MusicSummer of Blacker Love

glorious din: the essential punk band you’ve never heard

June 10, 2019
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It’s one of the tragedies of punk — but also, sort of, the point — is that for every band which achieves “icon” status, there are 300 others who are just as deserving yet have gone overlooked. The too-small-to-fail and ephemeral nature of punk means that some bands get their due long after they’ve split up and moved on (see also Spring, Rites of), while others simply become part of the ether of the scene — their impact felt but never acknowledged.

Like The Velvet Underground before them, Glorious Din is one of those bands who were a few years too early for their brand of magic to make the impact it ought to have, but that inspired everyone who bought one of their records to start a band of their own. Listening to Glorious Din 30 years later, you can hear a foreshadowing of Nirvana in the atonal guitar lines, a hint of Fugazi in the powerful forward-focused rhythm section, the roots of REM’s jangly mumblecore, and even the origins of Trent Reznor’s clinical aversion to cymbals in the drum work. But more than just who they influenced, Glorious Din’s three-year run produced a pair of post-punk’s finest records, before the band’s own glorious din disappeared in a cloud as mysterious as their mercurial lead singer.

Eric Cope’s story is sometimes difficult to parse. Throughout his life, he’s adopted new names, and new identities like they were pieces of clothing. In interviews he conducted as Eric Cope, as Black Dog Bone, or as Coffin Boy Crow, a few little details about his backstory would often change, but certain facts remained. Born with a Sinhalese name he keeps to himself, Cope spent his childhood in what he would describe as an idyllic life in the Sri Lankan jungle. Mentored by a local shaman named Appu Hamy in Bhuddist storytelling and music, and introduced to local popular music by his mother, Eric’s artistic education was a constant. But a move to the city Galkissa at the age of eight disrupted all that. There, young Eric began getting in trouble regularly, developing an inner rage that would both fuel and undo his his future creative ventures.

He became a habitual troublemaker, stealing books and comics (Daredevil was a favorite) from local shops, and acting out in school. Eric was suspended after fighting back against the priest who ran his high school during a beating. He was expelled and ultimately jailed after striking a bus driver when he was caught dodging a fare. After his release however, Eric found a purpose and direction for his anger when he encountered George Harrison’s 1972 Concert for Bangladesh film and resolved to become a folk singer. He got a guitar and sought out every musical influence he could get his hands on. Soon after, their family hosted a 16 year-old exchange student from Iowa for a few months. She introduced him to American rock music, while a local broadcast of BBC’s Top of the Pops program gave him his first taste of punk rock.

In his late teens (exactly when depends on the interview), Eric set off for Dubai. He worked at a pet shop run by a man who kept his passport, threatening deportation if Cope refused to work 14-hour days. After a few weeks, Eric beat up the shop owner and escaped with his passport. A friend got him a job as a “house boy” for a group of Dutch construction workers. The Dutch men shared Eric’s love of early punk. He was drawn to the more melodic and mournful ends of the punk and new wave world, artists such as Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and most crucially Joy Division. With a little money saved, Eric got a visa to Holland, from where he contacted the exchange student’s family, who helped get him to America. With renewed purpose, Eric no longer dreamed of being a folk singer. Now he was going to start a punk band. But first, a family.

Once in Iowa, Eric started at a chiropractic school where he met a woman named Jessica Lea. Though pregnant with a child from another man, the two got married. Soon, Eric left school and took Jessica and the three months-old Bruce to Philadelphia to start his band. Things on the East Coast were tough, and the family soon moved to Anchorage where Jessica’s sister and brother-in-law lived. There, in Alaska. in 1980, Eric Cope was born.

He took the name from the loner, Eric Binford, of the film Fade To Black; and Cope as a tribute to Julian Cope of British psychedelic punk band The Teardrop Explodes. He traded in his skinhead threads for an all black look, complete with a fishtail parka. Soon after, Jessica left him the first of many times and headed back to Iowa. Eric resolved to go to New York to finally get his punk band going, but within a few months he was back in Iowa trying to make things work with Jessica. They had a child they named Ian, after Ian Curtis of Joy Division, and made inroads with the local scene. In 1981, Cope started his first punk band, the ironically named White Front.

Eric thought it would be funny to try to trick Nazi skins into seeing a punk band fronted by a Black immigrant, so he picked a name with fascist overtones. But the name only succeeded in getting them banned from just about every venue in Iowa. Venues often demanded proof that the singer was Black and that the name was a joke before they’d book the band, while the fascist spaces he’d hoped to infiltrate never took the bait. White Front became an outlet for Cope’s anger issues, though when drunk they could boil over beyond the stage. The band’s reputation for mayhem combined with a name many venues refused to print on posters left them with few options left in Iowa. So in 1982, the band headed to San Fransisco. White Front’s prospects weren’t much better in the Bay Area. By the end of the year, with few venues left that would book them, and Cope’s increasing desire to push the band in a more post-punk direction, the band collapsed.

