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“Guards at the Concert” is
a perfect song to open this set. As an original song, one of two previously unreleased songs on the album, it introduces us to a Romeo Void previously guessed at if you know only their recorded work. Jay Derrah, the original drummer, not previously recorded, or, apparently, photographed with the band, starts the song off with a shuffle before Frank Zincavage wallops a bass line. Peter Woods’ guitar slips in a few repeated echoing notes, crystalline. Debora Iyall comes in with a future-classic flip-off, “The guards at the concert / are guys I’d never go out with.” The chorus of “Office / bomb shelter / air raid…,” though, is a prime example of Debora weaving seduction, dread, and danger, from the moment you walk in, whether a club or a relationship, to the moment you leave. Perhaps the specific taking down of the bouncers, part of a live band’s ecosystem after all, led to the song not being a main staple. Also, the tension of Debora’s lyrics lie in her reliance on a plain speech; here in a live set of early material, we have a chance to see what songs make it and what don’t. And once Benjamin Bossi finds a niche for his saxophone to wrestle with Debora’s vocals, comparisons to X-Ray Spex and other early punk bands suddenly become clear. On this night, not only are Romeo Void pre-”Never Say Never,” pre-Columbia records, but also pre-415 Records.
The oft-told story of the Romeo Void name being inspired by a San Francisco magazine headline, “Why straight women can’t get laid in S.F.,” is only part of the back story. Flash back to that Valentine’s Day, 1979, in San Francisco: less than three months before, the Jim Jones Temple mass suicide. Days later, the progressive mayor and a gay city supervisor were murdered by a former cop/fireman. In the summer of 1979, the light-sentence given to the assassin led to protests at the Civic Center eventually dubbed the White Night Riots. We were in a new San Francisco, far past tucking flowers in our hair. Romeo Void cut their musical teeth opening for the punk pioneer bands, Avengers, Crime, the Offs; later they shared bills with Dead Kennedys. Frank recalls that the headliner bands wouldn’t open for each other, so Romeo Void ended up opening for many of them. I lamented in the liner notes on the Sony Legacy compilation CD, WARM, IN YOUR COAT [www.romeovoid.com], the muted tone of the debut album. Hear now and you can tell why. In the year and a half since Valentine’s Day 1979, Romeo Void are well-rehearsed.
There’s no space in these liner notes to break down all the nuances for each version of the songs on the debut album. Like the other songs here that will eventually appear on the David Kahne-produced debut album, IT’S A CONDITION, “Nothing for Me” is different, and structurally solid and familiar. Compare the empty-closet paranoia of the album version, so clearly etched in the mournful wail of Benjamin’s sax that starts the album version, but not yet integrated here. Benjamin is still new to the band, joining in this night as harmony on choruses. Jay is pummeling those toms, Peter is scratching and slinging single-chord accents on guitar, while Frank’s bass lines sound like snapping cables on the Golden Gate Bridge. Debora’s sharp and sad observation of the scene continues, “everyone is wearing the same black pants,” a lyric that shows up on current internet pages about the band as indicative of the band’s disaffection with the scene. Where I hear resignation and disappointment in the album version, here I feel the band is still fighting against that, holding out some slim hope. “Dedication or medication is what we need / but there’s nothing for me.”
The set is one of three recorded live in San Francisco at the Mabuhay Gardens by Terry Hammer in 1980, recordings that were broadcast live on the UC Berkeley radio station KALX and other stations. Between a March 1980 recording by Hammer, and this one in November, Bobby Martin, of the ska-punk band the Offs, had sat in on saxophone at some shows with Romeo Void. A tape of a show from August 1980 doesn’t include either of the sax men. Five songs on this set list that weren’t on the March recording were included on IT’S A CONDITION, showing how fast the group was developing their writing skills.
“Fine Line,” another original that appears here for the first time, has more of Benjamin jumping in and alternating with Peter’s guitar, accentuating the beat. Debora’s lyrics seem tabloid-flat initially: “chin line … fine line … bee line,” but then the portrait becomes more detailed and dark: “your arm in a sling ...we won’t make it past noon….” And then, the song just shifts. For a minute and a half the band muscles and sweats, guitar, bass and sax explorations that seem to foreshadow a dozen future songs, including at least the instrumental break in their first single for 415, “White Sweater.” Frank brings in some spy-theme jauntiness, and Benjamin shows off some of his jazzier chops. Debora joins back in with the lines, “How did you get me here … sweaty but not sleazier.” Seduction, dread and danger.
The live version here of “Love Is an Illness” is more raw than on the debut album. Debora’s spoken word break on the album, meant to be background texture, was not performed live. The varied readings of the lyric, “So she thinks, So she thinks about it,” has more tension, and feels more self-affirming without the album’s confessional chat. Frank recalls the song as influenced by Talking Heads, but emphasized that band members brought in influences which were then improvised into the sound of Romeo Void. The night’s set closes with “Fear to Fear,” an emphatic rocker used as a set closer in this and in the recorded set from December. That plain sense voice is here, even on their faster, most punk rock song: “Hurt to hurt / Alone out there / there’s nothing worse.” Benjamin takes a call-and-response approach, in contrast to his nervous oscillation on the album version. Live or in the studio, the song is so perfect to my mind, I envision this as the song Ric Ocasek is rumored to have heard on the Cars’ tour bus, leading to the collaboration for the NVR SAY NVR EP.
The encore is a cover, “Double Shot.” The joyful irreverence of the Mummers and the Poppers, Debora, Jay, and Peter’s SF Art Institute party band, is on full display. The popular version of the song by Swingin’ Medallions, she recalls, was Debora’s first forty-five record. Doubling the tempo isn’t the only invigorating thing about this take. Debora sings the lyrics as written, “Girl of mine, she loved me so right;” she’s self-confident and sexual. By 1980, women were more common (slightly) on rock stages. Patti Smith had sized-up “Gloria,” leaning on that parking meter, and surmised, “ooh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine.” Still, hearing the exuberance of Debora and band embrace the song is one of the unexpected pleasures of this live recording. The line, “it was such a thrill it was hurting me, I was suffering in ecstasy” is more forthright than many that Debora sang, but grounds us for the band that one year later will unleash, “I might like you better if we slept together.”