Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime (1980)

Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime (1980)

“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 02, 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, directed by Byrne and Toni Basil, has Byrne dancing erratically over footage of religious rituals.

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.

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.

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”.

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 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. The televangelist Ernest Angley was another inspiration.

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