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Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime (1981)

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  • 80's Score 80's score: 1.34
  • Find this song on: Music Stack

"Once in a Lifetime" is a song by the American new wave band Talking Heads, produced and cowritten by Brian Eno. The lead ...

"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 on February 2, 1981, through Sire Records.

Eno and Talking Heads developed "Once in a Lifetime" through extensive jams, inspired by Afrobeat musicians such as Fela Kuti. David Byrne's lyrics and vocals were inspired by preachers delivering sermons. The music video, co-directed by Toni Basil, has Byrne dancing erratically over footage of religious rituals.

"Once in a Lifetime" was certified gold in the UK in 2021. A live version, taken from the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, charted in 1986 on the Billboard Hot 100. NPR named "Once in a Lifetime" one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lists it as one of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll".


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. 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 ... 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; he interpreted 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. 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. 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".

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 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)". 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?'"

Music video

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. 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 choreographed by Toni Basil and co-directed with Byrne. They studied archive footage of "preachers, evangelists, people in trances, African tribes, Japanese religious sects" to see how Byrne could incorporate them into his performance. 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".


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