Try to remember a time before today’s digitally interconnected global village, when cultural cross-pollination was a slow, inefficient, and often downright random process. Geographical distances and “primitive” communication methods limited the exchange of ideas and art, to the point that some artists who enjoyed massive success and acclaim in their homelands, remain little-known secrets to peoples of other countries. Artists like Brazilian rock band Legião Urbana, who imported influences from a number of U.K. and U.S. bands and translated them into a unique cross-cultural style all their own, composing songs that were huge hits at home, but were largely ignored internationally.
Brazilian music has been primarily defined by native styles such as samba and bossa nova or, at best, the ’60s rock-infused hybridizations achieved by the Tropicalia generation, including Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Os Mutantes. However, in the mid-1980s, Brazil emerged from a repressive 21-year-long military dictatorship and ushered in arguably its golden era of rock. Countless Brazilian teenagers, who had grown up absorbing American and British rock, had formed bands in the image of their foreign heroes. Yet few outsiders appreciate the scale and variety of the music these bands produced, most likely because most of these groups insisted on singing, not in English, but in Portuguese. (To wit: Belo Horizonte’s Sepultura would later become Brazil’s best-selling musical export in spite of their inaccessible extreme metal sound, precisely because they wrote English lyrics.)
Among the rock bands fusing the lessons of English-language (and particularly British) pop music into their Brazilian world view were the Paralamas do Sucesso, whose white reggae owed much to The Police; Capital Inicial, which drew ideas from Simple Minds and Siouxsie & the Banshees; and, perhaps most popular of all, Legião Urbana, which shared the lessons learned from U2, the Cure and the Smiths through a distinctly Brazilian perspective, behind the rare talent of band leader and creative driving force Renato Russo.
When asked once to define Legião Urbana by MTV Brazil, Russo deadpanned with only a small hint of irony that they were a “Brazilian rock group singing lyrics in Portuguese from the perspective of young people living in an urban setting.” Russo was fluent in English, but his decision to pen and sing his elaborate narratives in Portuguese, replete with common teenage slang terms, felt both exotic and attractive to young Brazilians accustomed to hearing post-’70s rock ‘n’ roll solely from English speakers.
Musically, Russo readily admitted the group “started out imitating English bands.” In Russo’s case comparisons to Ireland’s U2—1985’s somber “Ainda é Cedo,” with its echoing guitar “pings” and dramatically stark piano, is a ringer for “New Year’s Day”—and especially England’s the Smiths were undeniable. And once Renato allowed himself to be photographed wearing floral shirts or even holding flowers, he was inevitably pegged as Brazil’s answer to Morrissey.
Born Renato Manfredini, Jr., on March 27, 1960, in Rio de Janeiro, he moved with his family to Forest Hills, Queens in New York at age 7, where he not only learned to speak English but was exposed to American culture and rock and roll in ways many of his peers, living back home under military rule, could not. After relocating again to the capital of Brasilia at age 13, Manfredini’s love of music blossomed while he was convalescing from the bone disease epiphysiolysis, and, by his final high school years, he was playing bass with a local punk band bearing the very punk name of Aborto Elétrico (Electric Abortion). Around this time, Manfredini adopted the stage name Renato Russo, which, according to multiple sources, was inspired by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, mathematician Bertrand Russell and painter Henri Rousseau.
The fledgling outfit Aborto Elétrico left no official recordings, but some of Russo’s earliest compositions would later resurface through Legião Urbana. The latter was formed in 1982, with Russo on vocals, Dado Villa-Lobos on guitar, Renato Rocha on bass and Marcelo Bonfá on drums. Legião recorded their eponymous debut album in late 1984, arriving in stores just in time to witness seismic changes throughout Brazil.
Within weeks, in January of 1985, general elections were held for Brazil’s first democratically elected president in over two decades, while, simultaneously, the Rock in Rio mega-festival was a bellwether welcoming Brazilian kids to freedom.
In this environment laden with expectations and youth desperately seeking new role models, Renato Russo’s evocative lyrics found an enthusiastic audience, brimming with quasi-religious fervor, so much so that the band was dubbed “Religiao Urbana” (Urban Religion). Legião’s first major hit, “Geração Coca-Cola” (“Coca-Cola Generation”), was soon taken up as rallying cry by fans. In it, backed by an urgent, mostly acoustic strum redolent of Johnny Marr in his prime, Russo addresses the contradictory role of capitalism (and its implied freedoms) upon the oppressive rule he’d been subjected to from birth, declaiming, “When we were born we were programmed to accept what you pushed on us, along with the canned goods of the U.S.A.,” finally proclaiming, in the chorus, “We are the children of the revolution; we are bourgeois with no religion; we are the future of the nation; the Coca-Cola generation.”
