling. A lot of people obviously misunderstood it. But a couple of black guys came back after one show and said: ‘We get it.’ That made me feel good.” 

Other tracks were more ‘what it says on the tin’. In The Stranglers’ early days, one of their most popular pub rave-ups was called simply Tits. Two years on, we had Bring On The Nubiles: ‘There’s plenty to explore, I’ve got to lick your little puss, and nail you to the floor/Bring on the nubiles… lemme lemme fuck ya fuck ya…’ 

“We definitely couldn’t get away with that now,” he concedes. 

What were you thinking? “What a laugh. If anything’s going to wind people up, this is going to. And it was entertaining for us, fun and really harmless. People might say: ‘How can you say that’s harmless?’ But we weren’t trying to upset people. We were in the sweet shop and we were helping ourselves. We’d realised that we could upset people, so let’s go to town, let’s really upset them.” 

Cornwell wasn’t the only star in The Stranglers, of course. Something Better Change – a straight call-to-arms in those punk days – was written and sung by JJ Burnel. Cornwell: “I said: ‘Come on, your turn to write a song.’ But he didn’t like singing. So I said: ‘Oh really? Does that mean I’ve got to sing it?’ He said: ‘Yeah.’ But I put my foot down. It’s why he would exaggerate his voice a little, because he wasn’t fully confident yet.”

Even Dave Greenfield sang on two of the tracks – Dead Ringer and Peasant In The Big Shitty. The latter, with its widdly-widdly keyboards, has strong prog energy. The former, with its growling-geezer groove, is like the pip in Peaches

Five days before the No More Heroes album was released, the band made their second appearance on Top of The Pops, performing their third Top 10 hit of the year, No More Heroes. The same night, they began a 40-date UK tour that culminated in those five nights at the Roundhouse. 

Cornwell admits that he and Burnel began to “stay in character” a little more often than was good for them. Debbie Harry was a fan, and went backstage at one gig with a ‘JJ’ badge on. He later claimed he’d had a Blondie badge on. “But I can’t comment if things went further.” Arf, what a geezer! 

For all their tough-guy moves, though, they could be super-sensitive to criticism. When the red-roses wreath design of the No More Heroes album sleeve was described by one critic as “chocolate boxy”, they were apoplectic. The cover had been rushed after they’d rejected the original sleeve image – a picture of Burnel alone, supposedly on Trotsky’s tomb. But the others weren’t having him on there and not them. Hence the roses. 

Nobody gave a damn about it, though, after No More Heroes soared to No.2 in the UK album chart. Released just five months after Rattus, it crowned an unrepeatable year for the band. The Stranglers hadn’t just cracked it, they were the biggest, most successful of all the original punk bands. Cornwell: “It was like: ‘What are we going to do now?’ The answer: carry on! Next album. Next tour. When you’re having fun you don’t want it to stop, do you? That was the thing. We were having so much fun.” 

In one of those bizarre coincidences that you couldn’t make up, just three weeks after the release of No More Heroes, David Bowie released his new album, titled “Heroes” – which reached its peak of No.3 just as No More Heroes was sitting pretty at No.2. Strange to relate, but at the time, some people assumed The Stranglers had got wind of Bowie’s plan and deliberately put out an album with the opposite sentiment, in a kind of punk-and-disorderly jibe. 

“I thought he was too talented a person to have his career blown away by what we’ve done,” offers Cornwell. “But it was a remarkable synchronicity that the two came at the same time. You’d think we’d cooked something up with him: ‘You do “Heroes”, and we’ll do No More Heroes.’ It couldn’t have been planned better, really. And we both profited out of it.

The year ended for The Stranglers with two shows at the legendary Paradiso Club in Amsterdam, where the local Hells Angels decided to adopt them. 

“We came off stage and they wanted to treat us,” Cornwell recalls, “so they took us to their bar that they had in downtown Amsterdam, and then they took us to their clubhouse. ‘Any of these women you like?’ they said. ‘They’re our girls. Anyone takes your fancy, they’re yours.’” 

And have some biker speed while you’re at it? 

“Yeah, yeah. The huge knife comes out with this pile, and you can’t say no. They decided they were going to like us. It was all right at first, but then they became more and more demanding. They talked us into doing a fund-raising gig for their clubhouse. One of them was escorting us up to the stage, and there’s two other Hells Angels beating the shit out of each other with knives and stuff. So it all fizzled out really because we lost patience with them.” 

When Burnel appeared as a nude centrefold in the Christmas edition of NME that year, it was meant as a joke on all the people who accused The Stranglers of being male chauvinist pigs. He later recalled: “The photos did me no harm whatsoever. On the contrary, they enhanced my appeal to a certain kind of lady! It also appealed to the gay brigade.” It was typical of the incredible hard-to-believe year The Stranglers had enjoyed. 

“It was great. It was fabulous,” says Cornwell. “We got away with murder.” Since then the track No More Heroes has appeared in various film and TV soundtracks, inspired the name of a successful videogame, and achieved the true hallmark of a classic song when its cartwheeling keyboard riff was ‘borrowed’ for Elastica’s 1995 single Waking Up. The Stranglers sued, and Elastica settled out of court. Well, you didn’t want the Finchley Boys coming round… 

Hugh Cornwell’s album Moments Of Madness was released last year.

Mick Wall

Mick Wall is the UK's best-known rock writer, author and TV and radio programme maker, and is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books, including definitive, bestselling titles on Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth), Metallica (Enter Night), AC/DC (Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be), Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe), Lou Reed, The Doors (Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre), Guns N' Roses and Lemmy. He lives in England.