Continuing the Tropicália theme, this week’s Get to Know a Brazilian looks at not one, but three Brazilians – Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista, and Sergio Dias – who, between 1966 and 1972 made up the band Os Mutantes, one of the most innovative and influential Brazilian rock bands ever.
Unlike other members of the Tropicália movement, Os Mutantes had its roots not in the Northeastern state of Bahia, but in the metropolitan center of São Paulo, where Rita Lee (b. 1947) and brothers Arnaldo (b. 1948) and Sérgio Dias Baptista (b. 1951). All three came from middle-class backgrounds – the Baptista brothers grew up playing a variety of musical instruments. For her part, Lee was the daughter of an American-Brazilian dentist and a descendant of a Confederado, a group of several thousand former Confederates who moved to Brazil to avoid Reconstruction and the abolition of slavery. In 1964, Arnaldo Baptista formed a band, The Wooden Faces, with his oldest brother and some friends. The group met Rita Lee, who had been a part of an all-girl trio, the Teenage Singers, to join; Arnaldo’s youngest brother Sérgio also joined. By 1966, the band, which had gone through several name-changes (including “Six Sided Rockers,” “O Conjunto,” and “O Seis”). They recorded a single in 1966, but after selling fewer than 200 copies, the other band members left, leaving just Arnaldo Baptista, Sérgio Dias, and Rita Lee. With a change in personnel, the band settled on a new name: Os Mutantes, inspired by O Império dos Mutantes (The Empire of the Mutants),the Portuguese translation of a science-fiction novel by French writer Stefan Wul.
With the new (and, for the next several years, only) lineup in place, and a band name chosen, the trio began to play on television shows in São Paulo. In the process, they met composer and conductor Rogério Duprat, whose interest in shattering the barriers between classical and popular music had brought him into contact with the Tropicalistas, for whom he would compose many songs or write arrangements for songs. Through Duprat, Os Mutantes met Gilberto Gil in 1967, and Gil would bring them into the Tropicalista movement. Gil invited them to play on his renowned 1967 performance of “Domingo no Parque”. Gil also had the band play behind him on his 1968 self-titled album (in addition to Os Mutantes’ musical contributions throughout the album, they can especially be heard backing him with vocals and chatter on “Pega a Voga Cabeludo”). The band’s style, innovation, and experimentation quickly earned them the respect of their colleagues in the Tropicália movement – Caetano Veloso sang their praises at the tail end of his 1968 self-titled album, where, on album-closer “Eles” he proclaims, “Os Mutantes são demais” (“Os Mutantes are great”). The band ended up being included on the landmark Tropicália: Ou Panis et Circenses album, singing the title song (which Gil and Veloso had written especially for them).
Embodying their meteoric rise from a small São Paulo band to key figures in the new Tropicália movement, the band also released their self-titled debut in 1968. Though other albums from Gil and Veloso had already shown the influences of international music, including the Beatles and psychedelic rock, on tropicalismo, Os Mutantes were somewhat “harder” in their sound, embracing the rock components even more than did Gil or Veloso, be it in songs like the fuzzed-out “A Minha Menina,” their versions of “Baby” and “Bat Macumba,” or the trippy album closer “Ave Genghis Khan.” To get their sound, the band made their own equipment, including fuzz-boxes and other effects equipment. However, not all of these decisions resonated with audiences; at the III International Festival of Song in São Paulo in 1968, the band was met with a hostile audience that threw food and other objects at the band; when they began to play, the audience turned their backs on the band, prompting the band to turn its backs on the audience without missing a beat. The incident infamously led to Caetano Veloso berating the crowd and proclaiming, “You understand nothing.”
If the first album showed the innovation of Os Mutantes, their second album, simply titled Mutantes and released in 1969, showed that the debut had not been an isolated incident. The second album continued building on the psychedelic sounds of the first album, but also showed an experimentation with style, something made clear by album-opener “Dom Quixote.” The songs also took on a more epic quality, with multiple “movements” in a song and the use of found sounds, most notably the incorporation of chants reminiscent of the street protests of 1968 in album-closer “Caminhante Noturno” (a song that also contains a noticeable nod to the ending of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.”] Mutantes also revealed the band to be skilled song-writers, as songs like “2001,” which Rita Lee co-wrote with Tom Zé, became hits. As daring as the first album was, the songcraft on the second album is so strong that many fans consider it their best album.
