A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.
One thing that made post-punk in the UK so interesting was all the women involved. Despite the egalitarian politics, punk was pretty much still a boys’ club; the few women involved in the “100 days of punk” seemed to spend more time proving they could hang than making any actual musical contribution.
Post punk changed all of that. Once the punks had kicked the doors in, the really interesting ideas followed them through, feminism being one of them. In places like Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester, even London, it was suddenly possible for women to be more than just tambourine bangers and hood ornaments. Groups like Delta 5, Raincoats, Essential Logic and even the Slits would start making serious music that people listened to and thought about on the same level as the music men were making, occasionally an even higher one.
It was different here in the US. Despite it’s bowery origins, punk never had a chance in the ‘States. By 1981, post-punk/new wave was little more than a series of small bonfires flickering in various college towns. The term “punk” had pretty much become a punchline, fit for the odd sit-com plot or SNL sketch. When the most serious discussion of punk rock is on an episode of Quincy, you know your movement is pretty much done for. Worse, the seemingly overnight success of Blondie and the Pretenders convinced US record labels that all they needed to look “new wave” was a chick singer fronting a troop of skinny tie boys. Even the GoGos, known as one of the rowdiest bands in the LA scene had their edges buffed off by their label on the way to becoming [literal] covergirls, while on the East Coast, the B52s would start making a ton of money off Kate Pierson and Cindy WIlson’s matching camp-party girl images.
Seemingly undeterred by the mainstream, all those local bonfires kept burning,One of the brightest was in San Francisco, where the original DIY values of punk met the Haight Asbury hangover left behind by the situationist hippy crowd. Nurtured and abetted by a civic flair for the unorthodox and low rents for artists, the San Francisco scene grew into a diverse affair that could support the agit-prop mock hardcore of the Dead Kennedys, the mysterioso conceptual art of The Residents, the Eurocentric drone poetry of Tuxedomoon and techno pop of the Units.
Deborah Iyall wasn’t an artist when she started visiting San Francisco to see Patti Smith play there. Inspired by Smith, the San Francisco art scene and a fortune cookie [her story not mine], Iyall was soon enrolled at the SF Art Institute where she eventually met bassist Frank Zincavage and guitarist Peter Woods, the nucleus Romeo Void, named in honor of a local magazine article lamenting the lack of romantic/sexual opportunities for women in the SF area [well, yeah]. Romeo Void started playing the club/warehouse scene, growing a following as they filled out their sound with the addition of saxophonist Ben Bossi. They quickly hooked up with local indie label 415 records for a debut single “White Sweater” which led to the making of their debut LP It’s a Condition.
Like the scene the band coalesced in you can hear the disparate influences clashing and mixing from the start: “Myself to Myself” rolls in like clouds on John Haines drizzling hi-hat and Bossi’s fog-horn sax wail. Woods alternates between slashes of rhythm and droplets of arpeggio as Iyall and Zincavage supply the thunder and lighting. While Iyall claims Patti Smith as an influence, her vocals go back further, past the romanticism of Smith to the colder, darker rain soaked style of the beats. It’s plain to see that Iyall doesn’t see herself as a singer, but a musician who plays words much like other people play instruments. Her bandmates, meanwhile, sound confident in their ability and unafraid to show what they can do; part of what made the first waves of post-punk so exciting was the idea of actual musicians building on the DIY-ethos that punk started, adding their musical muscle to the effort. Romeo Void are a perfect example of what this sounds like when it really works. More importantly, they’re comfortable enough to not play when necessary, taking a jazz-combo approach, which must have thrilled and inspired Iyal, who matches her band’s assurance.
Having no qualms with presenting herself as an Artist and Poet, Iyall feels free to speak her mind in some extremely bold type on Condition. There isn’t a song on this album where you don’t catch yourself wondering “wait, wait…what did she say?” Her free-verse lyrics deal in raw emotions: love [unrequited, occasionally unspoken], desire [both emotional and physical], anger, release, regret…you name it, if it’s dark and rough, it’s in her words. “Nothing for Me” rumbles and snarls as she spits words in the music’s face. She teases and sneers on “Talk Dirty to Me” making the trading of emotional connection for sexual gratification sound easier than it ever is].
