Various Artists

Fiddling While Romo Burns

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For a brief, shining moment in the mid-'90s, the world was captured by the sounds of Romo, a fey, arty offspring of Brit-pop who pointedly revived the sounds of early-'80s new romantic synth pop crossed with a touch of irony, modernist art, a healthy love of the Style Council and the Spice Girls, inspiration from Pulp, jealousy of Menswear, a vague idea of Roxy Music, heritage in the Smiths and the Manics, and a minor obsession with Dead Poets Society. Actually, they didn't really take over the world, they were pushed relentlessly by Melody Maker (more accurately, journalists Simon Price and Taylor Parkes) and embraced by less than 100 people in the U.K. and a handful of pop obsessives in the States (most of them likely located in western Michigan at the time, all two of them working for the same company). Melody Maker pushed the imagined movement to an extreme, putting several fops on a glorious cover as a way to introduce the movement, then assembling a tour to push Romo, issuing Fiddling While Romo Burns, a five-song promotional tape attached to Melody Maker, as a way to hype it all. Even though it was the height of Brit-pop -- with patriotism permeating every inch of the British Isles and every band outside of Bush being hailed as continuing the great British guitar band tradition (yes, even 60 Foot Dolls and Heavy Stereo) -- it was a monumental disaster, with barely anybody attending shows. It's estimated that only 100 people attended the shows throughout the United Kingdom, a shockingly small number for a tour so heavily hyped by a leading music publication. Not surprisingly, Melody Maker bailed from Romo shortly afterward. A few singles still trickled out from the likes of DexDexter and Plastic Fantastic, along with Orlando's Passive Soul (the only full-fledged Romo album), leaving Fiddling While Romo Burns as the unexpected last will and testament of this aborted movement. That's not much of a recorded legacy, but listening to the tape years after the hype failed to launch is an utterly fascinating experience, especially if you were one of the 102 people who were into it at the time. Romo essentially boiled down to a cross between Adam Ant, Roxy Music, Pulp, and Blur, with a hint of an idea of what Bowie may have meant. They were theatrical and sillier than the perpetrators imagined, and while they certainly captured the more ridiculous aspects of the new romantics, anybody who supported this overlooked one crucial fact -- nobody on God's green earth wanted to hear this stuff except those 102 people. Why? Well, there's nothing but style and artifice here, and at crushing levels, particularly since the groups are reveling in unabashed silliness without even realizing it. And that's the joy of it -- this is good pop. True, it's filled with affectation and pretension, but there's a giddy, hedonistic joy from the bands themselves as they get carried away with their plastic infatuation, turning out the most ridiculous choruses you could hope to hear, whether it was in the service of style or sincerity. Based on this tape, Romo was fun, stylish, goofy, and invigorating. If you shared their viewpoint -- whether you were postmodern art students in London or pub rockers with affection for Adam Ant -- this was a thrilling extension of the promise of new wave, and even if it never caught on, it's hard not to cherish it all the same.

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