Beck explained "Tropicalia"'s inspiration, "I've always loved a lot of different exotic music. I've been listening to Brazilian music since I was a kid, but I haven't really felt it was something that would come naturally until the last few years. I think for something like 'Tropicalia' I needed to go to places where that music existed in order to get to the point where I could do it myself. I wrote it in the back of the bus on tour, and then later I put lyrics to it. A lot of times I write the melody and the chords of the songs sometimes years before I ever get around it writing lyrics, so it just sits there incubating."
Beck nonetheless does not play on the song: he just sings. Clearly, this is the type of performance that had Beck thanking "the undeniable musicians who played on this record" in the album's liner notes. Smokey Hormel, the guitarist, for example, has gone on to make his own Brazilian music.
There seems to be a matching of the South American bossa nova music with lyrics reflecting both the majesty and the poverty of the locale. At the front, it is an excellent portrait of a festival atmosphere, everyone dancing, in a "millenial haze." But behind all of that celebration is what Beck is really worrying and writing about, a place where "embassies lie in hideous shards" and "misery waits."
Beck reminisced about the song a bit in the San Diego Union-Tribune (November 28 2002): "'Tropicalia' was a song loosely about that era of Brazilian music and culture when these musicians were under siege by the powers that be and the music was changing. I just found it an exciting time and an interesting subject matter."
Played live 189 times:
May 17, 1998May 24, 1998May 28, 1998June 2, 1998June 3, 1998June 11, 1998October 10, 1998November 24, 1998December 18, 1998December 20, 1998
...and 179 more
Earliest known live version: May 17, 1998
Latest known live version: May 27, 2012
"Tropicalia" is one of the songs Beck always keeps returning to on stage. It will be in a regular in the setlist for awhile, played almost every night, then forgotten for a bit, until it pops up once again as a regular.
KCRW (SEXX FREAKS VERSION)
One of the very first performances of "Tropicalia" was on KCRW in 1998. Before it started, Beck admitted it was not really a tropicalia song, but more a bossa nova. The band improvised a wonderful jam around the song. During the coda of the tune, Beck started rapping an early incarnation of "Hollywood Freaks
" while the band continued to play the music of "Tropicalia." They had already been working on Midnite Vultures
at the time, and these were the first early public hints at it. The band found his rap amusing; you can hear some of them laughing in the background. Beck ends the song with the line "...and all the children cried on Blackberry Lane!" This is a very laidback performance, and probably my favorite version of the song ever (including the record).
1998-1999 MUTATIONS TOURS
Of course, "Tropicalia" was a regular on the short Mutations
tours of Japan and the US. The arrangement is basically identical to the record, maybe only with a bit more horns during the end. There was not really a unique stage presence to the song at this point. Not much to note about any of the versions, though the Brass Menagerie (the horn section) does highlight many of the versions (e.g. the January 10, 1999 show).
2000 VULTURES TOURS
"Tropicalia" began popping up halfway through the first leg of the Vultures
tour, but once it did, it was played almost every night for the rest of the year. Beck's back-up singers sing the chorus with him, but otherwise it's not too much different from the Mutations
tours. Sometimes Roger does some different things with his keyboards near the end of the song; and occasionally the song felt like it was a little too rocked-out, and short. The subtle beauty of the melody was lost.
But as the Vultures
tours went on, the band began to jam more and more. "Tropicalia" was no exception. It also got longer and more interesting. Mainly the end jam was extended to include jazzy horn solos (May 31, 2000 is an awesome example!).
One interesting version came on the most interesting show of the Vultures tour: August 22, 2000 in Amsterdam. The first half of the show was "acoustic" and the second was made of Vultures funk. "Tropicalia" showed up in the first half. Instead of horns/keyboards jamming at the end, Beck sang the part in falsetto.
"Tropicalia" appeared at the a few shows in 2001, but hardly most of them. The time it was consistently played was Beck's week of shows in Feb. 2002, right before he went in to record Sea Change
. The shows were all different, from two-man bass/guitar shows to improvised band shows. The Feb. 26, 2002 version of "Tropicalia" was unique, without keyboards or horns, so it focuses nicely on Smokey's Brazilian guitar work. Beck again covers the keyboard part by singing some "ooohs."
AUGUST 2002 NIGHT FLIGHTS
This tour saw 20 shows around the USA, and "Tropicalia" was played at 18 of them. It was a more minimal version, with just Beck singing and playing keyboards, Smokey on acoustic guitar, and Roland the Drum Machine on drum machine. Beck used the beat to ad-lib, joke around, usually telling stories about the night flight
he took to Rio with Axl Rose. These versions are fun if you like the loose, informal side of Beck. Most are lengthy, and Roland was inconsistent, sometimes playing too fast (Aug 6, 2002 in Denver) or drearily slow (Aug 8, 2002 in St. Paul).
2002 FLAMING LIPS LIGHT ROCK ADAPTATION
Next up was the tour with the Flaming Lips, and "Tropicalia" showed up regularly, but I'm not too fond of the way they did the song together. They basically took all the tropicalia-ness out of the song! Why do that with a song called "Tropicalia"? Now it was basically a light rock song with a nice beat, and some trippy touches (like the keyboard solo at the end). Not that I don't appreciate change, but this isn't changed enough; it is more like a slight adaption. They played the song at 18 of their 34 shows, but not at all during the last twelve.
2003 BAND JAMS
Beck used a band throughout the spring and summer of 2003. The version with (most of) his classic Odelay band in Australia in April had the deft Brazilian touch that the Lips version was lacking. These guys know the songs and what to do with them, for sure. Then in the summer Beck had a different band; they didn't do the song a ton (15 out of 42 gigs). But I like how they handle it. It wasn't a drastic re-interpretation in anyway, but it was full and dynamic. As always, the end of the song makes the live version: here with some great band interplay leading into some stormy feedback.
2003 SOLO EUROPE TOUR, WITH ROLAND
These versions were very similar to the Night Flights above, but without Smokey. Beck sticks to acoustic guitar. And he does not go off on tales quite so lengthy as he did in August 2002, though he usually ends up talking about Roland, his drum machine. These versions are nice enough, but I find Roland brings them down a bit.
2005 GUERO TOUR - SOLO ACOUSTIC VERSION
Beck has done "Tropicalia" sporadically throughout 2005. On the Europe tour in May and June, he only played it three times. I do not know what those versions were like. Then in the summer, he didn't touch the song at all. Then in the fall, he played it five times, and I believe each of those five were solo acoustic versions. Just Beck and his acoustic guitar. It was one of the highlights of the show I attended. Perhaps, this is how the song was meant to be.