The Ophelias burst out of the San Francisco indie rock scene in 1985 with their remarkable cover of the Southern folksong Mister Rabbit which immediately brought them national attention in the underground, a photograph in Spin, and a reputation for engaging, truly psychedelic live performances. Their first, self-titled LP appeared in early 1987 to widespread acclaim. “Almost every reviewer has considered them the most innovative band out of San Francisco in many years,” wrote Bob O’Brien in the LA Times. Soon thereafter signed to Rough Trade US, two more LPs and an EP would follow, all garnering much positive press. Second LP Oriental Head charted Top 35 at 160 radio stations, Top 10 at 48, and #1 at 9, but Rough Trade stateside was in shaky financial health and the label folded in 1990, with The Ophelias as part of the collateral damage. Lead guitarist David Immerglück was recruited by Camper Van Beethoven and Counting Crows, and bandleader Leslie Medford disappeared.
The star-crossed tale of The Ophelias (for instance, national tours in support of Pere Ubu and Crime & the City Solution both fell through at the eleventh hour) may be part of their Scarlet Pimpernell appeal, but to the band it was bad theater. Still, an informed few (like Music: What Happened? author Scott Miller) consider The Ophelias one of the very best bands of the 1980’s. As an outfit inspired by psilocybin should be, they were neither average nor predictable; indeed, contradiction was the group’s calling card. “The Ophelias are about the both of things: light and dark, masculine and feminine, high and low, comedy and tragedy, rationality and the unhinged,” said The Hard Report. There is no denying their post-punkish slant, but with perhaps more in common with the experimental and adventurous bands of the Sixties and Seventies, with an English bent and a Shakespearean name, things were certain to go awry in late-Eighties USA for an underfunded combo whose best comparison may be Spiders-era Bowie, Nadir-era Hammill, or Piper-era Floyd. The mass of American teenagers remained bewildered.
“It’s hard for me to imagine a more audacious guy than Ophelias singer/conceptualist Leslie Medford,” wrote Ann Powers in the SF Chronicle. “Collectors and critics will probably rediscover The Ophelias in fifteen years and write blathering essays about Medford’s psychosis-tinged genius.” Well, that time is now! Because in 2022 Bruce Licher’s storied Independent Project Records – known for its elegant, deluxe album packages – will release on compact disc and vinyl Bare Bodkin: a 15-song career-spanning compendium (including 5 remarkable, never-released studio tracks) of which Medford says, “I approached Bare Bodkin as if it would be the last will and testament of The Ophelias, as if it alone might be our legacy – a kind of personal statement about my feelings as to the prime aesthetic thrust of The Ophelias.” The band released many other memorable studio tracks in addition to those included on this compendium, and the live albums now streamable online offer the brain a veritable universe of surprising punk and psychedelia far more edgy and garage-y than Bare Bodkin – and it’s great bold stuff! But one must agree with Medford that at The Ophelias core is high-art high-drama lysergic dream theatre, and Bare Bodkin is a pretty perfect distillation of the multifaceted and strange magic of this remarkable band.