Romeo Void (1985) | Columbia Records
Romeo Void (1985) | Columbia Records

Love in a Void: Romance and Fear in the Songs of New Wave’s Romeo Void

San Francisco’s new wave band Romeo Void exists in a curious interstice between the social context of the early ‘80s while being wholly prescient of our era of #MeToo.

Romeo Void’s true calling card came at the very end of 1981. Never Say Never, a four-track EP, yielded their most notable single with its title track. An edgily relentless groove that overlaps panicked poetry with a jogging bassline, icepick guitars, and a caterwauling sax, Iyall’s sly, bitter come-ons are précised in her most distressing and darkly cynic lyric: “I might like you better if we slept together.” Produced by the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, “Never Say Never” propelled the band beyond their cultishly small fanbase, earning them a larger platform once they entered the MTV market.

“Never Say Never” carries the hard-edged sentiments of soured love, an irony that runs deep in the vitriolic atmospheres that surround a city of hit-and-run relationships. Merging its post-punk designs with a dance-club dynamism, the single followed on the heels of the works of other contemporary artists who proffered a similar aesthetic of the punk-meets-dance extraction; namely the Slits, Delta 5 and, more pointedly, Au Pairs, for their groove and their sexual politics. With “Never Say Never”, Iyall minted her status among the frank and confident female songwriters of the day (Deborah Harry, Ari Up, Patti Smith, Poly Styrene) who boldly stated their personal woes in the matters of sex. As daring a lyric today as it was in 1981, “Never Say Never” refers to Iyall’s greatest attributes as a storyteller, confining the intimate bedlams of the streets within the contours of a quick and sharp pop song. The number pulses with danger and excitement – moods that are carried over into the other compositions on the EP.  

On “In the Dark”, a song about romantic intimacies going stale in the dead of night, Iyall sings with flatlining conviction: “This is not my idea of a good time…” A propulsive 4/4 rhythm suggests a night under the club strobe lights in Mabuhay Gardens, the neon of similar lights flashing from the signs of storefronts across the apartment in which both Iyall and her lover in the song are situated. In “Present Tense”, the singer describes a relationship from which she desperately wishes to escape. The guilt and anxiety of confronting her lover are built up to a chorused profession: “I’m not turning on you!” Meanwhile, she looks out over the streets of her neighborhood that lie desolate before her. The number expands into the more melodic quarters of the band’s talents, with glittering guitars, a sailing sax, and a bassline that shoulders the bulk of the tune.

The final number on the EP, “Not Safe” details the wealth of dangers encountered by those living just below the poverty line during the Reagan era. Over a bold strut of riffing drums, Iyall intones a conversional lyric of having to navigate her San Francisco neighborhood with just a handful of change that will barely pay for groceries or cover bus fare. The darkness of the city streets is never far from the minds of the band, and there is a weight that tethers these songs to a certain depression of the disenfranchised. Iyall, in her weariness, manages a hopeful statement of impoverished youth, a yearning and determined vocal exclaiming: “It’s hard when your needs aren’t met, to do what you like and to give your best.”

Such sentiments are expertly segued into the band’s second full-length LP, Benefactor (1982), which includes a shorter, radio edit of the band’s signature tune, “Never Say Never.” It also includes a host of dynamic, punk-flushed dance numbers that shift an even tighter focus onto the rhythm section. Larry Carter, who replaced drummer John Haines for the Never Say Never EP, joins the band for drumming duties again on the sophomore LP. Favoring a more club-styled form of rhythm, Carter helped pushed the band toward an era that was just exploring the mechanized rhythms of synthesizers. While the band never traverses the boundaries of their rock band structures, they, with the addition of Carter, locate an aesthetic that arrogates the clubby textures found in the early works of Depeche Mode and New Order.

A lither rhythm emerges on numbers like “Flashflood”, a song that returns Iyall to the themes of urban poverty, this time within the context of romantic relationships. A crumbling apartment, riddled with dirty carpeting, leaky ceilings, broken windows, and broken furniture, is paralleled with a crumbling relationship. Forgoing, momentarily, the signature deadpan accents that mark her delivery, Iyall sings desperately – and of her desperation – over the loose stretch of moody, new wave pop.

Deserted parking lots in the dark of night are evoked on the boxy throb of “Orange”, drained of all the inner-city fears once the erogenous passions take over. A sturdier rhythm takes shape in Carter’s drumming, the guitars more pointed in their ancillary movements with Iyall’s sing-speak. It’s the middle of the night, the parking lots are “slick like blood”. It’s the scene of a crime-in-waiting – until the dank atmosphere is circumvented by a verse that details the safety provided by an apartment and its attendant furnishings. In the kitchen, the dishwasher switches from wash to rinse; Iyall, meanwhile, sits and dreams of the long-gone security of domestic childhood amidst recollections of a long-gone lover.

Edging back toward their punk origins, the band delineates an at once integrated and isolated culture on “Chinatown”, a number fraught with tight-wire tension and an air of danger. Alternately chiming and buzzing, the guitars work their way through the double-punches of frantic drums. Iyall describes cultural and emotional transactions taking place on San Francisco’s Grant Avenue and Stockton Street, trading in her usual wry spoken poems for growling harmonies.

All over Benefactor, the city streets are evoked with a sobering realism that curiously locates a poetic nerve. Amidst Iyall’s confessionals, the band engenders various rhythms to keep time with the charge of her expressive relays. Carter, Woods, Zincavage, and Bossi collectively conjure tension to produce a heavy persuasion of heat, sex, and angst, squaring off the energies to perimeters that contain some of the era’s most insidiously seductive grooves. The production techniques on “Undercover Kept” smartly appropriate the cutting and scratching of hip-hop over a vibrating bassline. A cover of the Isaac Hayes-penned tune “Wrap it Up”, originally performed and recorded by Sam & Dave, is reinvented as a new wave rocker, reconfigured with a melody that renders it nearly unrecognizable from the original.

