In his memoir, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil
, Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso recalls the first time his tropicalismo compatriots mentioned Os Mutantes:
"They're still kids, and they know everything," they said in a frightened tone. "It can"t be true!"
But if fear struck the tropicalistas, a fledgling group of composers and poets diametrically opposed to the musical traditions of mainstream Brazilian pop, it can be said that it was an intrigued fear. After all, to them, the talent of Os Mutantes seemed almost too good to be true. The trio of teenagers from Sao Paolo, Rita Lee and the brothers Arnoldo and Sergio Baptista, had already developed an air of sophisticated anarchy about themselves. It reflected in their personalities and their musical precociousness. And though decidedly amateur, the tropicalistas saw in them an iconoclastic spark of daring that echoed their own.
Not long after meeting Rogerio Duprat, a tropicalista and follower of avant-garde music, Os Mutantes joined the small but impassioned group of artists. It was a perfect fit: a fluid creative movement unrestrained by genre or medium, but anchored by a overriding reflective, satirical and irreverent modus operandi. Working closely with Duprat and Gilberto Gil, a rising Brazilian songwriter, the trio gained national attention at the country's national pop music competition in 1967. Backing Gil, the band got on stage, colorful, extroverted and armed with electric guitars, and played "Domingo no Parque," a glowing demonstration of tropicalia music. The song was a cross between bossa nova, the Afro-rhythms of northeastern Brazil and harmonious Beatlesque vocals, an affront to the strain of nationalistic pop prevalent at the festival.
Unsurprisingly, the audience was overwhelmingly antagonistic.
Their first album, self-titled, came a year later. As the first horn-laden fusillade is fired, it's apparent that Os Mutantes
follows in the steps of "Domingo no Parque." The songs call on casserole of influence, picking and choosing from everything that surrounded the band, from British psychedelic pop to Carnivale music.
Album opener "Panis et Circenses" demonstrates this perfectly, a complete mood-swing from one minute to another. The band flees from the dreamy rain of organs and harmonies under and into the canopy of a garage rock crescendo, right before the song collapses on itself in a frenetic heap. And just when you think the tune has taken you as far as it can go, sound cuts out and we hear producer Manoel Barenbein's voice, Strauss' "Blue Danube" and the sounds of an imaginary dining room feast, complete with clinking clanking glass and silverware.
"Panis et Circenses" is attack on the aural senses, and culturally, it's an attack on certain sedentary Brazilian lifestyles of the tune. The song raises the bar up high for the rest of album, but its real intent is to display each function of Os Mutantes
First, there are Duprat's arrangements. They're imbued with a fragile, porcelain beauty, yet still playful and ebullient, undoubtedly indebted to John Cage as well as the baroque pop of the Beatles and other bands. Though they're not as dominate elsewhere as they are on "Panis," the little touches to each song, things that one might imagine Duprat suggesting, undoubtedly make the album. Given the trio's own willingness to depart from the plot (for example, replacing snare hits with the sound of bug spray on the moody French standard "Le Premier Bonheur du Jour"), it's easy to imagine that anything Duprat might have suggested would easily align with the twisted minds of the Mutantes.
Only so much can be attributed to Duprat, though. The Mutantes' own experimental will exerts itself strongly throughout the album, prompted by the technologically deprived record studios of Brazil. The strongest example comes from Claudio Cesar, elder brother of Arnoldo and Sergio and the "fourth Mutante," who engineers several effects for his little brothers, most notably the strident buzzsaw guitars of "Minha Menina" and "Bat Macumba." Decidedly out of place on these rhythmically-charged tracks, the fiery guitars can be read as another volley fired against contemporaneous Brazilian pop reverence of traditional acoustic music.
In spite of these uniquely Mutantes tricks, the fingerprints of other tropicalistas are more plaster cast than mere passable smudges. Veloso and Gil, the musical figureheads of the tropicalismo movement, offered multiple compositions for Os Mutantes on their debut; "Panis," "Bat Macumba," "Trem Fantasma" and one of the movement's signature tracks, "Baby" all sprung from either one of the duo or as a collaboration between the two in conjunction with the band. Jorge Ben, who wrote and plays on "Minha Menina," also looms long over the song writing of the album. If, at this point in their career, the Mutantes were not strong song writers, it's hard to tell thanks to the many contributions from established pens of Ben, Veloso and Gil.
In any case, the few songs the Mutantes do pen themselves tend towards pastiches of Bahian rhythms and blues pop. "Senhor F," a tune that plays up an imported American cabaret blues influence, has the dubious honor of being the worst track here. The swinging "Tempo No Tempo" is more appreciable, but still fairly hit or miss.
However, it's easy to argue in favor of the group's talent on the alternately airy and jagged "O Relogio." The band's finest achievement of themselves at this point, "O Relogio" works its way from Rita Lee's angelic vocal presence to an enjoyably garish tropicalia refrain, then back to the reverie of bass, keyboards and Lee. "Trem Fantasma," a song writing collaboration between Veloso and the band is also a strong tune, reflective of the kind of songs Veloso himself was recording at the time. A marchina rhythm introduces the track, augmented by a soulful horn arrangement that plows forward with fierce energy. The album closer, "Ave, Genghis Khan" is also a worthy demonstration of the band's unique brand of psychedelic pop, complete with demonstrations of freakout and finesse.
Without a doubt, Os Mutantes
provides a very awkward meal for a music listener to digest. Arguably their most challenging and untamed album, the first self-titled release is psychedelic pop without bar, jumpy, jagged and underproduced. Later works would paint the image of a band interested in developing the Brazilian rock sound alongside contemporaries like Roberto Carlos, rather than the tropicalistas. But this is as much the product of the arrest and subsequent exile of many founding members of the movement. And that's a story for another place, another time.
Regardless, the first recorded incarnation of Os Mutantes is some of the most mind-boggling creative pop music to come out of the late 60's, easily on par with that of the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Kinks or any of the other English invaders. With everything that was stacked against the band and their knit of creative contemporaries, from aggressive politicos to unreceptive audiences, Os Mutantes
can be at least considered a testiment to ambition. It'll make you scratch your head and wonder what really is possible. It might even help you reimagine the limits of 60's pop. This album can't be true, but somehow it is.