Let’s have it right: no other band sound, or made sounds like Romeo Void. It isn’t just the saxophone or the synths. Romeo Void had something else that set it apart from other songwriters and musicians – her name is Debora Iyall and her writing was fundamentally rooted in poetry, while her appearance was striking enough to send one record executive apparently storming out of an industry event. In many ways, Romeo Void were consistently thwarted by forces around them, including the culture of the time. This is a band who have been shockingly underappreciated, overlooked, and relegated to a half-remembered lyric. For me, Romeo Void are and always will be one of the most important bands of the ’80s. They more than match The Smiths, Fun Boy Three, Blake Babies, Sonic Youth, The B-52’s (yes), and Throwing Muses in terms of personal significance and emotional impact. They were, and continue to be, essentially important to me. On a basic level, their albums have never left my iPod, and I don’t think they ever will. They will likely be regarded as a one-hit wonder, but that only hints at what Romeo Void can offer new listeners in different times.
I first heard Romeo Void through Yahoo! Radio. Remember how you could find a station and listen to your favourite bands in a little box tab that just popped up on your screen? All that music through tinny little speakers, and a resolution of 800×600. My headphones kept me connected/confined to the PC in the college library, where no-one seemed to take out books. It might have been because I was listening to Siouxsie And The Banshees, but a song just…happened. A girl in trouble is a temporary thing, came a voice, which sounded seductive, strong, and somehow exposed as well. I’ll never forget it: music still makes me remember. Immediately I stopped what I was going and brought up the radio station to see the title of the song and the name of the band. Romeo Void. Possibly the best name ever, I’d say. What did it mean? Romeo’s dead? No love? The song was A Girl In Trouble (Is A Temporary Thing). Immediately I went on a mission, dropping my journalism studies, if only for a few minutes. Amazon didn’t have their albums readily at hand, so I tried eBay and found Benefactor, which didn’t have the song I wanted. It didn’t matter, that would come in time, after all, I still had Yahoo! Radio. I bought the album and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Shipping was a little longer than usual back then. However, the CD arrived eventually, dropping onto my doormat.
When I listened to the album, I couldn’t believe this band wasn’t still around. Why weren’t they selling out everything? Then again, it didn’t take long to discover something of a backstory. The internet is full of useless ephemera, but fans put their love online, keeping history with all the dedication of the true devotee. Debora Iyall wasn’t easy to market back in the ’80s. Native American, talented, large. Actually, no, large is too polite, too correct. She was fat. That’s what people in suits with contracts in pockets thought. MTV made music accessible, but it turned music into a mostly visual statement. Debora, who looked amazing by the way, should have been prized and valued for what she was, rather than what she wasn’t, what the suits wanted her to be. Unmarketable? Rubbish. As a fatso myself (albeit one who is currently dropping weight in fear of Covid), I thought Debora was cool as fuck. Years later, everyone would rightly laud Beth Ditto, regarding her as an inspirational figure. Debora’s voice is every bit as excellent as Beth’s voice, but one was given a chance by the industry and the other undermined. I love MTV/I hate MTV.
The most famous song Debora ever wrote, the closest thing to a hit the band scored, was Never Say Never, which has the iconic lyrics that even the non initiated might recognise:
I might like you better if we slept together/But there’s something
In your eyes that says/Maybe that’s never/Never say never
Singing about such things probably didn’t help Debora (and the band) but if you’re going to have a song sum up your career, then my goodness you can’t get better. Undercover Kept is the work of a band working perfectly as a whole. Sleek, sexy, and coolly indifferent, it features some of Debora’s most oblique lyrics, yet oddly suggestive too.
There’s two shows more/Sequined costumes of the night/Undercover/Undercover.
Orange is another highlight, completely showcasing Romeo Void’s strengths. The saxophone is mournful, the guitars perfectly aligned. Lyrically, it features some of my favourite lyrics by Debora.
In my dream I have a secret
The pictures I’ve drawn look on convinced
While the dishwasher changes from wash to rinse
I miss the horses I used to ride
It’s more fun when you wanna go out but you stay inside
And the world disappears
For me, Benefactor is perfect. It offers so much and hinted at a band with something special to say, showcased a voice that was cut off far too early. The follow-up album Instincts is similarly strong, but suffered the indignity of having all support cut off by the record label in the middle of a tour. How can you continue to do what you love when everything is seemingly against you? Years later, Romeo Void continue to find new followers, myself included. They aren’t an obscure sidenote any more, but they also aren’t venerated the way they ought to be. Occasionally, they’ll pop up when you least expect it. From Queens of the Stone Age doing a cover of Never Say Never to a random radio station on Gran Theft Auto giving gamers a chance to hear Debora sing about love and sex while they drive through a digitised world, it seems like Romeo Void might still get the kudos they richly deserve.