The experimental psych rock of Os Mutantes was an anomaly in late 60s Brazil – this was, after all, a country entering a brutal military dictatorship, where even the most playful dissent was being crushed.
But in fairness, Os Mutantes would have been an anomaly anywhere . . .
They wrote hymns of praise to Genghis Khan, Don Quixote and Lucifer. They dressed onstage as Disney characters, aliens, conquistadors, witches and Victorian urchins. They tossed giant nets and inflatable caterpillars over their audiences.
Most remarkable of all was their music – a frenzied collage of psych-rock, garage rock and prog rock laced with Brazilian samba, Cuban mambo and Mexican mariachi, all polished off with George Martin-style orchestrations.
The Os Mutantes story is effectively the story of the Dias brothers. Arnaldo Dias Baptista was born in Sao Paulo in 1948, his brother Sérgio three years later.
They came from a privileged well-connected, artistic family – their father was a poet who also worked for a local politician. Their mother was a concert pianist.
Arnaldo – who was trained to a high level on piano, double bass and guitar – and Sérgio would practice songs by the rock bands they heard on radio or TV – The Everly Brothers, The Shadows, The Ventures or The Yardbirds. They embraced jazz, watched the American pop show Shindig!, and fell in love with The Beatles.
The impetus behind the band however, was neither Sérgio nor Arnaldo, but their elder brother, Claudio – whose main interest was electronics. He ended up pioneering dozens of effects units and instruments for his brothers.
By 1966 Sérgio and Arnaldo had formed Os Mutantes with Arnaldo’s girlfriend, a feisty singer called Rita Lee. Claudio’s contraptions became central to their sound.
For example, Claudio wired up a hot chocolate can, connected it to a rubber hose and got Sérgio to sing through it. He suggested using the spray on an aerosol can as a hi-hat for one song. He even made an effects pedal out of a Singer sewing machine. “We called it the Green Devil,” laughs Sérgio. “With every touch of the pedal you could alter the harmonics and create crazy effects”.
You can hear the Green Devil on Bat Macumba, one of the many remarkable tracks on the band’s self-titled 1968 debut album. Co-written by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, it takes an insistent funk beat, a nonsense lyric, and a blizzard of bongos, and tops it with a guitar that sounds like a swarm of angry wasps.
But long before the release of their first album, Os Mutantes had become quite famous as one of the few home-grown bands to appear on television (it helped that their godfather was a TV presenter). In 1966, with Arnaldo and Rita Lee aged 18 and Sérgio only 15, they made their first appearance on the Jovem Guarda TV show, playing Beatles covers.
Rita raided the station’s costume department and found even more flamboyant costumes. They made such an impact that the Shell Oil Company hired them for a Brazilian TV advertising campaign, a series of short films influenced by Dick Lester’s Beatles comedies.
This exposure introduced them to a cellist and composer called Rogério Duprat, who was able to translate the Dias brothers’ ideas and arrange them for the band. His influence is strongest on the band’s first two albums, Os Mutantes (1968) and Mutantes (1969).
By the 1970 release of A Divina Comedia Ou Ando Meio Desligado (“The Divine Comedy Or I Walk A Bit Disconnected”), Os Mutantes had started to become a more regular garage rock band, with Arnaldo concentrating on Hammond organ. Two more albums followed; Jardim Eletrico (1971) and 1972’s Mutantes E Seus Cometas No Pais Do Baurets (“Mutantes and Their Comets In The Land Of The Joints”).
But the Dias brothers growing obsession with LSD was breaking the band apart. Fried by repeated acid use, Arnaldo’s relationship with Rita Lee broke down in 1972, and Rita left the band, claiming that she was kicked out. Sérgio wanted to side with Rita, and begged her to stay, but in the end he stuck by his brother.
Rita’s first solo albums, Build Up and Hoje E O Primero Dia Do Resto Da Sua Vida both featured Os Mutantes, and are considered Mutantes albums in all but name. She later became a hugely successful pop singer (in association with her second husband, guitarist Roberto de Carvalho) and a TV presenter.
The next Os Mutantes LP, O AEOZ (“The A and The Z”) was written, recorded and mixed on acid. Arnaldo didn’t last long after that – Os Mutantes recorded one more album without him and then the band drifted apart.
Depressed and paranoid through protracted LSD use, Arnaldo released a solo album in 1974, and tried unsuccessfully to relaunch himself as a producer. He was also spending time in mental institutions.
In 1982, on Rita’s birthday, he jumped out of a fifth floor window at a psychiatric hospital. While it is still not clear if this was a suicide attempt, he was in a coma for six weeks. He was nursed back to health by a fan, who remains his wife to this day.
In 1993, Kurt Cobain tried to get Os Mutantes to re-form to support Nirvana on their South American tour, but Os Mutantes remained dormant until 2006 when, prompted by growing interest from British and American fans, Sérgio assembled a new band to play a series of big venues across Europe, North America and Brazil.
Only Sérgio and Arnaldo remained from the 60’s line-up, although Dinho Leme (drums 1971 – 1973) was onboard, with vocalist Zelia Duncan deputising for Rita Lee.
Sadly, Arnaldo pulled out of the US and Brazil dates, and his wife – who maintains medical guardianship over him – didn’t want him to play in the band for his own well-being.
Regardless, the tour was a huge success, with the band playing the Hollywood Bowl and in front of 80,000 people in their native Sao Paulo. They then recorded their first album for 35 years – Haih Or Amortecedor.
Arnaldo Dias Baptista
Vocals, bass, keyboards
Sérgio Dias Baptista
Claudio Dias Baptista
Arnolpho Lima “Liminha” Filho
Ronaldo “Dinho” Leme