Glorious Din was born out of the wreckage of both White Front, and Cope’s marriage. While they were living in the Fillmore district, Eric came home one day to find Jessica and the kids gone. With no artistic outlet to ground him, and the turmoil of the breakup, he found himself in a dark place, and desperate to start a new project. Cope answered an ad placed by guitarist Jay Paget, and the two quickly started writing songs together. Though Cope was a skilled guitarist in his own right, he pushed Paget to take the lead, insisting he play anything other than the chords Cope played during writing sessions. He taught Paget to play North African guitar lines Eric had learned from an Egyptian migrant while working in Dubai. With their unique sound taking shape, Cope begged a friend of his from Iowa named Matt Hall to come to California and play bass in the new band.

The band cut a demo as a trio, with Cope on drums and vocals, and lined up their first show. They were sharing a practice space with an upstart band called Faith No More, whose own career took off after replacing their singer at the time, a woman named Courtney Love, first with the great Chuck Mosley, and then later Mike Patton. Though it was only Faith No More’s third show, Cope convinced them to headline. Before they could play however, Hall skipped town back to Iowa, and Cope called on former White Front members Doug Heeschen and Pete Herstedt to sit in. That line-up of Glorious Din stuck.

The group quickly earned a reputation for mesmerizing live shows. Cope compressed the live-wire energy that powered him as the singer of White Front into an almost mystical trance in Glorious Din. Standing still behind the microphone, his other-worldly vocals commanded attention, while Heeschen and Herstedt’s rhythm section kept the music tethered to the Earth, leaving Paget space to churn out spare but ethereal guitar lines. Cope instructed Herstedt to avoid the cymbals, and would often also play a floor tom mounted next to his mic stand. The driving low percussion gave their early music a hypnotic quality. On their debut record, when hi-hats finally emerge on the excellent “Sixth Pillar,” it’s almost shocking.

Leading Stolen Horses came out in 1985, and Glorious Din spent much of that year playing out regularly, becoming a staple of the eclectic Bay Area scene. The album is barely of this world, certainly barely of its time. It’s mysterious yet inviting, spare but powerful, cold but emotional.

For all the album’s success creatively, the band continued to struggle. An American tour ended in disaster as a failing van drained what little they earned on the road. When the van threw a rod in Utah, the tour was over, and the band limped back to San Fransisco. They began work on the followup to Horses, but the band was already falling apart.

Released in 1987, Closely Watched Trains was a huge step forward for the band in terms of their songwriting. The chemistry they’d honed over two years of constant performing is clear throughout, with Jay Paget’s guitar exuding a confidence often absent on Horses. But it was also their undoing. Cope wanted to push the sound to something similar to Nick Drake, and asked the engineer to invert the mix of Leading Stolen Horses, so the guitar and vocals were more prominent. Though Heeschen and Herstedt’s work remains the anchor of their sound, pushed lower in the mix on Trains, it sometimes risks vanishing into texture. Tensions around the production mounted, while the members began to play in other projects. By the time the album came out, the band was done.

Cope continued to run his record label, Insight, for a few years in the band’s aftermath. The compilation To Sell Kerosene Door To Door in particular has become something of a sought-after, late ’80s punk-rock  relic. Though it was ultimately released by Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles, Cope also helmed the first recordings of a young vocalist named Michael Franti in his first band, the industrial punk act, The Beatnigs. The sessions yielded the first version of Franti’s later breakthrough hit with his group, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, “Television.”

Soon, Cope was introduced to the Black Panthers, who at the time shared a publisher with legendary punk zine Maximum Rocknroll, and became increasingly interested in Black radical thought. The artist Sue Coe introduced him to the writings of Malcom X, and another name change was in store. Eric Cope died not long after Glorious Din, succeeded by the journalist, photographer, and erstwhile Sri Lankan revolutionary Black Dog Bone. As Black Dog Bone, he spent a year fighting in the Sri Lankan civil war, before returning disillusioned to San Fransisco to study at City College. Finally, after being turned on to Wu-Tang and E-40, Black Dog Bone founded the long running underground hip-hop magazine, Murder Dog.

Though he continues to perform, these days as Coffin Boy Crow, those early records with Glorious Din maintain a certain ineffable shine. They’re a document from a time when punk was in chrysalis. Liberated from the musical constraints of the hardcore era, bands were just beginning to stretch their legs and explore what punk could be. 35 years since Glorious Din first made noise, we’re still exploring the map they gave us.