from New York Press Review:
Brute Force is Back
A rock legend (that never quite made it) returns
When one thinks of rock ’n’ roll legends, Stephen Friedland isn’t a name that comes to mind. But under the pseudonym of Brute Force, he’s been an underground musical icon since the late 1960s. A singer and songwriter, his biggest claim to fame was having his 1969 song, “King of Fuh,” released by the Beatles’ record company, Apple—only later to be censored. Frustrated with the industry and the lack of success, Friedland dropped out of the music scene for almost two decades.
But the 66-year-old Friedland is now on the comeback trail. With a band of younger players, he’s performing his music once again to live audiences. The group, also named Brute Force, consists of Friedland, his daughter (and backing vocalist) Lilah Friedland, drummer Christy Edwards, guitarist Peter Pierce and bassist Steve DeSeve.
“It’s fun to play with a band,” says Friedland, “and to play my music, and for people to know about my musical track record and what I’ve done.”
Brute Force’s story is as eccentric as some of his songs. It began in Jersey City where Friedland learned to play piano at age six. Influenced by the Danish pianist Victor Borge, Friedland wrote melodic and humorous songs that carry a deeper, satirical meaning, hence the term “heavy funny.” “I guess I saw absurdity in life,” he explains. “I was very interested in the juxtaposition of things, why things happened.”
In 1964, while in NYC as a young adult, he met the producers Hugo and Luigi, who co-wrote the Elvis Presley hit “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” They introduced Friedland to The Tokens, known for their hit, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Not only was Friedland hired as a songwriter for The Tokens’ music publishing company, he also became the group’s keyboardist.
In 1967, Friedland recorded as Brute Force with the album, I, Brute Force, Confections of Love, which was produced by John Simon, later renowned for his work with The Band. In late 1968, Brute Force recorded his song, “King of Fuh,” which is about a furry king in a magical land. The music and lyrics begin innocuously until they get to these lines: “I said the Fuh King—he went to wherever he wanted to go/Mighty mighty Fuh King/All hail the Fuh King.”
After the song was recorded, a musical friend of Friedland, Tommy Dawes of The Cyrkle, forwarded it to his manager, Nat Weiss, who knew Beatles manager Brian Epstein. According to Friedland, George Harrison was very receptive to the song and said so in a phone call. But according to Friedland, Capitol/EMI, which was Apple’s distributor, refused to release “King of Fuh.” Eventually, Apple privately issued the single for U.K. release. “They decided it was just too much for their small minds,” Friedland says of Capitol/EMI. “They had no compassion for a young 28-year-old artist. I was on the brink of international recognition. They decided that it would not happen.”
Friedland and his wife, Cynthia, then moved to California in the early 1970s to further his music career. He founded his own record company whose first project was releasing “King of Fuh” domestically. As he drove to radio stations in California to convince programmers to play the single, Friedland was met with rejections.
Brute Force’s career went downhill throughout the ’70s and so did his personal life—his marriage broke up soon after returning to the East Coast. Trying to make a living, Friedland worked as a paralegal at his father’s law firm in Edison, NJ. He also sought counseling. “I became very confused,” he said. “I needed help from people who could hear me speak, describe my thinking and give me some suggestions.”
After straightening himself out and wanting to get back into showbiz, Friedland performed under his real name on the comedy club circuit during the ’80s and ’90s. He had also done background work in movies such as Ghostbusters. By that time, he had already moved to NYC where he currently resides.
Around 2001, Friedland received an email from Gareth Jones, the leader of the U.K.-based rock band Misty’s Big Adventure. Jones came across the old Brute Force song “Tapeworm of Love” online and got hooked. “I was surprised to learn that he’d never had a band to play his songs,” Jones said. “And we had started covering “Tapeworm of Love” in the Misty’s live set. I guess we figured how hard would it be to just have Brute singing it instead of me!” Upon Jones’ invitation, Brute Force emerged out of retirement and joined Misty’s on stage in England. “It just put another spark of vitality that I really needed to get my music going again for sure,” he says. “Those people over there were like a godsend. A whole group of people all of a sudden playing my music, and me singing it.”
Now with his own band, Friedland is once again playing Brute Force’s songs at rock clubs. On the Web, Friedland promotes Brute Force by selling CDs and other items. “What I am looking forward to in music and song” he says, “is to communicate ideas, to transmit ideas of a valuable nature, so people will come away refreshed and more aware of their world.”