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Romeo Void: Another Unjustly Overlooked ’80s Band

romeo void

Where are they now? What do they look like? What are they doing? Are they still friends? Still alive? Whatever happened to “fill-in-the-blank-here”? The popular, early 2000s VH-1 show Bands Reunited tried its best to answer these very questions — questions which every tried-and-true fan has asked at one point — by reuniting beloved-but-busted bands from the ‘80s for a one-time-only performance. Out of all the bands featured on that nostalgic series, Romeo Void stood out for being the most unjustly overlooked ‘80s band, a group whose wave of New Wave success ended way too soon. (And yes, I watched every episode.)

Behind every one-hit wonder in the ‘80s, there’s a break-up story that explains why they never stretched past that brief “That Thing You Do” moment in the spotlight. Let’s face it: There are plenty more bands whose success mirrored Kajagoogoo or The Waitresses than The Police or U2. The MTV of the 1980s forced bands to not only sing radio-friendly pop but also be video-friendly. Surely, Romeo Void had both of these qualities. So what went wrong?

Related:  “5 One-Hit Wonders Worth Remembering (80s Edition)”

If you’re old enough to have had a Prince or Duran Duran poster on your wall as a teen, then the opening to the song “Never Say Never” will resonate with you on a primal level. From the get-go, Romeo Void had all the makings of a huge success. Timelessly cool name: Check. Lead singer with larger-than-life personality: Check. A fun, post-punk sound that was both of-the-moment and stood out for being original: Check. Yet even if Debora Iyall was a charismatic frontwoman and strong lyricist, the music industry didn’t know what to make of this woman who was Native American, not-rail-thin, and clearly no Debbie Harry/Pat Benatar clone.

Joining Iyall for the lineup were guitarist Peter Woods, bassist Frank Zincavage, saxophonist Benjamin Bossi and drummer Aaron Smith (who replaced Jay Derrah.) Iyall and Zincavage met at the San Francisco Art Institute and the band officially formed on Valentine’s Day in 1979, its name inspired by a magazine headline “Why women can’t get laid in San Francisco.” Then with the addition of Bossi’s upbeat, pulsating sax, a signature sound took shape. As Woods noted in the Bands Reunited episode, “Ben brought beauty and lyrical horn lines that were unbelievable, straight from the heart.” Indeed, Bossi’s sweet sax playing combined with Iyall’s unique vocals helped Romeo Void stand out from the crowd.

Related: “10 Movies That Defined Being A Teen in the 1980s”

Their debut album It’s a Condition (1981) garnered critical praise and grabbed the attention of The Cars’ Ric Ocasek, who then produced their EP Never Say Never. That album’s title song came with a black-and-white video that, with its experimental art film feel, definitely laid the groundwork for “anything goes” visuals in the early days of MTV. From “Never Say Never”’s opening guitar licks, this song is almost hypnotically cool while the line “I might like you better if we slept together” delivered a feminist subtext that was totally in sync with its time.

After signing with Columbia Records in 1982, the band released a second album with a more commercial sound, so by 1984, when their third album Instincts was released, they were poised for the big time. Their single “A Girl in Trouble Is a Temporary Thing” cracked the Top 40 and proved to be their most successful single to date. And then… Nothing. As Iyall noted to Bands Reunited’s host Ameer Haleem, the label decided to pull all support halfway through their tour “and at the very next concert, there was no press. When they decide, they decide and that’s it. Bye,” she stated bluntly.

Like any band, Romeo Void had its in-fighting and jealousies but this was one instance in which the band’s dissension was “starting from the outside.” Bossi told a story of one night in the early ‘80s when the band was at the Whiskey in L.A and he looked out and saw Clive Davis and his entourage in the crowd. What happened next really summed up the record industry’s prejudicial views at the time. “Debora Iyall walks onstage… Before we even play, whoop, they’re gone.”

