It's been nearly 40 years since Sérgio Dias Baptista of Os Mutantes saw Ten Years After at the Fillmore, but he still has, well, vivid memories of his first visit to San Francisco as a naive 17-year-old. He remembers sitting on a bench at a park in Haight-Ashbury and seeing a man on a faraway hilltop slowly walking toward him, until the man finally arrived — to offer Dias what he claims was his first joint. "I think it was also the first time someone showed me a peace sign, and I didn't understand what was that," the ebullient guitarist says. "I thought it stood for 'Victory.'”
Dias hopes to bring some "nice 'inner weather'” to a much different United States this week, when the antic victorious peacefulness of Os Mutantes takes over the same venue where he once saw Nottingham's finest. "It's going to be, like, ‘Whoa!’” he predicts. "Flashbacks all over the place!"
Imagine if the Monkees or Sonny and Cher were true subversives rather than sedatives and you have a glimmer of Os Mutantes' initial censor-baiting carnival-esque presence on Brazilian TV shows such as The Small World of Ronnie Von. If fellow tropicalistas Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were the Bahians with bossa nova roots, then Dias, his brother Arnaldo, and Arnaldo's girlfriend Rita Lee Jones — a vocalist known for her spontaneous raids of network costume wardrobes — were the Tropicália movement's outrageous São Paulo–based rock ’n' roll wing. With a pianist-composer for a mother and a tenor singer–poet for a father, the Dias brothers lived and breathed music. "Working 10 or 12 hours a day on songs became a normal thing for us," says Dias, who wears a cape on the front of the group's first album and an alien skullcap on the back of their second. "The level of expectation was high, but without any demands. That was very good for our technical development."
This amazing development, overseen by Karlheinz Stockhausen–influenced producer Rogério Duprat — the George Martin or Phil Spector or Jack Nitzsche or Pierre Henry of Tropicalismo — can be heard on the group's triple crown of classics, 1968's Os Mutantes, 1969's Mutantes, and 1970's A Divina Comédia, ou Ando Meio Desligado. "There was no psychedelia — Brazil received information in kaleidoscope," Dias asserts, using a favorite interview metaphor. Whether generated by drugs or by cultural conduits, the kaleidoscopic sound of Os Mutantes' first three records ranges from Ventures-like guitar riffing ("I have to thank [Ventures guitarist] Nokie Edwards for hours of pleasure," says Dias) to hallucinatory and surreal choral passages (such as Os Mutantes' time stopper "O Relógio") and Janis Joplin–like freak-outs about domestic appliances (the third album's "Meu Refrigerador Não Funciona," or "My Refrigerator Doesn't Work").
A reaction to international pop culture inspired by modernist poet Oswald de Andrade's "Cannibalist Manifesto," the sound of Os Mutantes and their fellow Tropicalistas wasn't music to the ears of Brazil's military dictatorship or to those of younger music fans who adhered to post–bossa nova nationalist tradition or derivative Jovem Guarda rock. In October 1967, at TV Records' Second Festival of Brazilian Popular Music, both Veloso (performing "Alegria, Alegria," which name-drops Coca-Cola) and Gil (performing "Domingo No Parque" with Os Mutantes) received the type of reaction Bob Dylan had recently gotten for going electric. "It felt good. You pull out your fists and think, 'OK, they're against us, so let's show them the way,’” Dias says when asked about the era's battles against forces of repression. "When you're young, you think you're indestructible or immortal."
Tropicalismo's figureheads soon learned otherwise.