Stephen Friedland began his music career in the early 1960s as an in-house songwriter for the BT Puppy record label in New York, penning hits for Chubby Checker, Little Peggy March and the Chiffons. His own demos of his songs were often better than those by the pop music stars who covered them. Eventually, Columbia Records agreed, giving Brute Force a record contract, which led to his being noticed by George Harrison and John Lennon. The rest is a little bit mystery and a little bit history.
The Winter 2019 issue of Ugly Things (#52), Mike Stax’s peerless, long-running homage to musical greatness, was backloaded with more than its usual vast assortment of “wild sounds from past dimensions.”
The issue included an interview with rock photographer Chuck Krall alongside a liberal sampling of his work; interviews with Don Grady (ex-My Three Sons and later recording artist) and Craig Bell (Rocket From the Tombs); a feature on Mike Bloomfield; and tons of reviews of books and reissued recordings.
However, the real revelation from that issue was the interview with Brute Force, conducted by Chaim O’Brien-Blumenthal. No, Brute Force was not a proto-metal band from Norway. Brute Force was one person—Stephen Friedland. Under the name Brute Force, Friedland—a prolific songwriter whose work was covered by the Tokens (of which he was a member), Chubby Checker, the Chiffons, Del Shannon, the Cyrkle, the Creation, among many others—recorded an album for Columbia Records in 1967, I, Brute Force: Confections of Love. Though the album defies description, here is my attempt: Fred Willard (A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, Spinal Tap) cross-pollinated with Randy Newman and Tom Lehrer.
The Chiffons performing Brute Force’s song “Nobody Knows” live in concert:
Little Peggy March covers Brute Force’s “My Teenage Castle (Is Tumblin’ Down)”:
The the songs on his album I, Brute Force: Confections of Love are a complete counterpoint to songs like the above. Just look at some of the song titles: “To Sit on A Sandwich”, “Tapeworm of Love,” and “In Jim’s Garage” (it’s a love song!).
Ultimately, the greatest distinction Brute Force owns is that he came to the attention of the Beatles, particularly George Harrison and John Lennon. The latter two encouraged Brute Force to send the demo of his song, “The King of Fuh” to Apple Records. He did and, with a Beatlesque arrangement, “The King of Fuh” was released as a single in 1969 on Apple Records (B/W “Nobody Knows”). Though it had the dubious distinction of being the label’s lowest-selling single at the time—largely because it was censored or banned—it did find a place, decades later, on the compilation Come and Get It: The Best of Apple Records (2020).
“The King of Fuh” also happens to be a really great song, both funny and touching. To paraphrase Nick Lowe, what’s so funny about lyrics like “And you wonder why people don’t worship beauty”?
In his letter of appreciation to Brute Force at the time the single was released, George Harrison wrote, “You have got a great name and a lovely voice and a beautiful record on Apple…Thanks for being patient with us and for Being.”
Brute recorded a second album, Extemporaneous (1970) on BT Puppy Records, but it disappeared with nary a trace.
In recent years, Brute Force has honed a stand-up comedy act with his daughter Lilah and has appeared in films and TV shows, including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. He wrote and starred in a musical comedy stage production called The King of Fuh, which had a brief run in 2006.
Judging from the Ugly Things interview, Brute/Friedland seems like the sort of guy you’d like to invite over to sit on a sandwich with you.
Here is a clip of Brute Force/Stephen Friedland explaining how and why he recorded “The King of Fuh” (“I’ve been a jester pointing to the hypocrisy of the king.”):