With Veloso and Gil in exile by 1969 and Gal Costa moving on to other sounds by the early-1970s, Os Mutantes were one of the few tropicalismo performers whose sound evolved but did not fundamentally break with the Tropicália roots. In 1970, they released their third album, A Divina Comédia ou Ando Meio Desligado, the third great album by the band in as many tries (and an album that others consider their best work). The songs continued to show the development and songwriting skills of the trio, especially “Ando Meio Desligado,” which the three co-wrote, and “Avé Lucifer.” Though many of the songs continued the band’s psychedelic sounds, they also took on slower and darker tones, perhaps reflecting the repressive atmosphere of the military dictatorship, which by that point had implemented the systematic and increased use of torture and censorship against its opponents.
The band continued to produce and refine its sound, with no sign of slowing down. They added two members, Liminha and Dinho Leme, who played bass and drums, respectively, but Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista, and Sérgio Dias continued to be the main creative forces in the band. In 1971, they released their fourth album, Jardim Elétrico, which took a slightly more pop-like turn even while using home-made instruments. While the band seemed to be going strong, behind the scenes, there were rifts forming. Arnaldo Baptista and Rita Lee had married, allegedly so she could gain independence from her parents (the couple famously tore up their wedding certificate on television when they returned from their honeymoon). However, the relationship quickly fell apart even while transforming the dynamics of the group. In 1972, they released their final album as a trio, Os Mutantes e Seus Cometas no País dos Baurets. The album showed a subtle turn towards the prog rock that was becoming popular both in England and North America as well as in Brazil. The band also encountered direct censorship, as the military demanded a change to the song title “Cabeludo Patriota” (“Long-haired Patriot”) – it was renamed “A Hora e a Vez do Cabelo Nascer” (“The Time and the Place of the Growing Hair”). The band did enter the studio one more time, however, to record an album featuring Lee singing all the songs; however, she claimed the band releasing two albums in one year would be bad marketing, so Hoje É o Primeiro Dia do Resto da Sua Vida was released only under Rita Lee’s name as her first “solo” album (in spite of the band backing her). By the end of the year, Lee left the group, citing musical differences.
The band did continue on for a few years. It ultimately fully embraced the prog rock sounds it had begun exploring, recording two more albums of full-blown prog music: O A e o Z, which was recorded in 1973 but not released until 2000, and Tudo Foi Feito pelo Sol, released in 1974. That same year, Arnaldo Baptista, suffering from depression (in part due to the failed marriage to Lee) and the effects of addiction to LSD, left the band, leaving Sérgio the sole remaining founding member. Arnaldo did return in 1978, but ongoing struggles within the band led to a final dissolution in 1978, long after the band’s peak popularity; indeed, allegedly, only 200 people attended the final show.
After going their separate ways, the founding 3 members met with mixed successes. Rita Lee went on to have a massively-successful career. Her 1975 album, Fruto Proibido, immediately won here near-universal acclaim and led to the Brazilian media labeling her the “Queen of Rock.” She has continued recording solo albums and touring up to the present. Arnaldo Baptista also attempted a solo career, but never met with the success Lee encountered, and, suffering from depression, he even attempted suicide in the early 1980s. Sérgio also embarked on a solo career, also meeting with limited success. By the 1990s, however, a new generation was becoming familiar with their work, thanks in no small part to the efforts of David Byrne, whose Luaka Bop label released, Everything Is Possible!, a best-of compilation, and Kurt Cobain, who famously asked the trio to reunite and open for Nirvana on the band’s 1993 tour, and openly spoke of his adoration for the band.
Although Lee, Baptista, and Dias never performed together again, Arnaldo and Sérgio did reunite under the Os Mutantes moniker in 2006, performing together live for the first time in 28 years and releasing a live album from the tour. Though Baptista left the band the following year, Dias has continued to perform and record under the name, releasing Haih Or Amorteceder in 2009. Though both the 2006 live album and the 2009 studio recording (the first in 35 years) show an ongoing playfulness and experimentation, they cannot and do not live up to the greatness of those first three albums. Nonetheless, the new recordings and tour have introduced yet another generation to one of Brazil’s greatest and most influential groups, and the world is a better place for it.
This is part of an ongoing series. Previous posts in this series have looked at singer Gal Costa and author Guimarães Rosa.