Fear of Strangers, 1978-1983… and Beyond: An Oral History
By Greg Haymes
Top photographs by Dave Suarez, Lynne Harty
The Units formed in 1978, quickly becoming one of Greater Nippertown’s most popular bands during the early days of the DIY era.
They released their debut single “Japan” b/w “I am Sorry” in December, 1979. And after changing their name to Fear of Strangers, they released their one and only album in 1982 on the Faulty Products label. But by 1983, they decided to call it quits.
Now the band is reuniting for a one-night only show at the Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Albany on Friday night (September 23). Original bandmembers Al Kash (drums), Todd Nelson (guitar), Steve Cohen (bass) and Val Haynes (vocals) will step into the spotlight, joined by guest keyboardist Mike Kelley.
We could go on, but why not let the bandmembers tell their own story? Let’s start at the beginning…
How about a little history lesson? How did the Units/Fear of Strangers get together?
STEVE: Either Todd picked me up hitchhiking outside Delmar when we were about 17 or 18, or I picked him up. We’re a little fuzzy on that, for understandable reasons of the era. He was already an amazing guitarist when he was playing in his band in high school. Al, Jeff Doctorow and I were in a band together called National Passion, and then I wound up in a country band called Chili Dog, which was Val’s first band. I don’t think she really had any intention of becoming a singer initially. She was an artist and a poet and some friends of hers figured out that she had this amazing voice. From what I hear, they sort of pushed her on stage. This was before I knew her. At the same time Todd was in a really great country-rock band called Silver Chicken. Anyway, bands all break up and one thing led to another and the four of us just knew it was a great idea.
TODD: Al and Steve were playing in a band in the Oneonta/Cooperstown area while Val was in Chili Dog, and I was not in any band; the original Silver Chicken had just broken up. So I asked Val if she was interested in starting a band. I basically stole her from Chili Dog, which they didn’t seem to resent me for, to their credit. Back then you were only in one band at a time, not like today when everyone has 3 or 4 projects going. Anyway Al and Steve got wind of it and said they were coming back to Albany to join us, which was great. We had a band with instant chemistry.
VAL: Steve auditioned for “Chili Dog,” a country-rock cover band I sang in. I met the others through him.
Do you remember the first gig? Where and when was it?
TODD: I think Al has this one covered.
AL: I think the first gig was at JCA in May, ’78.
STEVE: Yes, I’ll never forget it. May 18, 1978 outdoors at the Junior College of Albany, where Val had dropped out after two weeks of school. Of course, she later became a brainiac with graduate degrees, but that’s another story. Al’s girlfriend Judy, who later became his wife, was a student there, and she conjured it up.
VAL: Our friend, Jeff Doctorow sat in with us. He’s played with us on several “reunion” gigs.
STEVE: We have photos to prove it all. That was the first of 851 gigs together. I know – I’m sort of obsessive, and I actually keep track of these things.
Who’s making up the set list for the reunion show? What’s the first song that automatically goes on the list?
AL: Todd & Val have been working on set list…
STEVE: Since we haven’t played some of these songs in a very long time, we each need to put in some practice time on our own. Some of these songs are pretty weird and complicated, and we can’t just wing it; we had to figure out the repertoire in advance. So we’ve been passing around lists of songs and discussing which ones we’re interested in playing. Everybody’s rated every song, so we were able to get all scientific about it. Each of us has veto power of every song, too. There were quite a few that were unanimous picks in the first round draft.
TODD: Back in the day, Val would usually make the set lists, with input from the rest of us. We’ll probably write it at rehearsal the day of the gig. There are a few automatics: “Volts,” “Hat and Coat,” “I Am Sorry,” to name three.
VAL: We figure out what songs we ALL want to play on; Todd devised this cell of columns with several of our tunes during the first pass of songs we wanted to do and when a tune has votes from the four of us, it’s a keeper and something we’ll do in the set. The song that immediately goes on my list is “Volts.”
Todd, what inspired you to write “Volts”?
TODD: The answer is completely inside baseball. I wanted to see if I could write a song with nothing but dominant 7th chords that wasn’t simply a blues variation. In fact, the first section is kind of a parody of a blues the way the chords keep going up a fourth instead of going to the V chord and resolving. That was conscious. It was meant to be funny, the way the chord progression in Devo’s “Mongoloid” is funny. See, inside baseball. The lyrics came from energy related things that were happening in the news at the time. There really was a barge floating around the ocean with nowhere to go.
