Rare Opals


In the mail at the weekend, a pair of reissued Opal CDs that I didn’t expect to see any time soon, Happy Nightmare Baby (1987) and Early Recordings (1989). Opal were an American group who were active throughout the 1980s but they didn’t record very much, only releasing these two discs towards the end of their career. Both albums sank from sight in the early 1990s, and had been unavailable in any form when CD reissues were announced in late 2019 on guitarist David Roback’s own label, Salley Gardens. The reissues were withdrawn shortly before the release date, possibly as a result of Roback’s illness and subsequent death in February 2020. All of this is niche stuff but aficionados of the niche in question may like to know that I bought these new from an eBay (UK) seller for a fraction of the price you’ll pay at Discogs or elsewhere. (Here and here.) I’d seen reports that copies had been shipped before the cancellation was announced but hadn’t seen any on sale outside Discogs until last week. I’ve also seen suggestions that there might be bootlegs circulating but if these are boots then someone has managed to imitate the matrix numbers on the discs which I don’t think is an easy thing to do.


Opal is a group you seldom see mentioned today but plenty of people know the name of Mazzy Star, the group that Opal became after the departure of singer Kendra Smith in the late 1980s. David Roback was the key member, the link between Mazzy Star and the neo-psychedelia of the Los Angeles Paisley Underground which gave rise to both Opal and Roback’s other outlet, the Rain Parade. The Paisley Underground was never as psychedelic as I hoped it might be, only the Rain Parade could be classed as a bona fide psych band, but the groups associated with this loose scene—The Bangles, The Dream Syndicate, The Three O’Clock, et al—were all preoccupied with the music of the late 1960s, and of the early 70s via Neil Young and Alex Chilton. Opal followed the trend, being less oneiric than Mazzy Star would be, more concerned with reviving older musical styles than creating something new. Early Recordings, a collection of singles, EPs and other songs, owes less to psychedelia than it does to late-60s balladeering: guitar and vocals, lots of reverb and minimal percussion and keyboards. Kendra Smith, formerly of The Dream Syndicate, sings almost all the songs on both albums. The origin of the Opal sound may be found in the cover versions on Rainy Day (1984), a one-off album that David Roback recorded with Kendra Smith plus members of The Bangles, Rain Parade and The Three O’Clock. Lou Reed’s I’ll Be Your Mirror is the early Opal sound in miniature, especially in the version by Nico and The Velvet Underground which Roback emulates with Susanna Hoffs.

Happy Nightmare Baby has a rather prosaic monochrome cover but this is where the psychedelic rock comes to the fore, with Roback breaking out the fuzz box and wah-wah pedal to fashion a heavier sound that would later be heard on Mazzy Star songs like Ghost Highway. I said that only the Rain Parade warranted the psych label but Happy Nightmare Baby certainly gets there on songs like Magick Power and the slow explosion of Soul Giver, the latter being the closest that Opal get to the Rain Parade’s finest moment, No Easy Way Down. There’s also a touch of glam in the opening number, Rocket Machine, which harks back to the T. Rex of Electric Warrior. Happy Nightmare Baby is a fiery debut—and Opal could be even heavier live—but it’s one of those albums that you’d expect would be surpassed by later releases, instead of which all we have is Early Recordings*. The two albums are dissimilar enough to almost be the work of different groups; together they suggest that David Roback spent most of the 1980s trying to orient his music in a way that honoured his influences while also accommodating all his favoured modes of expression, from fuzz squall to languid blues to nocturnal drift. The first Mazzy Star album, She Hangs Brightly, is the place where the influences and intentions fused to create something new. And Roback found his ideal singer in Hope Sandoval, of course. Kendra Smith is okay but her voice can get monotonous over a whole album, she lacks Hope Sandoval’s mystique and emotional range. Opal were good but you can’t imagine many people wanting to cover their songs the way people have done with Mazzy Star. But then without Opal there might never have been a Mazzy Star. Niche stuff this may be but it doesn’t deserve to be buried for another thirty years.

* Or almost all. There is another album, Early Recordings Volume 2, a collection of unreleased songs and covers. But this has never been given an official release.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Balloon parade
The Dukes declare it’s 25 O’Clock!
Strange Things Are Happening, 1988–1990

8 thoughts on “Rare Opals”

  1. ‘She Fell From the Sun’ seems to have had a few covers, most notably The Pale Saints version – who also hit upon covering Slapp Happy about the same time as Mazzy Star did.

    I’m sure you’re aware that Kendra went on to release ‘The Guild of Temporal Adventurers’ featuring a Jonah Corey, while her 4aD album included ‘Valley Of The Morning Sun’. I’m sure there are other Moorcock references to be found

  2. I didn’t know that about The Pale Saints. David Roback beat them to Blue Flower, however, Opal were playing it live at least as far back as 1988, along with Ghost Highway. Until I started delving into this history I wasn’t aware that Opal had blended into Mazzy Star in this way, it seemed like a clean break back in 1990. I’m always impressed by how easily Blue Flower fits with the rest of their songs. I think it must be a result of Slapp Happy borrowing from The Velvets (or whoever) for that one. The rest of Sort Of is pretty different.

    I know of Kendra Smith’s post-Opal things but I’ve yet to hear any of them.

  3. I always wondered how they cleared those reissues from SST in the first place! Ginn is notoriously horrible with SST artists to the point of not paying them and not remastering for reissuing, etc. Unless you’ve got Geffen’s layers on your side, it’s rare to get what you deserve from him.

  4. No idea, but then nothing has been very clear where these reissues are concerned. I think Rough Trade had more control over their recordings in the 1980s, SST were only involved with the US release of Happy Nightmare Baby. But that’s only a guess.

  5. Thanks for the tip off John; I got them both on vinyl and have “Happy Nightmare” on CD, but “Early Recordings” has eluded me until now because it was far too expensive. Although a big fan of the scene and I saw a fair few of them, including The Rain Parade and The Dream Syndicate when they came over, I agree that they weren’t as psychedelic as they might have been; much more in tune were Milwaukee’s Plasticland, whose first three LPs were way trippier AND poppier than anything the Paisley Underground bands put out. My favourite tune of that whole psych revival (with the exception of The Dukes, perhaps was by the Australian band Tyrnaround, who have a superb anthology available on Bandcamp: https://youtu.be/xHaGDndUqwI?feature=shared

  6. Thanks, I hadn’t heard of Plasticland or Tyrnaround before.

    I’ve said in previous comments that I only got to see Green On Red live but after checking for details I think I saw them when they were supporting the Rain Parade in 1985. This is odd because I’ve never been much of a gig-goer yet I don’t recall anything of the Rain Parade’s set even though I would have been eager to see them; Green On Red were okay but not the kind of band I’d leave the house to see again.

    Meanwhile, I have an Opal bootleg from 1984 when they were still called Clay Allison. They play an uneven set that ends with a version of No Easy Way Down with different lyrics. No idea if that’s an earlier draft of the song or a Roback variant.

  7. In case you’re curious, here’s a trio of Plasticland and another Tyrnaround:





    Tyrnaround didn’t last long, so the Bandcamp stuff is pretty much all you need.

    There are other bands/ Lps / songs etc. called Plasticland, but if you stick to the ones where the band look like they’ve been shot from a cannon through the front window of ‘Granny Takes A Trip’, you’re on the right track.

  8. Yeah, that’s the stuff. I buy quite a few things from Cherry Red but I’ve not noticed Plasticland there before. I must have taken them for one of the obscure Deram bands they always seem to be digging up.

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