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In the late 60s, in a convoluted South American country called Brazil, people asked themselves if these three lunatics hadnt really come from another plante. Besides the bizarre characters that Rita Lee and brothers Sérgio and Arnaldo Baptista would impersonate on TV programs, concerts and on their album covers, the Mutantes music sounded light years ahead of any other pop band in Brazil.
From the very beginning, the Mutantes were strange and provocative. While recording their first album, Os Mutantes, in the early part of 1968, producer Manoel Barenbein became exrtremely curious when he saw Rita walk into the studio holding a can of bug spray (the popular Flit brand) and place it among the bands instruments. Craziness? No, just simply brilliant: the idea was to substitute it for the hi-hat cymbals on the recording of Le Premiere Bonheur du Jour. As unthinkable as it may seem, it worked very well. This was just the first in a series of apparently strange inventions that the band started to develop in the studio amid giggles and guffaws.
Rita Lee Jones and Arnaldo Baptista met when they were 16. The encounter happened in 1964 at a high school band contest in São Paulo, where they were both born and raised. Rita (who comes from a line of Italians and Americans from the south that immigrated to Brazil after the Civil War) was a member of the Teenage Singers, an all-female vocal group that covered The Shirelles, Peter, Paul and Mary along with several Beatles hits. Arnaldo was the bass player in the Wooden Faces, a band that started out cloning the instrumental rock of the Ventures, but which soon converted to Beatlesesque pop.
From then on, Arnaldo and Rita would not be apart (until Ritas exodus from the group in 1972). Two years later, after stints in the Six Sided Rockers and OSeis, they decided to form a new group with Arnaldos younger brother Sérgio, who was already a great guitar player for all of his 15 years of age. They still emulated the Beatles, but the trio had started to write their own songs. The official Mutantes debut happened on October 15, 1966, on a youth-oriented TV show hosted by singer Ronnie Von, the trios godfather.
Meanwhile, the public at large would only meet the Mutantes a year later. Discovered by maestro Rogério Duprat (an irreverent follower of John Cages avante-garde ideas), the trio was then introduced to singer/songwriter Gilberto Gil, who was getting ready to present his new song Domingo no Parque at TV Records 2nd Festival of Brazilian Popular Music a fiercely competitive song contest that brought together the countrys best singers and songwrites in October of 1967.
The impact was tremendous. Along with singer/songwriter Caetano Veloso (also in the race with his innovative song Alegria, Alegria), Gil and the Mutantes were the festivals most polemical figures. The fact that both used electric guitars a first at an event traditionally dedicated to Brazilian popular music shocked and irritated the leftist university crowd. Booed and sworn at, the Mutantes, Gil and Caetano were labeled as alienated [i.e., alien] and accused of having sold themselves to North American imperialists.
In a matter of three weeks the three Mutantes, along with other musicians, poets and artists, were taking part in lively meetings that quickly evolved into an art movement. With big doses of criticism, lots of humor, iconoclastic ideas and sprinkles of rock music, Tropicália was out to question not only the music being made in the country at the time, but Brazilian culture as a whole. Besideds Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Rogério Duprat, the music sector of the movement included composer Tom Zé, singers Gal Costa and Nara Leão and lyricists Capinam and Torquato Neto. Together they changed Brazilian music.
It was during Tropicálias initial discussions that the Mutantes recorded their first self-titled album. Rogério Duprats transgressive arrangements of Panis et Circences opened the record as a sonic happening. The recording is interrupted in the middle of the song so that the listener would think that the stereo was shut off. A bit later, the voice of producer Manoel Barenbein is heard through the sound of clinking glasses and dishes while Strauss Blue Danube walz swings in the background. The irony is that at that moment, students, police and the military were clashing in daily bloody riots in the streets of Brazil.
The ties with Tropicália are also clear on other cuts. Originally recorded by Gal Costa in an intimate Bossa Nova setting, the song Baby sounds a lot more pop on Arnaldo and Ritas version. In Adeus Maria Fulô, the trio creates a parody of baião, the extremely popular rhythm of Brazils northwest which wasnt really a favorite of the Mutantes. Before their ties to the Tropicalistas, the three Mutantes made fun of any typically Brazilian rhythm.
For their first album, the Mutantes had an edge on every other pop band of the period partly due to the instruments and electronic effects created by Cláudio César, the eldest Baptista brother. The unusual guitar (contributed by Cláudio) lent some strange, distorted colors to the percussive Bat Macumba as well as the samba-rock A Minha Menina, thanks to the inventions and experiments of the fourth Mutante, as Cláudio was sometimes called.
Even stranger is the effect used on the dark Dia 36, from the bands second album Mutantes, recorded at the end of 1968. Cláudio César inverted the sound of the wah-wah pedal popularized by Jimi Hendrix to create the bizarre wooh-wooh pedal. With this feature, Sérgios guitar sounded like it was about to throw up. From the same album, the delicate Fuga No. II, with its string and horn arrangements, suggests that the Beatles influence over the trio was still strong.
By 1969, when the bands third album A Divina Comédia Humana ou Ando Meio Desiglado was recorded, Brazils political and cultural situation was already very different. The government measure know as AI 5 (Institutional Act 5) terrorized intellectuals and political activists, closing the congress and provoking countless arrests. The Tropicália movement was aborted, with little more than one year of activity. Caetano and Gil were arrested and exiled to London.
Isolated, without the support and creative exchange of Tropicálias heydey, the Mutantes renewed their bonds to Anglo-American rock. Dinhos drums and Liminhas bass were added to the trio, allowing Arnaldo to play keyboards full-time. Rita Lee also added a Mini Moog and a Mellotron.
Written in early 1969 under the influence of marijuana, the song Ando Meio Desiglado became the groups greatest hit. Atop a bass line inspired by the Zombies hit Time of the Season, the songs lyrics combined love with a candid description of the herbs hallucinogenic effects. From the same album, Desculpe, Babe brings us yet another homemade effort: Sérgios voice was distorted through a rubber hose connected to a hot chocolate can with a tiny speaker inside. The ingenious thing was later baptized the Voice Box.
Included in the 1971 album Jardim Eléctrico, the debauched El Justiciero and a new version of Baby (with Ritas cool vocals) were actually recorded in France a year earlier. In reality, both belong to an album aimed at the international market recorded by request for Polydor UK. Technicolor (the albums intended title) was recorded in Paris while the group was performing at LOlympia Theatre, but it was never released. It included english versions of some of the groups major hits along with four new songs; El Justiciero was one of them.
Cantor de Mambo, from the 1972 Mutantes e Seus Cometas no País do Baurets album, is another of the bands irreverent incursions into Latin rhythms. On this track, Santanas latin rock is openly copied, and the ironic lyrics in Portunhol (a crazy combination of Portuguese and Spanish) depict a successful mambo singer living the the USA (the character was inspired by the famous pianist Sérgio Mendes.
The fifth Mutantes album was the first sign of a radical turn in the bands trajectory. After Rita Lees departure from the group at the end of 1972, the band immersed itself in progressive rock. Through several lineups, the band recorded three more albums before finally dissolving in 1978. At that point, with only Sérgio remaining from the original group, the band was a mere shadow of its former self.
Luckily, in this compilation you will only hear the Mutantes at the best and most humorou phases of their career a surprisingly creative rock band that even in the 90s counts such bands as L7, Redd Kross, the Posies and Stereolab, not to mention the late Kurt Cobain, among its fans. You will certainly become one, too.
Essay by Carlos Colado, author of A Divina Comédia Dos Mutantes