Cosmic acid-fried avant gardeists Flaming Lips will always be known for the glitter cannoned, unicorn-topped ode to joy that is Do You Realize?? I don’t know anyone who isn’t continually affected by its crashing, sweeping uplifticisms and a happy/sad lyric delivered somewhere between ’73 Neil Young and a sandpaper-scoured frog. It’s long-been an accepted classic and quite rightly too.
Flaming Lips – Do You Realize??
It hasn’t yet happened in twenty years of teaching, but I have this continued idea that, in my role as a primary teacher, I’ll be asked one time – just one time – to prepare the school choir for an event where the parents are present and eager to be entertained. This could be an in-house school event or maybe even a slightly grander multi-school ‘n local councillors affair, perhaps in a public building that most pupils pass by without ever knowing what’s inside its sandstone and stained glass exterior, but either way, we’ll be doing Do You Realize?? and by the end of the song We. Will. Own. It.
It’ll start with the kids lined up in three slightly curved tiers; tallest to the back, the most ragamuffin and coos-licked at the front. Taking two steps beyond middle front will be the sweetest wee girl, lopsided bunches in her hair, pulling perhaps at her pinafore in awkward acknowledgement of her main starring role in the proceedings. I’ll count in – ‘1, 2, 3, 4‘ – and a couple of hipster kids on guitars will begin to strum. I’ll be keeping them in time from the side on my own 6 strings, but the eleven year-olds will get all the plaudits. The assembled choir will begin to sway gently and self-consciously, and maybe even in unison, as our ragged guitar music washes across the room. A handful of kneeling pitched percussion players in the front row will join in after a couple of bars and tinkle the song’s root notes and descending scales on a collection of glockenspiels and xylophones.
There might be a switched on parent or two in the audience who thinks they recognise the frayed beginnings of the song but they’ll catch themselves with a ‘no! surely not!‘ and then break out in a grin of giddy realisation when their initial thoughts are confirmed. Do You Realize?? indeed. Before a word is even sung, we will have the audience in our collective hand.
Then the singing starts.
Do you realize?? goes everyone, loud and confident, parochial and pitchless. The wee girl at the front takes the second line alone, high and sweet and wavering in and out of tune. That you have the most beautiful face.
Hearts melt. Parents sigh. Signs are raised.
The signs. I never mentioned those. D’you know the Gabba Gabba Hey one that Joey Ramone held aloft at Ramones gigs? Or the Hang The DJ one that Morrissey battered around during those riotous Smiths shows in 1986? That. Only our signs have pictures rather than words.
On the ‘most beautiful face‘ line, half the back row – every second person – holds up a sign which features a self-portrait painted by that child. The image remains aloft until the end of the next line.
Do you realize?? the massed choir sings again. The wee girl comes back in, stronger this time, beginning to find her feet. We’re floating in space.
The self portraits are spun 180 degrees on their makeshift handles to reveal some generic planets on the other side – Saturn’s rings etc – shooting stars, the occasional spaceship, all that sort of cosmic stuff. The audible ‘ooh‘ that rises from the audience is just perceptible above the clanging racket of percussion and those barely held-down chords on the nylon-strung guitars.
Do you realize?? they repeat for a third time, almost enjoying it now, as Freckles comes in for her solo once again. That happiness makes you cry.
The other half of the back row holds up a new sign – an acid house smiley that appears on the ‘happiness‘ word and then turns on the appropriate lyric to reveal the same smiley, but with a single teardrop trickling from the left eye, solid black on effervescent yellow.
Do you realize?? they bellow for the last time, far louder now, and much more confident. The soloist psyches herself up for the final line. Bar only the single most competent tinkler, all of the percussion drops out. The kids’ guitars momentarily drop out too, although I keep playing softly to keep the rhythm and pace of it all.
That everyone…you know…someday…will die.
It’s pin-drop quiet. The middle row – too short for the tall stuff at the back, too ham-fisted to be trusted with the percussion instruments – now has their moment. They hold proudly a picture of a loved one no longer with them and then hold it to their heart as the killer line is delivered. Bad choice of word, killer, given the context, but you know what I mean.
At this, there’s another audible ‘ooh‘ from the audience, more of a gasp, perhaps even a slightly shocked one, but it all resonates; the strangled guitars, the tumbling and out of time pitched percussion, the visual cues on the signs, wee freckle face out front, no longer holding on to the hem of her pinafore, but focused on the clock at back of the room, awaiting her cue for her next line. It’s an explosive twenty or so seconds and the room is ours.
Then we get to the refrain? Chorus? I don’t know what it is but that’s merely academic.
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes
Let them know you realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun don’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
On the last line, the kids in the middle row pick up a hand-painted circular Planet Earth – or an actual globe, if resources allow – and rotate it speedily clockwise. Every child is singing as one by this point. Freckles steps back from the front and merges into the choir. They’re belting it out, this west coast primary school gospel, baked in local accent, stirring and uplifting, surging every parent’s proud-o-meter well into the red. The kids, those not playing instruments or illustrating the world spinning round, clap every other word – realise, life, hard, good, realise, don’t – until the last line when there are none. There’s a tricky F minor for the guitarists to negotiate, but any dull strings and bum notes are quickly drowned out by the stratospheric choir as they up the volume, up the ante and go for it.
Do you realize?? – ah-ah-ah!!!
The kids are swinging, swaying, singing. No one’s noticed the guitar players have stopped due to the key change and trickier chords. E flat?! G# minor?! Just sing louder, Jayden, no-one will notice you’re not playing. The percussionists have downed their beaters too, lost in a heady bridge of adlibs and joyful, unselfconscious singing.
My guitar brings it all back to earth. Heavy strums and accented bass notes give way to lighter flourishes, signifying the song must get back to the message. All the kids sing all the lines – verses, refrain, chorus, the lot. Some of the parents have joined in too, recognising the simplicity in the lyrics, the universal message of hope over fear, that love conquers all. The room vibrates as one.
As the song fizzes to a clanging, banging, wonky and ragged end, the head teacher is overcome with emotion. “Wow!” she’s saying before she’s even reached the stage. “Just wow!” The parents are on their feet, clapping wildly. There’s a two-fingered wolf whistle from somewhere at the back, piercing through applause that sounds like a tropical rainfall. My colleagues – the ones who think nothing of sticking on a backing track and ‘teaching’ the kids to sing to it – think I’m a pretentious wanker. I am brought back to earth wondering where my unicorn has gone. One day this will happen.