MUTANTES: Pop Aliens in the Land of Samba
It was the perfect band name.
In the late 60s, in a convoluted South American country called Brazil, people asked themselves if these three lunatics hadn’t really come from another planet. 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 the first album, Os Mutantes, in the early part of 1968, producer Manoel Barenbein became extremely curious when he saw Rita walk into the studio holding a can of bug spray (the popular “Flit” brand) and place it among the band’s instruments. Craziness? No, just simply brilliant: The idea was to substitute it for the hi-hat cymbals on the recording of “Le Premier 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 Shirelles, and Peter, Paul and Mary songs 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 Beatlesque pop.
From then on Arnaldo and Rita would not be apart. Two years later, after stints in the Six Sided Rockers and O’Seis, they decided to form a new group with Arnaldo’s 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 started to write their own songs. The official Mutantes debut happened on October 15th, 1966, on a youth-oriented TV show hosted by singer Ronnie Von, the trio’s godfather.
Meanwhile, the public at large would only meet the Mutantes a year later. Discovered by maestro Rogério Duprat (an irreverent follower of John Cage’s avant-garde ideas), the trio was 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 country’s best singers and songwriters—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 festival’s 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” and accused of having sold themselves to North American imperialists.
In a matter of 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. Besides 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 Tropicália's initial discussions that the Mutantes recorded their first self-titled album. Rogério Duprat's transgressive arrangement of “Panis et Circenses” 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” waltz 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 Rita’s version. In “Adeus Maria Fulô” the trio creates a parody of baião, the extremely popular rhythm of Brazil's northwest—which wasn’t really a favorite of the Mutantes. Before their ties to the Tropicalistas, the three Mutants made fun of any typically Brazilian rhythm.
From their first album, the Mutantes had an edge on every other pop band of the period—the instruments and electronic effects created by Cláudio César, the eldest Baptista brother. The guitar lends 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 he was sometimes called).
Even stranger is the effect used on the dark “Dia 36,” from the band's 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-whooh” pedal. With this feature, Sérgio's 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 band's third album (A Divina Comédia Humana ou Ando Meio Desligado) was recorded, Brazil's political and cultural situation was already very different. The governmental measure known 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 in London.
Isolated, without the support and creative exchange of Tropicália's heyday, the Mutantes renewed their bonds to Anglo-American rock. Dinho's drums and Liminha's 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 effects of marijuana, the song “Ando Meio Desligado” became the group’s greatest hit. Atop a bass line inspired by the Zombies hit "Time of the Season,” the song's lyrics combined love with a candid description of the herb's hallucinogenic effects. From the same album, "Desculpe, Babe" brings us yet another homemade effect: Sérgio's voice was distorted through a rubber hose connected to a hot chocolate can with a tiny speaker inside. This ingenious thing was later baptized the Voice Box.
Included in the 1971 album Jardim Elétrico, the debauched “El Justiciero” and a new version of “Baby” (with Rita's 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 album's intended title) was recorded in Paris while the group was performing at the L'Olympia Theater, but it was never released. It included English versions of some of the group’s 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 band’s irreverent incursions into Latin rhythms. On this track, Santana's Latin rock is openly copied, and the ironic lyrics in “Portunhol” (a crazy combination of Portuguese and Spanish) depict a successful mambo singer living in the USA (the character was inspired by famed pianist Sérgio Mendes).
The fifth Mutantes album was the first sign of a radical turn in the band's trajectory. After Rita Lee's departure from the group in the end of 1972, the band immersed themselves 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 humorous phases of their career—a surprisingly creative rock band that even in the ’90s counts bands such as L7, Redd Kross, the Posies and Stereolab, not to mention Nirvana’s late Kurt Cobain, among its fans. You will certainly become one, too.
Essay by Carlos Calado, author of the book A Divina Comédia Dos Mutantes
Translated by Béco Dranoff
INTERVIEW WITH RITA LEE
1. David Byrne refers to Os Mutantes' modus operandi as "creative cannibalism." Do you see a kinship with the Mutantes and current popular artists—like Beck or the Beastie Boys—who employ similar methods?
Well, I'm a creative vegetarian now a days!!! I observe that Os Mutantes, Beck and Beastie Boys belong to the same tribe, we sure eat ourselves 'til the last bone and happily burp our souls out. It's never too late to have a happy childhood...getting old like me and listening to these young boys sounding like a bunch of shamans stirring past and future inside a world musical cauldron makes me feel more alive than ever...There is nothing better than living at the present time surrounded by the impermanent universe!