Is the reunion show going to focus exclusively on the Units/Fear of Strangers repertoire?
AL: The set list will include Units/FOS/Lonesome Val. Steve & Todd tunes. Maybe a few covers…
STEVE: We’re definitely going to include some Lonesome Val songs, as well as a couple of my own relatively recent songs and at least one of Todd’s instrumentals.
TODD: We will be doing some material from our subsequent careers like Lonesome Val. We’ll do a couple of recent songs Steve has written and even one of my instrumentals.
VAL: We’ll be doing a mixture of Lonesome Val, FoS, Steve’s band (Three Short Words) and a piece from Todd’s dynamic trio (NEQ).
I vividly remember stepping into Bogie’s on Labor Day weekend in 1979, and you were playing “Ease on Down the Road” from the Broadway musical, “The Wiz” – definitely not a typical new-wave-days cover. What other cover songs might fans have heard you play back then?
AL: I always enjoyed playing “Cruisin’ for Burgers” by Zappa & any Meters tunes. The crowd seemed to like them.
STEVE: Well, we all loved funk and soul, so we did songs by Parliament and LTD. I’d actually forgotten about “Ease on Down the Road.” That’s pretty funny. We also loved things like Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu, both of which were big influences on us. Although we started as a cover band, because we weren’t songwriters yet, we never wanted to just do straight covers. Our philosophy was that we should be able to take any good song in any genre and do something interesting and solid with it. We’d stretch a seemingly normal song out to 10 or 15 minutes, but we’d get back to the song itself, and Val would nail it again. It didn’t lead to a lot of wedding gigs!
TODD: There was a song called “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers. We did a fair amount of music by black artists like Parliament/Funkadelic (“We’ve Got the Funk”) and LTD (“Back in Love”) as well as “All That You Dream” by Little Feat and “Bad Sneakers” by Steely Dan.
VAL: My favorite “unlikely cover song” was LTD’s “Back in Love Again.” We did “Lovely Day,” another favorite of mine, by Bill Withers also. We covered Parliament/Funkadelic, Graham Central Station, the Cars, Aretha, Steely Dan. Very eclectic and stuff that required chops and some not-so-chops-oriented like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by your Man.”
You released one 45RPM single as the Units and one full-length album as Fear of Strangers. Are there other recordings in some secret vault somewhere that we’ve never heard?
AL: Glen Johnson probably has a collection of live tapes of many gigs, and we did some recording with the soundman from the Police at a good studio down in the city.
STEVE: Yeah, we even put together CDs a while back with something like 20 songs on them. Maybe we’ll post them all somewhere at some point.
TODD: When we put together the CD for the reunion shows in 2004, we had to leave some things off unfortunately. One song in particular I regret not releasing was “Answers Please” by Val. At the moment I’m not sure where that recording is. With the untimely death of Art Snay and demise of Arabellum Studio, I’m not sure where the digitized and tape versions are.
Do you regret not putting more focus on recording?
STEVE: Sure, it would have been great to record more and to better learn the studio craft, which I think we all did later on. But studio time was really expensive back then. You couldn’t record in the basement so easily. This is back when computers were giant room-size things that ran on punch cards.
TODD: Good question. Not really I guess. We were able to get quite a bit recorded in five years. We were often dis-satisfied with the results, which matters so little now that I wish we had released more of what we had done at the time. While some of it sounds dated in one way or another, I remain proud of it. We were musically innovative, and most of those ideas have held up well in my opinion.
VAL: I have some regrets about not recording as much, but they don’t rob me of sleep.
Can you talk a bit about Doug White?
AL: Doug White was quite the Maestro of the band. He had perfect pitch and tuned pianos at JB Scott’s and elsewhere. A quiet individual & rather funny also. Love and miss him.
STEVE: Doug was the first musical genius I ever knew. Having him and Todd, these two monstrously good guitar players, in the same band was really something. Doug and I met at Albany State or SUNY or whatever the hell they call it now, and were in a band together, also with Jeff Doctorow, another terrific guitarist. We all became music majors – actually I think I talked Doug into switching from his physics major. I don’t know if that was the best advice, but at that age I thought I knew what was right for everybody. Doug was really shy and insecure, which was ironic considering how massively talented he was. He taught me how to listen. The guy was just amazing. Val and I sometimes get on the phone and talk about Doug. We all miss him.