As Frank Zincavage noted in that same episode, Debora “represented the excitement and the exuberance of the band.” She gave the band its spirit and her voice and enthusiasm were larger than life. Romeo Void helped shape the look of MTV in its infancy with their “Never Say Never” video, but unfortunately as MTV’s popularity captured the music industry, the industry became even more fixated on bands who presented the right “look” in videos.

When it came time to film the video for “A Girl in Trouble Is a Temporary Thing” the record company insisted on putting another woman in the video. The video which has a very mid-‘80s abstract feel, but with Debora relegated to singing mostly from giant screens in the background, the song feels compromised. Soon thereafter, when the band’s promotional support was pulled, the band — understandably deflated over losing the backing of their label — broke up.

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Iyall has stated that “A Girl in Trouble Is a Temporary Thing” is her reaction to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” in which the King of Pop sings “the kid is not my son.” She wanted to come up with a song that supported girls and women in this larger cultural conversation, a conversation that is clearly still going on.

Jeff Finkle

Photo Credit: Debora Iyall of Romeo Void poses at The San Francisco Civic Center in 1979 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

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Jeff Finkle is a freelance writer and pop culture nut, living in NYC, who once wrote an article on the eternal search for the ultimate sub sandwich and has a strong passion for good and bad-but-still-good movies, TV, music and comedy. By day, he is a content manager for an advertising industry site and by night he can be found complaining about the Mets, catching up on DVR’d shows with his wife and retrieving tennis balls from under the couch while his dog impatiently waits. But, not necessarily in that order. Twitter: @JahFinkle

28 comments on “Romeo Void: Another Unjustly Overlooked ’80s Band

  1. Avatar
    DAVID FORTH

    i was there! sf art institute! i’m so old now!!! kusf radio!

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    I remember seeing them open for Jefferson Starship at Santa Clara University. They were booed. I was so embarrassed. Deborah yelled at the audience, “Jefferson Starship started the same damn way!” She deserved much better.

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    Fat-phobic industry and press, for sure.

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    they should have shot her like they did Ann Wilson from Heart – long angles, cropped tight faces, heavy makeup, hair taped to the face to slim it – it worked for Heart.

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    They should have shot her like they did Ann Wilson from Heart – tight headshots with hair glued to the face, overhead angles, long shots.

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      But why? Why shouldn’t they just film a natural looking woman?

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        Because thats how it was then , and still is no matter what you want to believe is ” correct ” . People dont change , no matter what The Huffington Post says . They just internalize real views and feelings to save trouble .

  6. Avatar

    I heard this band, their hit, on college radio, at a school that played mostly commercial radio, in the late 1980s; never saw them in the club scene, when I got back to the Bay Area — and started following music about 10 years later.
    Met DI years later and have a lot of respect for her. I would say the industry messed this up.
    Thanks for covering it.

  7. Avatar

    It’s relegated not regulated. Jeez, you get paid for this?

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    James Woody

    Louie Beeson was my partner and my Lover for over 5 years. He was Romeo Void’s live sound Man and he toured with Romeo Void for their full career. We all lost Louie in 1992 from AIDS. He is terribly missed to this day. Romeo Void were one of finest bands out of San Francisco, and I thank Howie Klein for his support in getting them signed to 415/Columbia Records. Several members happen to be friends of mine. I text Deborah infrequently as she is a teacher of young students in Southern California, though we still text from time to time. Frank Zincavage played bass in our band, Pray For Rain while we were looking for a permanent Bassist and he was a trooper for many of our live shows. We can’t thank him enough for stepping in and helping us out! Romeo Void will always have a special place in my heart. Their songs were so good, Ben Bossi (bless his heart for stepping in for the last performance of the original lineup as per Louie’s wish, when Ben was suffering from tinnitus from playing his saxophone for so many years as a member of the band)! That last performance, at Slim’s nightclub in San Francisco was so very special. It was Louie’s last wish, and he was almost totally blind from his maladies for this performance, but his EARS were firing on 100%!!! He was so happy that he got to do their live mix one last time!!! I miss you Louie. I love you, and so many others love you, too. You were a kind soul and a beautiful partner to me and none of us will EVER forget you! Rest in Peace, my Gentle Soul….Love you madly!

