I don’t mean to stick a flower in the rifle of rock’n’roll, but there’s nothing like a few gunshots to focus the mind on good cheer, particularly when the dust clears from the martini glass through which we view it. It’s 1968, and the youthful future constituents of Ross Perot are attempting to melt their parents’ Wallace buttons into roach clips, but they’re also overturning Esso pumps and dropping pigs on the New York Stock Exchange. In Paris, the kids are storming streets, fists in air, baguettes glistening in the sun, copy of Althusser in their back pockets—Your brother may die in Vietnam, Capitalism is a monster, but this is fun! Below the equator, Ché’s by this point useless in Bolivia, but his poster’s still sweating pheromones. And Costa e Silva is kicking the ass of the Brazilian congress. The dictatorship is on, and it ain’t sexy, like China’s. Or is it? What does Democracry mean to a country that never quite possessed it, beyond a chattering class, and how does a free spirit respond to the new boss?
Toked-up Brazilian psychedelic trio Os Mutantes records a definitive version of sambamaster-gone-hardcore Jorge Ben’s “A Minha Menina,” with echoed giggling, fuzz guitar and Sandra Dee–style boy-girl lyrics, which they punctuate with shoo-be-do-wah-yeahs of a nature both more convincing and light-hearted than Lou Reed would accomplish on Loaded a couple years later. This isn’t “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” or even “Eve of Destruction”—it’s deeply felt formal theater, like Ruben and the Jets. It rocks percussively, it smells pretty good, you mimic their giggles. But perhaps the laughter is in contempt. Is ’50s rock’n’roll some stand-in for an oppressive regime? You can never tell with those life-is-theater folks. (Why else would anyone wear sunglasses indoors?)
The world was on fire, and Brazil responded with a brainy lap dance. How often can you fuck to satire? “A Minha Menina” can be found on Os Mutantes’s self-titled first LP, finally out domestically along with the next couple (1969’s Mutantes and 1970’s A Divina Comédia Ou Ando Meio Desligado, all with well-meaning if kinda cheesy packaging—why no Portuguese lyrics? Why aren’t the songwriters in the CD booklet?), as well as on World Psychedelic Classics One: The Best of Os Mutantes: Everything Is Possible, a well-considered Mutantes compilation (solid liner notes) coming out this week on David Byrne’s (of course, of course) Luaka Bop label.
The approach of these CDs isn’t all that different from the meaningful frou-frou that was the Tropicalia movement at the time, and, in fact, Mutantes, as awe-inspiring as they were, are consistently overrated just a wee bit, what with the pretty girl (singer Rita Lee, future ’80s star, topless on the cover of Divina, yes, yes y’all), the punchy guitars and the fact that a lot of the Brazilian material from this period is just now getting a hearing in this country. It’s the first LP that really makes the reputation—a petri dish for the Tropicalia experiment, it rocks harder, pre-Santana, then almost anything from Tropicalia’s moment, save some Jorge Ben.
But, like much Tropicalia, Os Mutantes the album also throws a pretty good change-up. Last year’s Tropicalia 30 Años box of Mutantes, Veloso, Gal Costa, et al. has turned a lot of heads 360 degrees, and those of us who grew up listening to the scrape of Milton Nascimento buffing Paul Simon’s toupee and Neil Schon soloing off Flora Purim’s vulva are undergoing considerable psychiatric readjustment. And the supply would appear endless, just as with Moog records a half-decade ago. Sure, Veloso was singing about flying saucers more deeply than anyone this side of Screaming Jay Hawkins’s Reichian therapy. But you mean to tell us that Sergio Mendes was recording psychedelic drumming suites in the ’70s? That Egberto Gismonti recorded the first Stereolab LP? That Hermeto Pascoal forged the great pathway between Charles Mingus, Enoch Light, and Amon Düül I? And that these aren’t even Tropicalia artists, per se? Although Os Mutantes was more of a band, you’ll find Brazil’s orchestrations of the time more subversive than Mutantes’ guitars, more so than even George Martin’s orchestrations—easy-listening as an avant-garde.
Great art doesn’t always stand the test of time, but it does seem to come back for a proper misunderstanding. The Beatles really were the Monkees, and Tropicalia, like much hip-marginal stuff these days, lays Le Historia del Rock on an olive branch of equal jokey seriousness with, say, Philly teen and Everly crooners, lounge (at the time, a nonsense term), “ethnic” and “folk” traditions (more nonsense terms), yé-yé melancholia, and the usual avant-pitstops. And Tropicalia seems the one music capable of bringing together the tight-sphinctered Devo-haircut thrift-store sophisticates with the funky-ass white-boy grad-school primitives.
But as Chuck D put it, “We’re all the same. No we’re not the same.” And speaking of civil war, civil war made Brazil, for awhile, the world’s largest debtor, but musically, the world seemed to return the favor. In their pop-’60s eclecticism, the first two Os Mutantes records could be Elephant 6 releases, even if they cover the Francois Hardy–identified “Le Premier Bonheur du Jour,” Swingle Singers–style. They heard the connections back then. Why are we snobs only hearing them now?
But Brazil is a land of soap operas all day long, and it would only make sense that a group of All Day Progressives would literalize that in their music—progressive means something under a dictatorship. So, Mutantes (album number two) starts with Rita Lee’s jaded “Hungry Like the Wolf” yawn, then winds up more like Jefferson Airplane and less excitable than the first record. It’s better than Crown of Creation, especially as you need to know Portuguese to make out the sci-fi stuff. After skimming Tropicalia’s cream for their debut, they take up most of the songwriting themselves, and the in-jokes age well because the band seems so anachronistic copping “Satisfaction” and “Wooly Bully.” I hear the Fugs, too, or at least their methodology. They should be overturning Esso pumps, but instead they’re starting their own gas station—not a better record than the first, but a smarter one.
And then, too smart. By Divina, the Arnaldo Brothers, Lee’s partners in crime, have been listening to King Crimson, and as LKJ put it: “Inglan is a bitch.” Especially U.K. radio in 1970. Rock itself was suffering a similar virus, from Psych to Heavy to Prog. Divina is more leaden than heavy, more digressive than eclectic—you can’t chew on a riff for too long. But it sort of dares you not to like it with its expansiveness, like that kid in Rushmore, and I find that admirable. There’s too much German-friendly organ, and the best you can say is that it doesn’t sound like “Hush,” though it doesn’t sound like “Let’s Go Crazy,” either. Except that it does kind of sound like “Hush.” But “Oh! Miur Infidel” sounds out-and-out manly, like the Spencer Davis Group after Steve and Muff saw a chance and took it.
And then the band started to suck, as all bands eventually do, but you’ll have to shell out serious cash for the imports to hear it. So the joy drains a bit. So what? In 1969, Fela Kuti, of analogous passive-aggressive political position, is recording catchy ditties in praise of the Biafran war. You can’t listen to ideas, and sometimes it’s better to take the side of art over life. Call me ahistorical. I wish. I point my pistol. Dance clown!