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“Videos from the Attic”: The film noir-ish video for Romeo Void’s “Never Say Never”
In this classic vintage episode of “Night Flight” — which was originally broadcast on May 6, 1988 — one of the “Videos from the Attic” we featured was the black & white, film noir-inspired video for San Francisco’s Romeo Void’s mega-80s new wave hit, “Never Say Never.” If it has been awhile since you’ve seen it, watch it again on Night Flight Plus.
Romeo Void were formed on Valentine’s Day in 1979 by lead vocalist Debora Iyall and bassist Frank Zincavage, who were both students at at San Francisco Art Institute at the time.
Iyall had decided to enroll in art and video classes at the university after getting a fortune cookie on the 4th of July at a streetfair in Eureka, California that had a clear message inside about her future: “Art is your fate, so don’t debate.”
Iyall — a Native American of the Cowlitz tribe, whose descendants claim southwest Washington as their home — was born in rural Soap Lake, Washington, located in the center of the state, where there is also a tributary of the Columbia River called the Cowlitz River.
Her family’s surname came from their ancestor Iyallwahawa’s “first” name, written at the time as Ayiel.
She had grown up in Fresno, California, and made the three hour drive to San Francisco on a regular basis before eventually moving to the Mission District.
Iyall had already been a giddy, tongue-in-cheek Sixties cover band called the Mummers and Poppers, a name clearly inspired by the Mamas and Papas, whose own lead vocalist Mama Cass Elliot was often described — just as Iyall would also occasionally be described — as “zaftig,” which is actually a Yiddish word via German that means “juicy” (more often it’s meant to describe a woman who was both buxom and has a comfortable ample figure).
By the time she was enrolled at SF Art Institute, Iyall had become immersed in the San Francisco punk scene and by her own account says she frequented Mabuhay Gardens five or six nights a week, seeing all the L.A. punk bands — like the Weirdos, and the Screamers — when they came north to play weekend shows, not to mention she saw local SF bands like the Nuns, the Mutants, Crime, and the Avengers. She saw Patti Smith, Television and Lene Lovich there too.
Iyall’s Mummers and Poppers were one of the popular local bands who played at Mabuhay Gardens, but one night, after seeing the Avengers, led by singer Penelope Houston — who also went to the SF Art Institute — she felt that since she already incorporating music into her own poetry and performance art projects, she too could front her own punky band.
She’s also said that even though a lot of singers, like Penelope Houston, bleached their hair blonde, she was too proud of her American Indian heritage and decided to not dye her own hair.
Zincavage — who she had met during the summer, between classes, when he was doing construction on an installation for the school’s art gallery and she was working a tech shift at the school’s video performance lab — had already played his clear acrylic bass in one of her performance art videos, featuring Iyall on vocals, forcefully half-sung, half-spoken.
He also had a drum machine and, she says, “an ear for collaboration,” and they enjoyed their collaborations, so she then asked her Mummers and Puppers guitarist Peter Woods and drummer Jay Derrah to join them.
Soon the band were rehearsing at Iyall’s Mission District apartment, writing songs together, much of Iyall’s ambiguous, wry lyrics dealing with her own female sexuality and dealing with the reality of being a sort of cultural/social outcast because she didn’t fit the mold of what lead singers typically looked like.
Forming on Valentine’s Day in 1979, it comes as something as a surprise, then, that the band’s name, as legend has it, was inspired by San Francisco’s uninspiring dating scene, which had been chronicled in a local magazine’s article (headlined “Why Single Women Can’t Get Laid in San Francisco”).
Iyall had made a comment at the time — and later repeated on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” –that “the ’80s single thing is romeo void.”
As much as she connected with the 70s punk ethos, Iyall’s main focus — as it had been with the Mummers and Poppers — was to play music that got the nihilistic punks, who were wearing all black and leaning against the club walls, back on their feet and moving to the Romeo Void beat on the dancefloor.
Their upbeat, sax-led art punk-dance songs led to them being categorized as a New Wave act most of the time, even though they actually shared a lot of the same punk and art rock ethos that was part of San Francisco’s scene (lots of despair and no future to count on).
Iyall’s poetic and dark takes on the lack of love and not fitting in (Joy Division were apparently big influence) certainly didn’t exactly fit the mold of what more colorful New Wave bands were doing at the time, clogging the FM airwaves with their quirky tunes.
Romeo Void’s semi-permanent lineup, we should not neglect to mention, also featured the great free jazz-style saxophonist Benjamin Bossi, who joined after he and original saxophonist Bobby Martin swapped bands, with Martin joining art punk extremists the Offs and Bossi teaming up with Romeo Void.
Ex-Pearl Harbour & the Explosions drummer John Haines (credited as John Stench) also came aboard at some point, replacing original drummer Jay Derrah, as the second of what would be four different drummers during the band’s six-year career.
In 1980, Romeo Void would release their first single, “White Sweater,” with a cover of Jorgen Ingmann’s atmospheric 1961 twang-guitar instrumental hit “Apache” on the b-side, for the Howie Klein’s newly-minted 415 Records, who were named for San Francisco’s original area code (the label was later buoyed by the chart success of Red Rockers, a kind of bargain basement Clash who mixed in cowpunk-ish elements, after merging with Columbia Records).
By 1981, they had enough tracks ready to record for their debut album, It’s a Condition, and continued playing the San Francisco club scene, and even played a loft after-party for the Go-Go’s, who had headlined Mabuhay and were already getting played on college radio stations on the west coast.
When Romeo Void — who were managed by Sandy Pearlman, Blue Öyster Cult‘s manager — eventually set out on their first national tour, they were happy to discover that they were getting a lot of airplay on college and community radio stations across the country.
They soon caught the ear of Ric Ocasek of the Cars, too, who met the band when they played in Boston, telling them that a roadie for the Cars had played their music on the band’s tour bus and he’d wanted to meet them.
Ocasek ended up producing tracks (and sharing the producer credit with his longtime engineer Ian Taylor) for an EP, Never Say Never, which was named for what would turn out to be the band’s most famous song, perhaps because of its memorably catchy lyric refrain — I might like you better if we slept together” — but listen closely to the verses and you’ll hear intimations of incest, murder, homelessness, and other dark subjects.
Iyall later admitted that the song — originally thirteen minutes long before it was cut down to seven minutes for the long version — was actually written about Frank Zincavage, although he wouldn’t know that factoid until the year 2000, when Iyall spilled the beans about her unrequited feelings in a MOJO interview.
The video for “Never Say Never” — which has a kind of experimental college film production class feel too it, possibly since it was shot in black and white — was directed by Richard Casey of Casey Movies, who had directed a few of Blue Öyster Cult’s videos.
Casey filmed the band in Iyall’s apartment (this one was located in SF’s Nob Hill neighborhood), at a local café down the street, and he also filmed the band playing in a basement where they’d previously rehearsed.
The director had wanted a kind of a film noir-ish, French New Wave feel, even referencing a shot straight out of a Jean-Luc Godard film at one point, and if you’ve seen a lot of early 80s music videos, you know that it looks like nothing else that was being done at the time.