    • Avatar
      Lilli Blackthorn

      Thank you for sharing sweet memories. It is apparent how much you still miss your sweetheart.

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      LuAnn Littleton

      What a beautiful & poignant tribute. Thank you. I love this band so much. Deborah paved the way along with Ann Wilson for the Lizzos of today! She should get credit for that. Their music stands today!!! Bring it back! What a sad, sad loss for music. James Woody I am so sorry for your pain. I love hearing the story though. We need more! Love and blessings.

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      Shannon Buzard

      Thank you. Thank you, thank you for this tribute.

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    Ridiculous that one of rocks best female leads was ignored for body image. Her voice is amazing, the bands sound is terrific and unique. “Instincts” is one of my 10 favorite albums of all time. Sassy, fun, challenging, tight, and explosive. I have fringe type musical tastes that cross the alternative and pop genres, and RV is the perfect combination. They are the obvious band on my cd shelf that truly should have had commercial success but didn’t.

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    If Debora Iyall came packaged in Terri Nunn’s body, Romeo Void would have been as big as Blondie. That Romeo Void were discriminated against for such a shallow, sexist reason is the single biggest crime in all my years of listening to music. They were completely unique and utterly brilliant. I’m proud to say I saw them live.

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    Joseph N Adkins

    Wow! I loved this group! To hear about the discrimination is so sad . The industry sucks from this stand point.

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    When a fat, unattractive girl is snarling at you, “ I might like you better if we slept together,“ all most guys will do is laugh. It was a one joke band.

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    Shouldn’t go without noting Larry Carter played drums on NVR SAY NVR.

  14. Avatar

    Because it was the only song you ever heard and your prejudice stopped you there. You have no idea…

  15. Avatar
    Daniel Picard

    I worked 16 years in record shops amd was on charge of biyong the stock for most of theses years, i saw so much injustice. Great artist were not getting airplay or publicized for all kinds of dumb reasons. I really loved Romeo void and bought their ep at the time. A girl in trouble is still one my favorite 80’s song. It a shame how the industry treatedt them and a lot of other musicians.

  16. Avatar
    Stephen J. Huerta

    I remember seeing Romeo void, with The Brat at
    A bar in Long Beach, I wanna say Al’s Bar, but not
    sure. Does any remember that, we’re you there?
    If so, do you remember the date (ticket stub). I need the date and place for a book I’m writing,
    chroniclizing all the concerts I went to growing up in Southern California. Thank you.
    Stephen Huerta
    elprogloco@yahoo.com

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    Julia Stephens

    Saw Romeo Void opening for U2 at Hollywood Palladium in 81 or 82. I might of lost my tic stub but I remember it was a magical night. I enjoyed Romeo Void more than U2.

  18. Avatar
    Danny Gromfin

    Anyone know if Frank Zincavage is related to Diane Zincavage, the noted album cover design?

  19. Avatar
    Desert Tortoise

    I saw them play at the Reseda Country Club in June of 81 I think, just weeks after an outstanding Steppenwolf show there. I knew some of their songs but never bothered to look at any photos or videos of them. Too busy working and going to college ! So I will confess that when Debra Iyall walked out on stage my buddy and I thought it was going to be a gag act before the main band performed. What’s with the fat chick in fishnets and almost see through clothing? Then she sang and my buddy and I looked at each other surprised. Holy crap, that’s her! Wow. Ok, yeah, we were products of the time and expected a more Bangles-esque looking singer so flame me if you wish. Didn’t detract from the show, just a surprise. I still loved the sax, first time I had heard one in a rock band but he really made it work, and that little signature sort of off chord twang on the guitar at the opening chords of “I Might Like You Better if we Slept Together”. Forced a little attitude adjustment on our part.

  20. Avatar
    newwavedrummer007

    Larry Carter was the drummer after Jay Derrah, my God, do your homework!!! and Bossi lost his hearing from painkillers, his excuse is b.s.

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