Can a band be systematically of its time while also being ahead of its time? That’s the question that the legacy of 80’s new wave band Romeo Void poses today. Lead singer and songwriter Debora Iyall delivered the most iconic line of a decade in the lyrics for “Never Say Never”, the band’s biggest hit, when she confidently declared “I might like you better if we slept together” across the airwaves. In these nine simple words, the nihilism of an endless loop of brain-dead parties combined with the overt sexual aggression of a powerful feminist voice, though the line may have unintentionally inspired the types of yuppie scenesters the band preferred to criticize.
Formed in San Francisco at the end of the 1970’s by Iyall and her fellow art school classmates Benjamin Bossi, Peter Woods and Frank Zincavage, the band carried the feisty DIY spirit of the dying punk genre into the group’s more new wave sound. Bossi played saxophone, for example, so his jazz-influenced riffs often invade pulsing guitar rhythms and more synthesized dance elements. They were scrappy, so they used what they had even when it clashed. In fact, part of interpreting Romeo Void now involves grappling with the contradictory elements of the band’s music. This is most notable in the subversive politics and radical themes that Iyall would sneak into the pop songs. A song like “Not Safe” explores gentrification and inequality — in the tragic sense of irony, Iyall would later find herself priced out of San Francisco — while “A Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing)” offered a response to Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” from the perspective of a woman dealing with a deadbeat dad in denial.
According to legend, Iyall enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute after a fortune cookie advised her to seek out a career as an artist. It was there that she met her future band members and formed Romeo Void. Since the band's breakup in 1985, she has worked as a visual artist while continuing to pursue music as a solo artist and collaborator.
At the core of all these contradictions was the band’s charismatic front woman. In an age of pop music conformity — think glam rock David Bowie emerging with a business suit and slicked hair — Iyall was uncompromising in her determination to simply be herself. Of American Indian heritage, she proudly declared she wouldn’t dye her hair blonde as she made her way through one of the whitest musical genres. A woman with a hefty frame, she presented her sexuality with no apologies, referencing Anaïs Nin and putting forward a vision of what we might call sex positive feminism today. At the same time, she refused to be sexualized by the traditional male gaze and criticized the music industry for its treatment of female artists. Iayll wasn’t wrong, even if these stances may have doomed the band. Even legitimate female talents like Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde were undoubtedly aided by their movie star good looks in that era.
Interestingly, Iyall and Romeo Void might serve as a case study of artists who lost the musical battle of the moment while also winning the cultural war. Today, a plus-size American Indian feminist singer with sneaky “woke” politics wouldn’t be considered a liability. It would define the band’s image.
All photos licensed via the Creative Commons. The authors have not endorsed their use in this context.