Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads song)

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"Once in a Lifetime"
Cover art of UK 7" vinyl single
Single by Talking Heads
from the album Remain in Light
Released February 2, 1981
Format 7", 12", CD
Recorded 1980
Genre New wave, post-punk,[1] funk[2]
Length 4:19
Label Sire
Writer(s) David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth
Producer(s) Brian Eno
Talking Heads singles chronology
"Crosseyed and Painless"
"Once in a Lifetime"
"Houses in Motion" (alternate mix)

"And She Was"

"Once in a Lifetime" (Live)

"Wild Wild Life"

"Once in a Lifetime" is a 1981 song by new wave band Talking Heads, released as the first single from their fourth studio album Remain in Light. The song was written by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth, and produced by Eno. It was named one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century by National Public Radio[3] and is also included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.[4]

Background and production[edit]

The creation of the sound[edit]

Brian Eno introduced Fela Kuti's multiple rhythm music style to the band, and during production Eno used a different rhythm count for some members of the group than others, starting on the "3" instead of the "1." It gave the song what Eno called "a funny balance within it. It has really two centers of gravity: their '1' and my '1.'" This rhythm imbalance was exaggerated in the studio, and is present throughout the song.[5] Jerry Harrison developed the synthesizer line and added the Hammond organ climax, taken from the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On".[5]

As the song essentially consisted of a repetitive two-bar groove (with the pattern reversed between the verse and chorus) Eno decided to approach the production by allowing each of the band members to record overdubs of different rhythmic and musical ideas independently of each other, with each member being kept blind to what the others had recorded on tape. In the final mix, Eno faded between these independent ideas at different parts of the song. This is very much in keeping with his production technique of Oblique Strategies.


At first, Eno sang nonsense verb sound blocks, which Byrne then converted into lyrics in the "call-and-response" style of American radio evangelists on the theme of moving through life with little awareness or questioning. On the way he spoke them Byrne has said: "Most of the words in 'Once in a Lifetime' come from evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I'm fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can't imagine living like that." Some of these evangelist recordings also made their way onto the 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Byrne and Eno.

This speaking style was also the basis for his approach of starting several consecutive lines with the same phrases "And you may find yourself...", and with the chorus singing in part "letting the days go by, let the water hold me down," the song presents a existential mood to it. According to AllMusic critic Steve Huey, one of the main themes of the lyrics is "the drudgery of living life according to social expectations, and pursuing commonly accepted trophies (a large automobile, beautiful house, beautiful wife)."[6] Although the singer has these trophies, he begins to question whether they are real and how he got them.[7] This leads him to question further the reality of his life itself, providing the existential element.[7]

Eno wasn't particularly fond of the song, and it was almost dropped from the album before he came up with the vocal melody for the chorus, which "saved" it.[5]

Release and reception[edit]

At the time of its original release, the song gained modest chart success, peaking at #14 on the UK Singles Chart[8] and at #31 in the Dutch singles chart.[9] While the song failed to chart on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, various American 80s format radio stations have come to programming it in their playlists over the years.[10] It was also an early MTV staple[11] and was one of the most heavily played videos upon MTV's debut in August 1981.[12]

Music video[edit]

The video[edit]

The music video features a bespectacled David Byrne in a tight-fitting suit and bowtie, appearing out of breath but still dancing around, much like a marionette against a video representation of blue/green waving field, possibly a liquid. Speaking the lyrics he makes sudden jerking movements and flings his arms, taps his head and gets onto his hands and knees to make patting gestures near the floor. Later, against a blank white background, smaller video images of himself appear, behind him, dancing in perfect synchrony; in the foreground, he gets progressively out of sync with the rhythm of the song, as the background occasionally flashes with segments old films with tribal dancing and ritualistic arm and body gestures, similar to his own.

At the end a serene Byrne appears, dressed in white , but also chanting. The closing shot sees the original Byrne, small against the entire video colourfield, appearing to be waving for help, but then fading into the water.

The choreography[edit]

Many of Byrne's mannerisms, such as the physical spasms, unfocused eye movements, and sharp intakes of breath, were inspired by his choreographer Toni Basil, after showing him footage of epilepsy sufferers and also viewing footage of various tribal religious rituals from around the world, incorporating some of their movements as well, in keeping with the "unconscious religious lyrics."[11]

The video has made appearances on the "Midnight Video Special" episode of SCTV and an episode of the 90s Beavis and Butt-head, and was exhibited in the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Stop Making Sense[edit]

Talking Heads' performance of Once in a Lifetime in their 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense is notable for its almost 4-minute long, unbroken chiaroscuro shot of Byrne performing the song. This version was remixed to remove the live audience and was released as a single, peaking at #91 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.[13]

"We used to have so much fun playing this song live," Chris Frantz remarks in the liner notes of Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads. "It was a soaring feeling, and the audience was right there with us."

In popular culture[edit]


Talking Heads

Additional Personnel


Original version
Chart (1981) Peak
Australian Singles Chart[14] 23
Canadian Singles Chart[15] 28
Dutch Singles Chart[9] 24
Irish Singles Chart 16
UK Singles Chart[8] 14
US Billboard Hot 100[16] 103
Live version
Chart (1985) Peak
Dutch Singles Chart[9] 22
New Zealand Singles Chart[17] 15
US Billboard Hot 100[16] 91


  1. ^ http://rateyourmusic.com/release/single/talking_heads/once_in_a_lifetime___seen_and_not_seen/
  2. ^ http://www.allmusic.com/song/once-in-a-lifetime-mt0011967560
  3. ^ NPR 100
  4. ^ http://rockhall.com/exhibits/500-songs-that-shaped-rock-and/
  5. ^ a b c "Once in a Lifetime" National Public Radio broadcast, March 27, 2000 The 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century
  6. ^ Huey, S. "Once in a Lifetime". Allmusic. Retrieved 2014-03-30. 
  7. ^ a b Gittens, I. (2004). Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime : the Stories Behind Every Song. Hal Leonard. pp. 68–71. ISBN 9780634080333. 
  8. ^ a b "Chart Stats – Talking Heads". Chart Stats. Archived from the original on July 24, 2012. Retrieved August 13, 2011. 
  9. ^ a b c "Discografie Talking Heads". Dutchcharts.nl (in Dutch). Retrieved August 13, 2011. 
  10. ^ http://1015thepoint.com/lsp/
  11. ^ a b "Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads Songfacts". The Top 13. Retrieved August 13, 2011. 
  12. ^ "The Top 13 Videos from MTV's First Day". The Top 13. Retrieved August 13, 2011. 
  13. ^ "The Hot 100: Week of May 3, 1986". Billboard.com. Retrieved April 28, 2015. 
  14. ^ "Discography Talking Heads". Australian-charts.com. Retrieved August 13, 2011. 
  15. ^ "Talking Heads Top Singles positions". RPM. Retrieved August 13, 2011. 
  16. ^ a b "Talking Heads > Charts & Awards > Billboard Singles". Allmusic. Retrieved August 13, 2011. 
  17. ^ "Discography Talking Heads". Charts.org.nz. Retrieved August 14, 2011. 

External links[edit]