Hebrew School

Friday sunset: Lips
October 23, 2009, 5:47 pm
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Heavy-funny: Brute Force’s Planetwork

Brute Force, Planetwork (1980, cd release 2009)

Brute Force, a/k/a Stephen Friedland, is one of these folks of rare genius who’s so interwoven into culture that he’s at times, regrettably, invisible. Hot on the heels of a “Lion Sleeps Tonight” he joined the Tokens, penning songs and playing keyboard. Along the way, he wrote for a slew of A-list ’60s pop acts, including the Chiffons (“Nobody Knows What’s Going On”), Peggy March (“My Teenage Castle”), and Del Shannon (“She Still Remembers Tony”).

Brute struck out on his own in 1967, releasing the LP I, Brute Force, Confections of Love on Columbia records, but then getting panned and dropped (sound familiar?). He seemed to have an ace in the hole with his 1969 “King of Fuh,” produced by the Tokens, lauded by George Harrison and John Lennon, and released on Apple Records. Except that the song’s protagonist was referred to repeatedly in the lyrics as the “Fuh King,” putting the fear of Allah into FCC-averse radio DJs across America and driving the song underground. (“King of Fuh” lives on as part of the canon of hallmark censored songs from the era, songs that ultimately pushed the music industry and the U.S. towards more openness and freedom of expression.)

Fortunately for us he soldiered on, self-releasing “that Fuh King song” and more full-lengths, including the amazing live-studio-audience Extemporaneous. (Hebrew School can’t seem to find a complete Brute Force discography, but that just makes him more excited about what other surprises might be in store for re-release.)

Planetwork appears to have come at the tail-end of a ’70s hiatus, perhaps channeling the political spirit that moved him a decade earlier. After Confections, he had embarked on a Cold War swim across the Bering Strait, illustrating the small divide between East and West, and by association the one-ness of the world. What we have here, then, is not so much the early-’80s environmentalist music I feared in looking at the cover, but a touching and poignant call for a united humanity. This is peppered with Brute’s tragicomic wit (“heavy-funny” being his term) and ear for narrative, conflict, and theater.  That said, there’s not a moment of glibness or grandstanding to be found on Planetwork.

We begin with a Pledge of Allegiance…

…and move into a gapless 15-minute, 9-track performance. Brute’s piano and voice are rightfully prominent, but there’s a stellar rhythm section as well– effortlessly pocketing that elusive slow-to-mid-tempo rock groove– not to mention a shit-eating-fabulous two-part guitar solo. In “Fantasy of Nationality” he puts the nation-state in his crosshairs and pauses as if in self-reflection:

The fantasy of nationality drives you up a tree,
makes you think you have an enemy.
The fantasy of nationality drives you up a tree,
makes you think you are the enemy.
I’m my own worst enemy.
Enemy, enemy in me.

“Thunder,” a 25-second track, speaks of the one true borderline on Earth– its surface. We then move a little further from earth for a suite of three songs sharing the title “Spinning Rock.”

Life’s a weirdo mystery,
when there remain enemies.
Can’t we meet today to break bread?
It’s much better than breaking all those heads
on the best of worlds, yet the worst of worlds,
whirling through the firmament.

This is home, and the music seems to help cut through to the message. From here, it’s a nomadic journey through the galaxy (“Driving to The Stars”) followed by a final Pledge of Allegiance to the Planet. This time the pledge is a triumphal return, repeated as a constant refrain with choir-like vocal backings, a sort of intergalactic “Hey Jude.”

In my account, this sort of thing is staggering in ways that are hard to express. Hebrew School listens to a shitload of music, and rarely is moved to tears and laughter– let alone both at once. How does Brute Force manage to seamlessly combine peace politics and silliness, emotion and narrative, all while rocking so damn hard…. and making it all so relevant to the listener some 30 years later? And what of the Brute Force persona as vessel? I’ll let Mr. Friedland have the last word here, from an interview where he’s expressed it so well:

If a songwriter becomes anything during the writing of songs, it is another degree of being a songwriter. This is the way I put it:


Here we have two ways to understand the phenomenon which is presented to us, to decipher half the truth…(We, the living, alas, can understand but half of what this reality is.)… Seeing the feather fall we can describe it in any of the ways available. Both descriptions are secondary to the phenomenon anyway, the seeing of the real feather, and the mental seeing of the feather, as one would write a story. One may be called fact. One may be called fiction. Take your pick. This is the fulcrum upon which the media matrix see-saws, back and forth, creating a delerium of confusion, of artsy, slick, award-winning confusion: blistering the eyes with impossible editing not meant to be understood by the eyes; puncturing the eardrums with commercials spoken too quickly for the ears to understand; ripping off the public’s face with in-your-face moviescreen egomanical sex/sport/violence/playgames.

Now… the naming of the person, the ego who describes a truth or a fiction, compounds the illusion of communication and description. Should I have only been called Stephen Friedland, perhaps the whole trip would have been different. But the pseudonym was perceived as false by anyone and everyone, although people go along with the projection of the ego, for they themselves have an ego trip and are basically kind to accept Brute Force. However, my work and the appreciation of my person would have been initially appreciated in a more serious manner… young, Jewish songwriter. “Brute Force” incorrectly avoided that.

from “Brute Force Speaks! An Interview with Stephen Friedland” by Michael Lucas, Scram Magazine.


brute source

listen to samples, buy the cd


allmusic bio

article by david chiu, arts & culture, fall 2007

wfmu’s 365 days project, february 7

nypress article, “brute force is back”

brute force & daughter of force, “dwayne of the upper regions”

Chris Rock nails it on the head
October 5, 2009, 8:36 am
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Hebrew School… in Heeb
October 2, 2009, 2:00 pm
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Sometimes you’re reading a Jewish print magazine and you think to yourself, “Wow, this magazine really sucks.” Then that magazine goes out of print circulation.

Not so with Heeb. So yes, I’m happy to be part of the Heeb 100, rubbin’ shoulders with the likes of folks from ponytail, the pains of being pure at heart, the antlers, the coathangers, micachu, and ever so many more.

“With songs in which traditional melodies are demolished and remade into electronic parables, Hebrew School is a thorough lesson in ingenuity.”

From what I gather, this will all be in paper format some time mid-month, but for now see here.