TODD: Doug was a musical genius. Steve, Doug, Jeff Doctorow and I were all music majors together, studying classical harmony. Doug was clearly the one who understood it best. He had tapes of beautiful compositions he recorded on his 4-track Teac. Whenever we needed a transition or intro or something to bridge two sections together, Doug came up with something really sophisticated and powerful like the end of the second guitar solo in “Hat and Coat,” or the melody at the beginning of “I Need to be Told.”
VAL: Doug was a terrific arranger, he was always thinking up ways to end songs. That climb at the end of “Shopping for a Dog” I love. His voicings were sophisticated… he’d throw in some augmented or diminished 7th or whatever just to trick your ears while remaining inside the chordal or key schema. A brilliant musician and hyper-sensitive soul, but easy-going, too. A real sweetheart. To this day I can hum some tune he wrote on the keyboard note-for-note. I identified with him immensely.
You opened for the Police at the Hulla-Balloo in Rensselaer – twice, if I’m not mistaken. What do you remember about those gigs?
STEVE: We only actually opened for them once, in the spring of ’79 when their first album was just out. They didn’t even have enough songs for a full set, so they repeated one or two, but they were amazing. They loved us and when they came back six months or so later, we hung out with them. Sting was justifiably freaked out about the leopard that lived in the club. Anyway, Stewart introduced us to his brother Ian, who was the booking agent for just about every great new band then, and his other brother Miles, who managed them and Squeeze and some others, and ran IRS Records. Ian became our agent, which led to a lot of great things. We needed an older person with vision to get our recording career going, and Miles was almost that, but not quite.
TODD: We actually only opened for them once. When they returned a year or so they had an opening act in tow. A terrible band named Fashion. But we got to hang out backstage with them because by that time we were connected to Miles Copeland, their manager.
VAL: What I remember from the Police show is being truly amazed and impressed by the fullness of their sound, singing “Shaky Ground” and having a mini-crush on the drummer. Oh, and the leopard…
Who were some of the other bands that you shared stages with over the years?
STEVE: It’s a ridiculous list – XTC, Squeeze, the Psychedelic Furs, R.E.M., the Specials, the English Beat, Iggy Pop – we thought his audience was going to crucify us, but it actually went really well – I can’t even remember some of the others, but there were lots of them. Did we open a show for the B-52s? I don’t know!
TODD: Let’s see. XTC, R.E.M., the Specials, B-52s, NRBQ, Ultravox, Squeeze…
Obviously, most all of them – or in fact, all of them – have closed since then, but did you have a favorite venue to play, either locally or otherwise?
AL: The Chateau, Bogies, JB Scott’s, CBGB’s, Hulla-Baloo, the Rat in Boston…
STEVE: Our favorite regular place would have to be JB Scott’s. It was a great club for us and for the whole scene. I saw U2 and the Pretenders there in one week!
TODD: Even though the aesthetics were non-existent, the first JB Scott’s where the Vietnamese restaurant is now, was a great venue. Good size, stage, sound system, backstage and location.
Do you have a most memorable gig? One that you remember for whatever reason – good, bad or just plain weird?
AL: My favorite show was opening for Iggy at the Paradise in Boston. Tuff crowd. It was in the “slagging” [spitting] period of punk. Iggy was covered in spit and was so nonchalant about it. He kicked ass.
TODD: There was one night at Yesterday’s on Fuller Road when a brawl broke out. Bottles were flying!
STEVE: We played SPAC, opening for the Hollies (I still have a Hollies t-shirt that Graham Nash gave me), and we had a great show at the Bottom Line in NYC opening for Squeeze. Our first show at CBGB, opening for Annie Golden and the Shirts, was a big one for us. Somehow I talked our way into that one. Years later I was in Annie’s band. From the sublime to the weird – there was a club called Yesterday’s in Colonie where we played a lot in the early days. We made our living playing gigs, so we’d do these five night runs all the time. One night a huge fight broke out, chairs went flying, every window in the place got broken, we all hit the deck, and 15 cop cars showed up. The bartender came through with a shotgun. Every time we’d see him at a show, for years afterward, we’d play that Junior Walker song “Shotgun”. Oh yeah, there was the Parrot House in Schoharie. That show is important to my own personal biography, as I’m able to say that I’ve played behind chicken wire like they did in the Blues Brothers movie. It’s the sure-fire way to stop flying beer bottles from hitting band members.
VAL: Most memorable gig for me was one of the ones at the Last Chance in Poughkeepsie. Not much of an audience, ten or so. Upstairs, above the stage, was a room with a box of Moliere’s plays, and we all got very drunk and began reciting “The Misanthrope,” I think. I remember Judy, who shared a scene with me. I can see her with the playbook in her hand, smiling.