And for all this political awareness, Russo could just as often play the part of disarmingly funny raconteur, as in the 1986 hit, “Eduardo e Monica,” from Legião’s sophomore album, simply named Dois (Two). Here is a perfect example of Renato Russo’s talent for meshing the mundane and the profound, as he wheels off one zinger after another about an unlikely love connection between a hapless young stud and a sophisticated older woman (e.g. for their first date, “Eduardo suggests a diner but Monica wanted to see the latest Godard movie”). Musically, the Smiths once again prevail upon the song’s prominent bass line.
By then, Legião Urbana had become a major force in Brazilian rock, and they would maintain their popularity and relevance for the rest of the decade, which saw the release of two more albums – 1987’s Que País é Este? (What Kind of Country is This?) and 1989’s As Quatro Estações (The Four Seasons), which is frequently cited as their masterpiece with numerous definitive songs spread throughout its track-listing. However, the song that revealed the most about Renato Russo was the acoustic guitar-driven radio smash “Meninos e Meninas” (“Boys and Girls”).
Tellingly introduced by the words “I want to find myself but I don’t know where I am,” “Meninos e Meninas” feels like a public acknowledgment of the then-29-year-old Russo’s bisexuality—though he reportedly came out to family and friends as far back as his 18th year. Lyrics like “I’m tired of knocking and no one opens up. I need oxygen, I need friends, I need money, I need love,” express the basic needs of so many young people, coping with new freedoms and their budding sexuality. But Russo also shows the perspective of an older confidant—the role he filled for so many confused young listeners – by concluding that “These are all small things and all must pass.”
These songs referenced above provide a broad overview of the subjects that preoccupied Renato Russo and, as a result, permeated Legião Urbana’s career into the 1990s. The group (by now pared down into a trio following Rocha’s dismissal) would record another four studio LPs (bringing the group’s catalog to eight, total) before dissolving in 1997, and Russo also found time and inspiration to release no less than three solo albums, one of which was a English-language covers album in tribute to the Stonewall riots. On the album, he displayed his eclecticism, crooning renditions of everything from “I Loves You, Porgy” to Madonna’s “Cherish” to Bob Dylan‘s “If You See Her, Say Hello.”
While Russo remained as frank as ever in his lyrics and interviews, there was one thing that he simply refused to address during his lifetime, which was his HIV-positive status. Perhaps Renato had been traumatized by the media circus surrounding the AIDS-related death of his friend and former Barão Vermelho singer Cazuza in 1990, a year after the ailing singer’s ravaged image was insensitively featured on the cover of Brazil’s highest-circulated magazine Veja, to the despair of Cazuza, his family and friends. In some respects, the abuse of Cazuza’s plight by tabloid media forced Brazilians to face the true calamity of HIV in the same way Magic Johnson’s diagnosis did for the U.S.; but it also may have served as a cautionary tale for Russo.
But all this is merely conjecture to try to explain the secrecy regarding this matter that was so unlike Renato Russo’s track record for open discussion about almost anything. Not this, however, and on October 11, 1996—not even a month after the release of Legião Urbana’s seventh LP, A Tempestade, or The Tempest—their singer died of complications from AIDS in Rio de Janeiro. Here, again, countless clues as to what was coming may be found in Russo’s lyrics and from one song in particular, “A Via Láctea” (“The Milky Way”).
Though he never quite comes right out and says goodbye in “A Via Láctea,” Russo constantly flip-flops between hope and despair (e.g. “When all is lost, there is always a light; When all is lost I feel so alone”), intentionally contradicting himself again and again (e.g. “Don’t pay me no mind; but thanks for thinking about me”), until revealing, near the end, as directly as he can, “I no longer want to be who I am.” Parting words? Perhaps, though hindsight always offers easy answers for questions beyond human understanding, doesn’t it?
In his wake, Russo left his seven-year-old son, Giuliano Manfredini, a stunned fan base and a musical legacy matched by few other Brazilian rock acts. Even now, nearly 20 years after their leader’s passing, Legião Urbana’s music enjoys significant radio airplay in Brazil, independent of the band’s touring revival by original members Villa-Lobos and Bonfá, plus new players. In any case, Renato Russo’s songs continue to resonate with new generations of troubled teens, too young to have known the band during its first existence, let alone the military dictatorship that informed their original rise to popularity.
Meanwhile, even diehard music fans outside of Brazil remain largely oblivious to Legião Urbana, never mind the many other, less successful bands that contributed to the country’s ’80s rock resurgence. But, with their music widely available on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, perhaps the day is finally coming for Renato Russo and his Brazilian rock peers to enjoy belated recognition for their works internationally, at last. Readers: consider this an open invitation to do just that.
Check out our Legião Urbana Spotify playlist below: