Sunday, 1 January 2012

An introduction to Brute Force

If anything symbolised the insanity of the Beatles' Apple set-up, and its dadaist approach to running a business, it was a 1968 single called King of Fuh by the New Jersey-born Brute Force. George Harrison thought Brute had "a lovely voice and a beautiful record", and radio programmers would surely have been bowled over by the London Symphony Orchestra's sumptuous backing, but there was a small problem with the chorus: "All hail the Fuh king."

Born Stephen Friedland in 1940, Brute Force became a member of the Tokens* in the early sixties, soon after they had scored a US #1hit with The Lion Sleeps Tonight. As part of the Tokens' Bright Tunes writing and production team, he used his unexplained nom de plume to write three minute psychodramas that few, Shadow Morton aside, could equal: Del Shannon's She Still Remembers Tony and the Bitter Sweets' What A Lonely Way To Start The Summertime were two of the best, both super-intense, end-of-romance wrist slashers.

And then there's the Chiffons' Nobody Knows What's Going On In My Mind But Me from 1965, an insight into a teenage girl's unhinged but meticulously controlled mind-state. It is at once garbled, triumphant, and - like the Bitter Sweets' single - on the verge of completely losing it. Nobody Knows... is one of the ultimate late-period Girl Group 45s and a rare (though fragile) show of female defiance in the genre. It eventually became a hit of sorts, on the dancefloor at Wigan Casino, via Tammy St John's clattery cover.

The full Force of what was going on in Friedland's mind was eventually revealed in 1966 on an album called Confections of Love. Recorded with Leonard Cohen in attendance, it featured song titles such as To Sit on a Sandwich and Tapeworm of Love. The Chiffons didn't record any of these songs, as far as I know.

Out of the Tokens and sore from the failure of Confections, Force made an attempt to swim the Bering Strait in 1968, from Alaska to Russia, to focus world attention on the closeness of East and West at the height of the Cold War. He made it halfway, to Little Diomede Island. The Inuits took pictures, Life magazine ran a feature - he may have an odd name, they thought, but the kid's all right. Then came King of Fuh.

A Brute Force show could open with him lying on his back, panting like a dog for four minutes - his Extemporaneous album, released in 1969, captured his whacked-out philosophical improv. Still performing, he remains ecologically concerned, politically involved and satisfyingly odd. When Extemporaneous was re-issued by Rev-Ola in 2004 he played a few shows in Britain with Brummie eccentrics Misty's Big Adventure: while he was over he played a one-off show for a horse, the thoroughbred mare Premier Bid (the horse's owners named a foal Special Bru in his honour). If you've seen the documentary The Battle For Brooklyn, you won't be surprised to hear that Brute, now 70, played a show at the re-opened Freddy's Bar, with its original prohibition-era fixtures and fittings re-located from the building that had made way for the barely legal Atlantic Yards development. Brute still picks his battles well.

Director Ben Steinbauer (Winnebago Man) is apparently working on a documentary. Brute's daughter - calling herself, with obvious pride, Daughter Of Force - has been playing shows in Brooklyn.  A little while back her dad's website announced the "same sex marriage of Stephen Friedland to his trademark, Brute Force. Both are male. In lieu of a gift, please send a contribution to your favourite charity."

*The Tokens' own BT Puppy label is, in its own way, as odd as Apple. Some of its releases were in such tiny numbers they are almost impossible to find, including the Tokens' own album Intercourse: if you ever want to hear a harmony pop album with songs of haiku length, humorous-stroke-suicidal lyrics,  and odd animal noises, then look no further.

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