Somewhere in the middle of the band’s existence, you changed the name from the Units to Fear of Strangers. Tell me a little about what happened there, and what impact you think it had on the band’s momentum at the time.
AL: The name change was a pain. There were two other bands named the Units with recordings out. As Steve said when asked why FOS, because it sounds better than Xenophobia,
STEVE: There was a band in San Francisco called The Units and as we were going to put a record out, it just got untenable to have to share the name. We hated that, and we got a lawyer on the case, but it was going to be difficult and expensive, so we just wanted to get on with it. I don’t think it really hurt us too much, but it was a real drag, because The Units was such a good name.
TODD: There was a synth band in San Francisco called the Units who claimed to be using it first. But in fact Al had a band in Australia with that name long before them. We spent some money on some lawyer who was supposed to help us secure the name. What a waste of money that was! We finally resigned ourselves to changing it. I personally hated giving up the Units. But if we wanted to get on with things we had to. I don’t think It set us back very much. We got the word out pretty well.
OK, come clean. What were some of the other bandnames that you considered other than Fear of Strangers?
STEVE: I honestly don’t remember, except as we were batting names around, one day I said to Val, “How about Xenophobia,” and she said “What’s that?” (This was before her graduate degrees.) I said “Fear of strangers,” and she said “I like that,” but of course being Val she meant Fear of Strangers and not Xenophobia. Either you get some brilliant, quick and inspired name or you struggle for ages with the hateful process of making lists and rejecting everything. The Units – that was one of Al’s many unique phrases. He used to call us all “Units” and when that first show came around it was obvious. People thought the name was really weird. It didn’t sound like a band name at the time, which was a good thing. Al’s like a weird, musician version of Yogi Berra, in his own way. He’s also one of the most inspiring, unique thinkers I’ve ever known, to say nothing of his being a phenomenal musician.
Your album was released on the Faulty Products label. Looking back was that the right label for you? Any regrets?
AL: I thought Faulty was a good label for us. I think that at that time lots of independents were going through buy-outs from majors which changed things.
STEVE: No, it was the absolutely wrong label for us, and I completely regret it.
What do you think led to the break-up of the band?
AL: For me, having been in the band from beginning, I felt we weren’t getting the press, etc., to get us out to the bigger areas/gigs. And I was missing my family back in OZ. I felt I needed to have new adventure and ended up moving to NYC and living with good friend mixer/producer Robin Danar. I spent the year playing with Fly to France [later to become Blue Rodeo] and then flew to OZ, arranged for Judy to come over and got married.
STEVE: After a while we just really weren’t getting anywhere. Al decided to move to NYC, which was a smart decision. We probably should have moved there together, had we really wanted to pursue things as that band. We got Mark Foster to replace Al, and Mark’s a great drummer, but it just wasn’t the same vibe without Al.
TODD: In my case it was just mental exhaustion, in retrospect. Opportunities seemed to be petering out. And I was married with a small child, and we weren’t making any money. I suppose we could have taken a hiatus, but we didn’t have a precedent for that. It was all or nothing.
VAL: I think entropy was a major factor in dissolving FoS. We weren’t moving forward, and I felt we had done all that we could in Albany. Personally, I longed to grow and challenge myself more. I don’t ever regret that decision.
What do you remember about the band’s farewell gig? Wasn’t it at the Albany Hilton?
STEVE: Yes, we rented out the ballroom there and put it on ourselves. I remember we made a lot of money – we needed it. Val and I were moving to NYC. We were going to have to get actual jobs. Good lord, we needed some little nest eggs!
TODD: I remember having a great time, and not fully appreciating what we had built. I took having a large audience somewhat for granted at the time.
STEVE: That farewell gig at the Hilton was in October of 1983. Had a couple in the audience gone home and, inspired by our musical output, conceived a child that night, the kid would nearly be old enough to run for President.
I remember a handful of reunion gigs that you’ve done since then – “Sounding Board” in 2001, Music Haven in Schenectady and Revolution Hall in Troy in 2004 and, of course, the J.B. Scott’s Reunion concert at Michael’s Banquet House in 2012? Were there any others?
STEVE: I think that was it. We see each other – we got together for dinner last year, which is where that photo came from (see above).
TODD: That’s it. Wait, there was Jeff Doctorow’s 50th birthday party in ’05 or ’06.
