Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads song)
"Once in a Lifetime" is a song by the American new wave band Talking Heads, produced and cowritten by Brian Eno. The lead single from Talking Heads' fourth studio album, Remain in Light (1980), it was released in late 1980 through Sire Records. This first release hit number 20 on the Disco Top 100 chart at the end of November 1980, but it did not break into the mainstream pop chart in the United States. It rose in the United Kingdom to a peak of number 14 in early July 1981.
The song's lyrics by bandleader David Byrne describe a sense of surprised alienation with society, and Byrne's vocal delivery was informed by the style of American preachers. The music, developed first as an extended instrumental jam by the Talking Heads with guest musician Robert Palmer, is based on African rhythms, inspired by Afrobeat music.
A 12-inch promotional dance club mix was released by Sire in October 1984. A music video for the song was released in November 1984, directed by Byrne and choreographer Toni Basil. +more The video was nominated for Best Stage Performance at the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards. A live version of the song, taken from the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, charted in 1986 on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 91.
In 1989, Spin magazine readers ranked the video at number 6 of the top ten videos of the 1980s. Retrospectively, NPR named "Once in a Lifetime" one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century. +more The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lists it as one of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll", and Rolling Stone ranked it at number 27 on its 2021 list of "the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". The song charted again in March 2020 at the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns in the U. S. , hitting number 10 on Rock Digital Song Sales. Continued sales in the UK resulted in a Gold certification by BPI in April 2021.
Like other songs on Remain in Light, Talking Heads and producer Brian Eno developed "Once in a Lifetime" by recording jams, isolating the best parts, and learning to play them repetitively. Songwriter Robert Palmer joined the jam on guitar and percussion. +more The technique was influenced by early hip hop and the Afrobeat music of artists such as Fela Kuti, which Eno had introduced to the band. Singer David Byrne likened the process to modern looping and sampling, describing the band as "human samplers". He said the song was a result of the band trying and failing to play funk, inadvertently creating something new instead.
The track was initially not one of Eno's favorites, and the band almost abandoned it. According to keyboardist Jerry Harrison, "Because there were so few chord changes, and everything was in a sort of trance . +more it became harder to write defined choruses. " However, Byrne had faith in the song and felt he could write lyrics to it. Eno developed the chorus melody by singing wordlessly, and the song "fell into place". Harrison developed the "bubbly" synthesizer line and added the Hammond organ climax, taken from the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On".
Eno interpreted the rhythm differently from the band, with the third beat of the bar as the first. He encouraged the band members to interpret the beat in different ways, thereby exaggerating different rhythmic elements. +more According to Eno, "This means the song has a funny balance, with two centers of gravity - their funk groove, and my dubby, reggae-ish understanding of it; a bit like the way Fela Kuti songs will have multiple rhythms going on at the same time, warping in and out of each other. ".
According to bassist Tina Weymouth, her husband, drummer Chris Frantz, created the bassline by yelling during a jam, which she mimicked on bass guitar. She wanted to "leave lots of space for the cacophony that surrounded me. +more I felt like I was pounding away like a carpenter, just nailing away to get it in the groove. " Eno wanted to remove the first note in the bassline, as he felt it was too "obvious", and rerecorded the part himself. When the band returned to New York and Eno had gone home, the engineer asked Weymouth to record the bassline again. She said: "It wasn't a big fight between me and Brian, as it has sometimes been portrayed, it was just a musical dispute. ".
Byrne improvised lines as if he were giving a sermon, with a call-and-response chorus like a preacher and congregation. His vocals are "half-spoken, half-sung", with lyrics about living in a "beautiful house" with a "beautiful wife" and a "large automobile".
The Guardian writer Jack Malcolm suggested that the song can be read "as an art-pop rumination on the existential ticking time bomb of unchecked consumerism and advancing age". According to the AllMusic critic Steve Huey, the lyrics address "the drudgery of living life according to social expectations, and pursuing commonly accepted trophies (a large automobile, beautiful house, beautiful wife)". +more Although the singer has these trophies, he questions whether they are real and how he acquired them, a kind of existential crisis.
Byrne denied that the lyrics address yuppie greed and said the song was about the unconscious: "We operate half-awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven't really stopped to ask ourselves, 'How did I get here?
In the "Once in a Lifetime" music video, Byrne appears in a large, empty white room, dressed in a suit, bowtie, and glasses. In the background, inserted via bluescreen, footage of religious rituals or multiple Byrnes appear. +more Byrne dances erratically, imitating the movements of the rituals and moving in "spasmic" full-body contortions. At the end of the video, a "normal" version of Byrne appears in a black room, dressed in a white, open-collared shirt without glasses.
The video was directed by Byrne and Toni Basil and choreographed by Basil. They studied archive footage of religious rituals from around the world, including footage of evangelists, African tribes, Japanese sects and people in trances, for Byrne to incorporate his performance. +more The televangelist Ernest Angley was another inspiration. According to Basil, "David kind of choreographed himself. I set up the camera, put him in front of it, and asked him to absorb those ideas. Then I left the room so he could be alone with himself. I came back, looked at the videotape, and we chose physical moves that worked with the music. I just helped to stylize his moves a little. " To emphasize Byrne's jerky movements, Basil used an "old-fashioned" zoom lens. The video was made on a low budget; Basil described it as "about as low-tech as you could get and still be broadcastable".
"Once in a Lifetime" reached on the UK Singles Chart and in the Dutch singles chart. In January 2018, it was certified Silver in the UK, and in April 2021 it was certified Gold. +more A live version, taken from the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, charted in early 1986, reaching on the US Billboard Hot 100. An early version of "Once in a Lifetime", "Right Start", was released on the 2006 Remain in Light reissue.
In 1996, the Muppet character Kermit the Frog performed "Once in a Lifetime" on an episode of Muppets Tonight. Kermit appears in Byrne's "big suit" and mimics Byrne's dances from Stop Making Sense. +more In 2016, the Guardian writer Malcolm Jack wrote: "'Once in a Lifetime' is a thing of dizzying power, beauty and mystery . it sounds like nothing else in the history of pop. " In 2000, NPR named "Once in a Lifetime" one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century. In 2021, Rolling Stone ranked it number 27 on its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lists it as one of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll". Appearing on NPR's All Songs Considered, the musician Travis Morrison selected "Once in a Lifetime" as a "perfect song", saying: "The lyrics are astounding - they are meaningless and totally meaningful at the same time. That's as good as rock lyrics get. " In 2003, the BBC critic Chris Jones described the "Once in a Lifetime" video as "hilarious" and "as compelling as it was in 1981". In 2021, Rolling Stone named it the 81st best music video.