The greatest hit that almost wasn't
Sept. 17, 2019
The Flaming Lips' 2002 single Do You Realize?? is their most popular and enduring, closing out nearly all their shows in the years since it was released.
But Wayne Coyne, frontman of the US band, has revealed the track as we know it almost didn't happen.
Now an official song of the band's home state of Oklahoma - not to mention a secular hymn as dear to some as Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah - Do You Realize?? still beguiles thanks to its uncomplicated and uplifting melody, and lyrics of universal truths: You realise the sun doesn't go down/It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round .
Its directness and simplicity was a change in direction for the self-proclaimed "punk rockers taking acid". Coyne formed the band in 1983. Sixteen years later the densely orchestrated existentialism of 1999's The Soft Bulletin was anointed by some critics as the decade's Pet Sounds .
"Suddenly we had made this quote-unquote important record and we didn't know how to deal with that," Coyne says, on the phone from his Prius in the driveway of his Oklahoma City house, the car doubling as a study since the 58-year-old and wife Katy became parents for the first time in June.
"We still wanted our shows to be a party, so we started doing the things that people now associate with a Flaming Lips gig: the fake blood on my head, the running around inside the giant balloons, the rainbow confetti, all of that."
Coyne says the relatively stripped-back acoustic guitar-driven sound of Do You Realize?? was an accident amid the excess.
"We were lucky, in retrospect, that the first mix of it had to be done very quickly, in the last 20 minutes of a session," he says.
"I know that me and [founding bassist Michael Ivins and drummer Steven Drozd] were thinking 'OK, in a week or two we'll reconvene and really do this thing up'. Because it was so simple compared to the other stuff we'd been working on."
However, as the rough mix of Do You Realize?? circulated among friends of the band, the feedback was "don't mess with this" - including a lyric that Coyne was poised to change, but which turned out to be arguably the song's most memorable.
"I was feeling free to be very Wayne-ish in writing that song - Do you realise we're floating in space? is a thing I would say to people," he says.
"And then that other line just came out: Do you realise that everyone you know someday will die? "
Coyne was at the time dealing with the recent death of his father from cancer, as well as witnessing Drozd's painful withdrawal from heroin. Yet it was the drummer who urged Coyne to leave in the dark line he had helped inspire.
"I remember Steven and Dave Fridmann, our producer, really listening as I laid it down and saying, 'That will work, don't worry about that simplicity'. Because I probably would have changed it.