Monday, February 2, 1981

Talking Heads released “Once in a Lifetime”

Once in a Lifetime

Talking Heads

Writer(s): David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth (see lyrics here)

Released: February 2, 1981

First Charted: February 7, 1981

Peak: 91 US, 82 CB, 1 CL, 1 CO, 14 UK, 28 CN, 23 AU, 9 DF (Click for codes to singles charts.)

Sales (in millions): 0.5 US, 0.2 UK

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio,64.4 video, 153.58 streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

For their fourth album, Remain in Light, the Talking Heads adopted a new songwriting method. Working with producer Brian Eno, they recorded jams in the studio, keyed in on the best parts, and then played those repetitively. The technique took its influence from early hip-hop and afrobeat musicians like Fela Kuti. Singer David Byrne compared the approach to modern looping and sampling, describing the band as “human samplers.” WK

“Once in a Lifetime” was, according to Byrne, the band’s failed attempt at playing funk. Eno initially didn’t like the track and the band nearly shelved it. Keyboardist Jerry Harrison said it was difficult to write choruses for the song because of the limited chord changes. Byrne, however, believed he could write lyrics to it. The song fell into place after Eno sang wordlessly to the song, thus developing the chorus melody. WK

Byrne took his inspiration for the lyrics and vocals from preachers delivering sermons. His half-spoken and half-sung vocals are like the call-and-response between a preacher and a congregation. WK All Music Guide’s Steve Huey said the lyrics addressed “the drudgery of living life according to social expectations,” SF but Byrne said they are about the unconscious and how we “operate half-awake or on autopilot.” WK NPR’s Travis Morrison said “the lyrics are astounding – they are meaningless and totally meaningful at the same time. That’s as good as rock lyrics get.” WK

The video by David Byrne dancing erratically to footage of religious rituals broadcast behind him on a blue screen. WK His “spastic movements and hand chopping motions…were inspiring by watching video footage of people with epilepsy.” BC Byrne and choreographer Toni Basil (best known for her #1 song “Mickey”) studied archival footage of evanglists and preachers as well as African tribes, Japanese religious sects, and people in trances. WK In 2003, BBC critic Chris Jones wrote that the video “remains as compelling as it was in 1981. And how many other videos can you say that about?” WK

The original single was a top 20 hit in the UK and hit the top 30 in Canada and Australia. The song didn’t chart in America until three years later when a live version from the band’s concert film Stop Making Sense was released as a single. Malcolm Jack of the Guardian described the song as “a thing of dizzying power, beauty and mystery…it sounds like nothing else in the history of pop.” WK


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First posted 11/14/2019; last updated 9/25/2022.

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