Formed in San Francisco in 1979, there was always something about Romeo Void that separated them from their peers. With a sharp, angular brand of post-punk, they seemed to have more in common with the slate grey skies of northern England rather than the sun kissed climes of their native California, and those with a penchant for the darker side of music will find a spiritual home here. Live From Mabuhay Gardens offers an intriguing glimpse at the band in their infancy, yet contains all the aspects that make Romeo Void so highly regarded, over four decades later.
Opening cut ‘Guards’ is the perfect track to welcome a crowd as they walk into a venue. It’s a slow builder that gradually adds layers of sound, almost imperceptibly, until the listener is encased within Romeo Void’s spiky embrace. Like stained glass, Peter Woods’ guitar is bright and brittle, and gives the impression it could shatter at any moment, yet he holds it together and weaves a hypnotic tapestry with razor sharp twine. Benjamin Bossi’s saxophone operates under the maxim that less is more, appearing at optimum moments and primarily accentuating the chorus, adding an ethereal and eerie tone. However, his sax acts as a second guitar, occasionally unleashing gnarly runs, but mostly it provides the perfect foil for Debora Lyall’s vocals. In a band full of bright sparks, it was Debora who burned brightest, not only as a singer, but a lyricist, too. Cut from a similar cloth to Janis Joplin and Patti Smith, her words of sexual revenge and streetwise cynicism put her at odds with the prevailing, preconceived ideas of femininity. It was a bold stance to take, but Debora’s demeanour was bold, and she bravely bared the depths of her psyche with lyrics such as “I’m too big for a girl/When I smell I reek”. While she doesn’t get the same props as others for smashing down gender roles (maybe because she was one of the first?) her approach still sounds edgy and confrontational.
Perhaps post-punk’s greatest asset was the ripping up of the rule book, and Live From Mabuhay Gardens takes that ethos the nth degree. No two songs on this set inhabit the same sonic space; ‘Fine Line’ is fleet of foot and swings with a modern jazz groove, ‘Drop Your Eyes’ subverts the classic Motown beat, presenting it as a darker, sinister affair while ‘White Sweater’ does a similar thing, only with a ska beat, and these sonic shifts ensure the album constantly evolves which makes for an engaging experience, and one that’s stitched together by its very eclecticism. What’s most impressive is that Romeo Void had been together for barely a year when this set was captured, and it’s no surprise that the majority of these tracks would soon surface on their debut album, It’s A Condition. However, it’s an unreleased track that closes the set in the shape of the Swingin’ Medallions’ ‘Double Shot Of My Baby’s Love’. On an album that touches on some serious subjects, it allows the band to cut loose and, perhaps unintentionally, display their musical chops by delivering a ‘60s nugget wrapped in shades of psychedelia.
In the mid-1980s, Romeo Void would become the darlings of MTV with their hit singles ‘A Girl In Trouble (Is A Temporary Thing)’ and ‘Never Say Never’, but if you want to experience the band at a creative peak, Live At Mabuhay Gardens is just the ticket.
- Nothing For Me
- Fine Line
- Charred Remains
- Drop Your Eyes
- Love Is An Illness
- White Sweater
- Talk Dirty To Me
- Fear To Fear
- Double Shot Of My Baby’s Love