Essay: Romeo Void — Live from Mabuhay Gardens 1980

Note: The following is an essay I wrote for inclusion in the April 2023 CD release of a live show by Romeo Void. Thanks to a late-breaking veto by a former band member (who’ll remain unnamed) who had it in for me for reasons unknown, the essay wasn’t used: at that individual’s demand, I was to have nothing to do with the project. (We’ve never spoken; it should be noted that despite my repeated requests, said individual would not grant an interview to provide perspective for the Romeo Void chapters of my book about 415 Records.) I remain proud of the essay, so rather than let it languish unread forever, I’m posting it here. The live album it references is pretty fine stuff. – bk

In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, San Francisco was home to a vital, vibrant new wave and punk scene. And it’s thanks in no small part to the creativity of one of those SF bands – Romeo Void – that the scene attracted wider notice, leading to critical and (measured) commercial breakthroughs on a national level. This arcival recording captures the band right on the cusp of its “discovery” (a clumsy term for Romeo Void’s relationship with San Francisco’s homegrown indie record label 415 Records), at a time when none of the band’s sharp, jagged edges had been smoothed – however skillfully – in the recording studio by future superstar producer David Kahne.

As Howie Klein would recount in my history of 415 Records, he stumbled upon Romeo Void when the band was auditioning for a gig at Mabuhay Gardens, a local Filipino restaurant that transformed after dinner hours into a live music club. Howie was taking music journalist Lester Bangs on an uproariously drunken (Bangs, not Klein) walking tour of the city, and when he heard intriguing music coming from inside the former Italian men’s club built in 1919 at 443 Division Street, he took the opportunity to investigate, placing a passed-out Bangs prone on a series of chairs while he listened to the band.

Romeo Void’s Debora Iyall and Ben Bossi live onstage with Romeo Void at The Second Chance, not in 1980 but instead in ’82. Photo © Chipper Saam.

At that point in Romeo Void’s history, the band was without a saxophonist. While Benjamin Bossi’s sax would become a signature part of the band’s success, the band’s first encounter with Howie happened before he had joined (and after the departure of another sax player who had left to join another local band, Naked City). It’s testament to the power of Romeo Void – then featuring vocalist Debora Iyall, Peter Woods (guitar), bassist Frank Zincavage and drummer Jay Derrah – that even without Bossi, they made a deep impression on Klein. He offered them a record deal right there and then, but they put him off.

Even though Klein was known for having his finger on the pulse of the local music scene, at that point in 1980 he somehow he hadn’t yet heard Romeo Void. “We were having some success getting crowds,” Iyall tells me. “Every party time we got invited [to play], we’d play.” But they had yet to commit any of their music to tape.

“Howie just wanted us to put out a 45 [r.p.m. single record],” Iyall recalls. “We said no!” The group wanted to write and develop more original material first. “Then we want to put out an album,” she told 415’s co-founder. But at that point, 415 was still focusing on singles, having released records by The Nuns (with a young Alejandro Escovedo), The Offs, SVT (with former Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady), Pearl Harbor and Explosions and a handful of other SF bands. Operating on a shoestring budget at best, 415 had only released two LPs, one a compilation of local bands called 415 Music and another the first album by synthpunk pioneers The Units.

By the time the subject came up again, the songwriting team of Iyall, Woods and Zincavage felt they had come up with enough good songs, and Howie was receptive to the prospect of making an album. And the critical piece of the band’s musical puzzle was now in place. “By then, we had Benjamin,” Iyall emphasizes. “The sound really gelled in between those times.”

The performance captured on this release took place on a Friday night in mid-November 1980 after the band’s encounter with Howie but before the parties came to any kind of agreement. Though he’s not heard on this recording, the night’s festivities were likely emceed by Dirk Dirksen, the mischievously confrontational master of ceremonies at the “Fab Mab.” Romeo Void basts through a set featuring nearly all original material.

Of the eleven songs the band played in that night’s 42-minute set, eight would be committed to tape a few months later in the studio with Kahne. But these fiery, no-holds-barred live readings of the tunes have an edgier, more immediate vibe, crackling with the urgent energy that can come with playing in front of a receptive audience. Two songs, the set opener “Guards” and “Fine Line” have never been officially released in any form until now.

While Romeo Void was never a covers band, they did on occasion interpret the work of others. In addition to “Apache” (not played this November night), Live From the Mabuhay Gardens features a classic that was a popular part of the band’s set. Iyall recalls that “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love)” was first single she ever owned. The tune – a “beach music” classic by The Swingin’ Medallions” – was a hit in 1966. “I thought it was a dirty song,” Iyall admits with a chuckle. “That’s why I liked it.” She says that years later she’d be mortified to learn – courtesy of her husband – that The Swingin’ Medallions were not a “bunch of greasers” as she had imagined. “They were kind of a frat rock band!” she says, grimacing. In any event, recast live at The Mab by Romeo Void, “Double Shot” is transformed into a punky dance raver.

Within months of that Mabuhay Gardens show – one of many that Romeo Void played – things happened quickly. The band signed with Howie’s label, and at the insistence of David Kahne (the label’s unofficial “house producer”) Derrah was let go, replaced for recording sessions by John Stench from Pearl Harbor and the Explosions.

After releasing a single (“White Sweater” backed with a cover of the instrumental “Apache”) in 1981 and following it up in short order with the full-length It’s a Condition, Romeo Void began touring beyond the Bay Area. While in Boston, they attracted the attention of Ric Ocasek. The Cars leader had recently ventured into production, achieving good results with NYC punk duo Suicide. He brought Romeo Void into his studio with engineers Walter Turbitt and Ian Taylor, and produced sessions for an EP, Never Say Never.

With its remarkable title track, that four-song record piqued the interest of major labels, many of which tried to buy Romeo Void’s contract out from 415. Howie and co-founder Chris Knab wanted all of the label’s acts to benefit from a potential deal, so they held out for an offer that brought other 415 artists into a distribution deal. Never Say Never ended up being the bait that hooked big-fish Columbia Records, and a subsequent deal led to major-label status for Romeo Void plus The Renegades (soon renamed Wire Train), The Red Rockers and Translator.

But the fuse was lit before Romeo Void entered the studio, even before they signed with Howie. Listening back some 40-plus years after Terry Hammer recorded the band live for broadcast on KUSF, all of the qualities that Made Romeo Void remarkable were on display that night at the Mabuhay Gardens. Iyall’s lyrics were always intelligent, often provocative and consistently memorable. “I had no training in writing songs, so it wasn’t like I was really into melody or anything,” she says. Ben Bossi’s playing was wholly free of the cheesiness that characterized sax solos in much of that era’s pop music. “We listened to a lot of English bands,” Iyall notes, pointing out that where sax was concerned, they looked to the music of Bryan Ferry and X-Ray Spex for inspiration.

And while each of the group’s five members brought something special to the mix, Iyall is a believer in the sum-of-the-parts philosophy where her old band is concerned. “Frank and Peter wanted to do interesting things with their instruments, things that didn’t rely on solos,” she says. By design, Romeo Void was an ensemble.

Ultimately, Iyall suggests that a live recording such as Live From The Mabuhay Gardens captures something about Romeo Void that the studio sessions might not have done. “I think we were a little more raucous live,” she says. “We definitely wanted to make music you could dance to.”