Video by Real George
How do you feel about the whole “reunion concert” concept? Is it difficult for you to get back in the ’80s swing of things?
AL: I’ve felt our reunion/get-togethers more as a chance to hang out, no real pressure to do a gig.
STEVE: I haven’t really thought about it that way. Although I guess some of our songs sound very ’80s, the thing I think we all care about is making great music, and that’s kind of timeless.
TODD: I’m fine with it as long as people are interested in hearing the music again. It’s not too difficult to get in to it. I think most of the music still stands up. We’ve slowed some of the tempos down. Some of the lyrics I wrote in my early twenties are pretty silly now, but aside from that I think we were very innovative musically. Our stuff was both accessible and out there. We covered a lot of ground, which at the time was considered a disadvantage. Maybe still is. I think genres mainly exist to give music critics a framework for writing about music, but never adequately describe it. (No offense) Most of the bands that succeeded when we didn’t were more streamlined in their sound, and not as interesting to me, but more easily described and marketed.
VAL: Reunion gigs are fun! But it is wise not to do too many.
Steve, you’re the one member of the band that has relocated from the Capital Region. Are you glad that you made that move?
STEVE: Well, although the other three are all in Albany now, Al’s moved back and forth to Florida, NYC and Australia, and Val spent a lot of time in NYC. Todd’s actually the only one who’s completely stayed put. I’d grown up in NYC and moving back there was the right move at the time. I stayed almost 20 years. But that’s not a knock against Albany. I spent more than 10 years there for good reason, and I still have some great friends in town. When I decided to leave NYC about 15 years ago, one reason I was interested in moving to Asheville, NC was that it was a sort-of similarly sized community as Albany.
Are you happy/content with the musical legacy of the band?
STEVE: Absolutely. Of course we could have done some things differently in hindsight, but what good is hindsight. We made some great music and that’s what counts.
What have you been doing – musically speaking – since Fear of Strangers called it quits?
AL: My activities lately are concentrated on the original/creative bent. Working on solo cd/video/interview [w/Brian Melick] of my vintage drums, the Magdalens CD, Sin Doler CD [w/Brad Whiting, Mark Wilkens, etc.] a few tunes with OZ surf guitar player Ben Rogers and playing around the area with Playin with Fire, NiteTrain, the odd blues characters.
STEVE: I played in countless bands in NYC for a bunch of years. I must have played CBGB a hundred times. I once played there with three different bands in one night. (They typically had five bands a night.) I did a bunch of touring, and played with some really great people – Richard Lloyd from Television, Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter, Kristi Rose, who now lives in Nashville… And of course I was playing and touring with Lonesome Val. When I moved to Asheville, I started playing in cover bands wherever the gig would be: in crappy clubs, at weddings, for New Years at the Biltmore Estate. I never would have done that stuff in the old days, but it was fun for a while. And as long as the other musicians are really good, I’m happy. I’ve been playing in one mostly original band, writing quite a bit and singing more than ever, and we’re slowly plodding away at recordings and videos. I’m pretty proud of this band, which finally, after an agonizing process, has a name – Three Short Words.
TODD: See my bio online for a comprehensive description.
VAL: Since FoS ended, I moved to NYC with Steve, and we began to work on an original band called Lonesome Val. We released two CDs on the Bar/None label. I also lived in South America for about 18 months, working for an off-shore bookmaker. I did the bookmaking gig in NYC and Philadelphia and have an arrest record for it, so that’s a bummer, and it’s why I worked in Costa Rica and Venezuela. You really don’t want to be charged with a felony, even though I was not convicted, it hampers one’s ability to get a
straight job…a decent one, anyway. I returned to the Albany area and began my journey into higher education, first, as a homeless 48-year-old, completing two graduate degrees in English. I’ve been publishing stories in literary journals and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I occasionally gig with my band Lonesome Val & the Toddfellows Society, which is 3/4th of FoS, and most likely if Steve lived closer would include him if he wanted. Lonesome Val would gig more but we’d need to go on the road, which would be difficult for some of the players.
Do you think this could be the last Fear of Strangers gig?
STEVE: Pure un’tellin’ as a very Southern friend of mine down here would say. The four of us are like family, and as long as we’re all around and up for it, we could certainly do it again some day.
VAL: Maybe in a few years we’ll do another. They get harder to do, but as long as I can hit the notes, I’m game.
What question didn’t I ask you that I should have? And what would your answer be?
STEVE: See previous answer. Just make sure to ask the others what they’ve been doing. All three of them continue to amaze me.