Thursday, June 14, 2018

Speak/Talk: Talk Dirty (To Me)



Romeo Void: Talk Dirty (To Me)
[purchase]

Romeo Void briefly shone brightly in the New Wave world with a sound that mixed punk, dance, jazz and funk, fronted by the sexy, soulful voice of Debora Iyall. And yet, after a handful of successful albums, EPs and singles, a major label contract, and packed concerts, they broke up within 5 years. Iyall has maintained that the main reason that the band gave up was because she was overweight. In an interview in 2003, she stated: "Howie [Klein] sold us from 415 [Records] to Columbia Records, and they were like 'Who's this fat chick?' They decided that was as far as it was going to get, and pulled their support." Although Iyall has subsequently backed off that claim somewhat, and there is also evidence of “health issues” and intra-band tensions that helped to break them up, I don’t think that it is inaccurate to say that the perception that it would be hard to promote a band fronted by a heavy singer contributed to the band’s failure to have a longer career. (Didn't seem to stop Meat Loaf, who released Bat Out Of Hell on another label in the Columbia family, from making it big, though. Hmmmmm.)

Founded in 1979 at the San Francisco Art Institute, when Iyall, having recently seen Patti Smith perform, got together with fellow student, bass player Frank Zincavage. They added guitarist Peter Woods and drummer Jay Derrah, and christened themselves “Romeo Void.” Saxophonist Benjamin Bossi was added shortly thereafter, and Derrah left before the band recorded their first full album, leading to an almost Spinal Tap-esque parade of drummers.

I remember hearing Romeo Void’s first album, It's A Condition, in 1981 at WPRB, and being captivated by their sound. Back in the pre-Internet, pre-MTV era [technically, MTV started in August, 1981, but I didn't see it for a couple of years, because in those days, not everyone had cable, and not every cable system had MTV.]  I don’t recall seeing any pictures of the members, and literally had no clue what Iyall looked like. And I didn’t care. It was also clear that many of the band’s songs had sexual undertones, or overtones, for that matter. One highlight from the debut was “Talk Dirty (To Me), which musically had all of the elements that made the band great, with overtly sexual, even kinky, lyrics. It foreshadowed the band’s most famous song, the Ric Ocasek-produced “Never Say Never,” released the following year, that featured the memorable chorus, “I might like you better if we slept together.”

Romeo Void’s biggest hit “A Girl In Trouble (Is A Temporary Thing),” came from their last album, 1984's more mainstream sounding Instincts, so it really seems that Columbia Records’ weight shaming based lack of support might have cost them a successful band.

Iyall ended up leaving the music business for years, teaching art and engaging in projects to work with and train fellow Native Americans, although she has, recently, dipped her toe back into recording and performing. I don’t believe that any of the other members of the band had much of a musical career outside of Romeo Void.

They were an excellent live band, too—here’s a clip of “Talk Dirty (To Me)” from a show in 1981, and you can see what I am talking about. No one seemed to care that the lead singer wasn’t a stick figure. It was about this time that I interviewed the band, something that I alluded to in another column, before they performed at Trenton’s City Gardens. Having done a bit more research into the club’s calendar, I believe that the interview was in March, 1982, when they played there, with local heroes Regressive Aid opening. There’s a reference in the City Gardens’ oral history book, No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes, to the band coming to WPRB for an interview drunk in July, 1981, when school was out and I was in Europe, so I think that Randy Now, City Garden’s leader, has mixed up the two dates.

As I have mentioned, during the interview, Iyall acted really annoyingly, blurting out profanities and doodling penises on scrap paper, so if she was drunk, that makes some sense. In any event, she has noted in another interview, "I do like to be provocative, and I definitely have access to my sexuality, and as a topic I find it ripe.” She did, however, agree to do a station ID, which you can find here, along with probably way more than you ever want to know about my time at WPRB. 

In my early days on Facebook, I found that Iyall and I had a mutual friend, who herself is a sexually provocative performance artist, so it didn’t surprise me. Now, both of them block access to their friend lists, so I can’t see if that relationship has continued, but there are times that I want to reach out to Iyall and ask her if she remembers the interview, which all of us at WPRB involved in the event have not forgotten.

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