Oddly, Iyall is most vulnerable, when she deigns to actually sing, as on “Love is an Illness [to be endured].” She mourns and wails, bruised and angry and resigned as the band plays on. The charging “White Sweater” is probably the most “new wave” track here [which is probably why it broke them on the college circuit], and ironically the saddest song on the record, as it deals with the real-life suicide of Iyall’s sister. Woods’ cascading guitar riff tumbles into the charging rhythm of Zincavage and Haines as Iyall turns personal anguish into a repertorial exercise, as if she can lessen the pain by depicting it in black and white. We know better, but we care enough about her to stand back and let her handle the business as she will.
Side two of It’s a Condition leans more towards the kind of sounds that would eventually become staples of the “college rock” or “alternative” genres that major labels would mine through the 80s as the MTV era progressed. “Charred Remains” alternates between pretty guitars and moody rhythms as Iyall goes from a whisper to a growl. “Confrontation” and “Fear to Fear” mine the “dance rock” territory that bands like the B52s were doing well, but Romeo Void holds an edge to it that’s still all theirs, overpowering any chance of sounding cliched. “I Mean It” closes the record with an emotional, thunderous note as Iyall comes just this close to the space of her idol Patti Smith. From start to finish, the album is as textured and striking as the cover art [by Iyall], which was as singular as the music itself.
It’s a Condition was about as close to a hit as an indie record could be in 1981. Critics in the US and UK hailed it as an instant classic and the band started touring heavily. A recording session with the Cars’ Ric Ocasek producing yielded the four song Never Say Never ep, which gained the band a ton of notoriety, mostly for the title song’s lyric “I might like you better/If we slept together” which, while true to Iyall’s style basically made the song into a novelty [a common pitfall for “new wave” bands at the time], but still raised the profile 415 records, leading to a deal with Columbia records, landing Romeo Void in the “mainstream.” More problematic was Columbia’s attitude towards Iyall’s weight and looks; remember, the whole idea behind major labels signing “new wave” bands was to have a “cool punk chick” [eg: attractive] fronting a bunch of ringers and Deborah Iyall, while an Artist , Poet and True Original, she wasn’t the least bit interested in being [or becoming] “cool” for a record label or anyone else. Let’s face it, you don’t write a song like “White Sweater” if you’re trying to be “cool.”
Romeo Void’s second album Benefactor peaked at #119 on the pop charts, which was pretty encouraging for a new band at the time. “Never Say Never” kept them in the public eye and allowed them to make a third album Instincts in 1984. The radio-friendly single “A Girl In Trouble [Is a Temporary Thing]” was Iyall’s angry reply to Michael Jackson’s hit “Billie Jean” which dealt with an alleged paternity suit against the future King of Pop. Ironically, the label pretty much rendered the song’s message moot when it insisted Iyall not be prominently featured in the video that accompanied the song. Despite the song breaking the Billboard Top 40, Columbia lost interest in Romeo Void and pulled almost all label support while the band was in the middle of a tour. Iyall claims the label gave up on them due to her weight, an assertion no one who was there seems to disagree with. With it’s collective spirit broken by personal tensions and industry stupidity, Romeo Void broke up shortly after getting back home to San Francisco. Long out of print in its’ original form, It’s A Condition was finally re-released as a budget two-fer with Iyall’s first solo album Strange Language [which nobody ever heard anywhere].
Today Romeo Void are little more than a footnote, more remembered for the fateful line from “Never Say Never” [which you hear occasionally on “80’s rewind” hour] than anything else. Those lucky enough to have been there at the beginning recall them as a bright spot in a legendary scene and every bit the equal to contemporaries like X, REM and The Replacements. More than anything, it seems like they were victims of the US marketplace and it’s short-term/quick-buck approach to post punk/new wave [not to mention it’s cretinous attitude towards women].. Had they formed in Birmingham or Glasgow or Dublin, they probably would have been super heroes to the Rough Trade set and still lauded as trail blazers to this day and not just a Temporary Thing.
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