2. Os Mutantes are probably more popular in the States now than they ever were before. What do you credit this to?
In other words, what took us so long? As a matter of fact Os Mutantes were never “popular,” even in Brazil. Our intention was not to become pop artists, au contraire, all we wanted was to be at the opposite side of success—and the more "off Broadway" our music, the better. We played for our own fun. When Caetano and Gil were exiled, Os Mutantes felt like orphans and the Baptista Bros. came out falling in love with progressive music. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, etc. I was asked (not very kindly, by the way!) to quit the group, even though I'd invested a lot in my own electronic instruments. I was always very intuitive as an instrumentalist, but not a virtuoso like Arnaldo or Sergio. There was no place for me anymore in that kind of sound the boys had already chosen. They broke up not very long after my departure. I decided to continue the idea of mixing music with theater, circus and fashion. At that time there was a huge field to be explored which I called "roquenrou" made in Brazil, and that's what I did with my next band, Tutti Frutti. For the first time success didn't hurt too much! Os Mutantes being popular in the States surely has something to do with these young, curious and unsatisfied musicians who take their jobs as a very serious pleasure and mess around with hidden pirate’s treasures from all over the world. There was a famous clown here in Brazil called Chacrinha who said "Nothing in art is created; everything is copied.”
3. Have you been in contact with either of the Baptista brothers recently? Can you tell me what they're doing these days?
I have no idea of where they live... how to find them... what they look like now... if they still make music...communication breakdown!
4. For all their innovation and uniqueness, the thing I enjoy most about Mutantes records is the irrepressible and universal sense of joy they convey. I think that's something that anyone, from any culture can appreciate. It sounds as though this was something that came naturally to you, but how did you maintain such joy in the face of all the political and economic upheaval Brazil was experiencing at the time?
This was like "The Twilight Zone"! Surviving between hell and heaven which I experienced but cannot really explain. Sometimes the more danger the better! The censorship was humiliating, but it was such fun explaining to those stupid bastards that a mere rainbow didn't mean any of the political rebellion symbolism they suggested! On the other hand we went nuts facing painful situations when a close friend vanished for good for no reason at all...we were teenagers, full of anger and dreams! One night, we had planned to throw a huge amount of LSD inside the water reservoir of one of the worst torture GQs called DOI CODI near my house. Everything was planned like a 007 mission impossible. But our dealer came by and told us smiling that he had sold all the stuff to buy the drum kit of his dreams!!! The Brazilian dictatorship was a nightmare to only a few who knew what was really going on, like the artists, students, the press and faithful politicians. Most of the common people thought everything was under control by the "good men" from the Army. It was very difficult do organize parades on the streets because we were seen as Communist sympathizers whose rebels deserved to die because they wanted to the lead Brazil into chaos. Similar rebellions were happening all over the world for different causes, but here the generals were seen as heroes defending the country against disorder and "guerrillas.” It was both scary and exciting running away through the back stage door from theaters, meetings and shows when the CCC (anti-Communist brigade) entered those places with their heavy ammo, beating, spanking and arresting everyone. I took advantage of my American name—Rita Lee Jones—to get out of some bad situations. The Army wouldn't mess with the USA who was backstaging and supporting dictatorships all over South America.
5. There is a very deliberate, self-aware quality to the Mutantes. What was your agenda when you recorded these records? Did you have a particular audience you wanted to reach, or response that you hoped to generate?
When Os Mutantes were among the Tropicalista front with Gil, Caetano, Tom Zé, Rogério Duprat, Gal Costa, Capinan, Torquato Neto, Ben Jor and many other artists from other areas, we were seen as the free children of the universe. They never came by to politicize us because our own way of participating was itself so irreverent that from the beginning, all doors were opened. Brazil was so big and rich, but it was in prison!!!! All we had to do was keep the people and ourselves aware and happy no matter what. Os Mutantes recorded few albums and all of them with the spirit of "It's forbidden to forbid" in mind! When I left the group and formed Tutti Frutti, my lyrics began naturally introducing messages to young people about how hard it was to shut our mouths up and not tell, for instance, the crime of our natural resources being destroyed! How to be the rebel of the family and get on with our dreams no matter how impossible it seemed. Doing "roquenrou" in Portuguese was as challenging as playing "futebol" like Pelé...the gringos invented it, but we made it better, sometimes...Brazilianizing the world! We needed our pride back! Under repression, we were able to work out our creativity by making any stupid in power look like a fool. Our little vengeances! We were so impotent!
6. The era of Tropicália sounds like an exciting time indeed; every bit as creatively stimulating as the counter-cultural scenes in San Francisco or London around the same time. Of course a book could (and has) been written on the subject, but could you give me some of your fondest, most vivid memories of those days? What did Tropicália mean to you as a person, and Mutantes as a band? What did Mutantes bring to Tropicália, that other participants in the movement did not?
I can say the Tropicália era was the best of the worst days of my life... it was like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Tropicalismo introduced me to myself, my father was American, my mother was Italian, I've attended a French school, I was born in São Paulo...sometimes I thought I came from another planet! It was through those brilliant comrades that I found out I was apart from anything else a Brazilian girl! How little I knew about my country…and since then I've never had any intention of making career outside Brazil! I felt so much in love with this special place of this planet that I have no doubt that I asked to be born here! I believe that the best contribution Os Mutantes gave Tropicalismo was introducing to our comrades the infinite electronic world and its utilizations, expanding the richness of instrumentation. Guitars, basses, drums, theremins, and synthesizers were considered at that time a sacrilege inside the MPB (Brazilian Popular Music). We said, No more slavery, freedom to art! The price Tropicalismo paid to the reactionaries was high, but today Brazilian music is far more respected than our politicians!