By 1984, Carter had left the band and was replaced by drummer Aaron Smith, who had once drummed for Ray Charles and the Temptations. Given Smith’s background in R&B, it was natural that the band’s latest endeavors on their album Instincts (1984) would encompass soul music, as evidenced on the Top 40 single “A Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing)”. Reputedly a response to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, “A Girl in Trouble” further draws the narrative of a lone woman in the city, navigating the dangerous waters of romance and crime: “There’s a way to walk that says, ‘stay away’, and a time to go around the long way,” Iyall sings. A clipped rhythm of the R&B persuasion houses a more tuneful slide of bass, guitar, and sax; Iyall’s voice affects a more tender delivery of caution, still retaining the sense of urgency that has imbued all of the band’s work, even within the more pop context here.

Instincts, however, continues Romeo Void’s preoccupation with their post-punk stylings. The knife-edged guitar lines still invade the influences of pop and R&B, and the drums attack with ferocity. Even when the tunes turn sweeter, Iyall retains all her acerbity for her most pressing lyrics. “Just Too Easy”, a prose poem read with breathless panic, recalls the clear-eyed, hard-edged characters found in the stories by Tama Janowitz. “How fair can I be?/ How big is this mistake?/ You have a cigarette and I have a headache/ Nothing makes me lonelier than a phone call to you/ You’re waiting for nothing to be nowhere soon.” A punkishly cool, racing, sax-edged new waver with R&B leanings, “Just Too Easy” typifies Iyall’s talent for the observant lyric, her stories, once again, referring to sources of a more literary extraction than ones of popular music.

Hypocrisies in relationships under the dawn of the yuppie age are surveyed in “Your Life is a Lie”, a conviction of both Iyall’s punk origins and her predilection for skirting the wider cultural status quo as both a woman and an artist. A restless storm of echoing guitars and charging drums precipitates around a lyric that outlines the miseries of pretenses: “When a woman comes into your line of sight, automatically you gauge how hard to try/ What you say at home is not the rule on the road…I am what I say I am/ Your life is a lie next to mine.”

Pushing for designs that demarcate the band’s pop inclinations with even stronger intent, “Say No”, a blustery rocker, stretches the lines of desire to their most urgent reaches. Smith, Bossi, Woods, and Zincavage manage a comfortable friction of rhythm that retains the band’s danceable edge; meanwhile, Iyall sharpens the number’s hook with a percipient lyric about generational malaise: “I’m sick of this heat and I’m sick of the flack and I’m sick that nothing can ever be planned…Say it ain’t so/ Were we ten years younger five years ago?” Never have the despairs and anxieties of the Gen X demographic been encapsulated so pointedly in a pop song, and Romeo Void render the transitional point between youth and adulthood with an abandon that is at once intemperate and mournfully sad.

Fittingly, for the end of an album and the end of a career, the album’s title-track signals the closing of an era in which the band came to prominence. “Instincts” is about acquiescence and resignation, giving up the longstanding struggle of living life as a lone intransigent of the very culture that made you. A ballad forlorn with a wistfully searching sax, Iyall sings of leaving home and the difficult circumstances that have kept her there. “I trust your instincts, I get what you say/ I trust your instincts, I’m going your way/ I’m going with you.”

“Instincts” seems a personal account of a life being ushered out of an era of danger and possibility and into a new one of uncertainty and stillness, as the decade’s Reaganomics quickly took over. Here, Iyall sounds as though she feels lost but cautiously hopeful; sentiments that would ultimately get the best of the band when their record company, Columbia, pulled the plug on its support of the album halfway through the band’s tour in 1985. Romeo Void shortly broke up afterwards, each member going their separate ways.

According to reports, Woods would enroll in law school before opening a school in Japan years later, where he would teach English. Zincavage continued on as a session player for various bands, as did Smith, who also picked up a career in insurance. Bossi continued with various musical projects before eventually succumbing to a hearing loss that would end his musical career. Iyall followed Instincts with a solo album in 1986, entitled Strange Language, a work that played on her strengths as a lyricist in the dimensions of mid-’80s new wave rock. Later, she would become an art teacher, while continuing to release albums independently.

Romeo Void exists in a curious interstice that frames their work within a bygone social context of the early ‘80s while being wholly prescient. Given the rise of social movements like #MeToo, where the tribulations of women in the midst of rape culture are now widely dissected with considerable care, Iyall’s lyrics are incredibly vatic. Her comments on women living under the terrifying patriarchy of sexual violence and romance seem eerily isolated from those of her fellow songwriters of the ‘80s. Yet, her words boldly project into a restless and turbulent present that now holds a once-acceptable idea of female sexuality, long deemed subservient under the male gaze, in widespread contempt. The bitter ironies of Iyall’s words, her fearless counters to a collective of male subjugators, ring with a clarity that stretches, from the very point they were manifested, across these last four decades to leave their indelible impression on the “now” of today’s culture.

Even in light of their very female-centric narratives, Iyall’s words transcend the boundaries of gender, the fears and desires at once consigned to the personal and divorced from its relator. Backed by a crack band who drive the rhythms toward a meaningful cross-section of sound and poetry, Iyall finds an ideal space to posit her most sincere revelations of the female struggle in succinct pop compositions. Intuitively aligned with Iyall’s narratives, the band simulates, with their instruments, the stark and alarming details of her stories: a drum keeping time with a racing heartbeat, a bass pumping like the rush of blood, the saxophone catching like a scream in the throat, and the flash of guitars just barely lighting the strange man behind a creaking door…