Talking Heads – Once In A Life Time

Same as it ever was

David Byrne at his visual performance best with this video. According to David Byrne’s own words, this song is about how we, as people, tend to operate half-awake or on autopilot. Or perhaps a better way of explaining that statement is that we do not actually know why we engage in certain actions which come define our lives.

The members of Talking Heads…David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison – all contributed to the writing of this song along with the track’s producer, Brian Eno. And “Once in a Lifetime” itself originated from jam sessions. With this album the band wanted a more democratic process instead of Byrne writing all of the songs.

The song was on the Remain in Light album released in 1980. The song peaked at #103 in the US Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100 chat, #28 in Canada, and #14 in the UK in 1981.

In 1985 the song peaked at #91 in the Billboard 100 with a live version of the song off of the album Stop Making Sense.

The video was huge back in the early 80s and that is where I found the song. It was choreographed  by Toni Basil.

For this album they would improvise in the studio and take bits and pieces out. Their own version of  “sampling” and “looping.” The 1973 Afrobeat record by Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, became the inspiration for the album

Brian Eno: “It had all been done,” Eno says, “and the only thing left worth doing was some sort of urban pessimism of some kind, and that record is terribly optimistic in a way. It’s very up and, like, looking out to the world and saying, ‘What a fantastic place we live in. Let’s celebrate it.’ And I think we knew that was a fresh thought at the time.”

David Byrne: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.”

From Songfacts

This song deals with the futility of not being happy with the things you have. Like trying to remove the water at the bottom of the ocean, there’s no way to stop life from moving on. The forces of nature (like the ocean) keep you moving almost without your conscious effort – like a ventriloquist moving a puppet.

Some of these evangelist recordings also made their way to a 1981 album called My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by David Byrne and Brian Eno.

This stalled at #103 in February 1981, but when MTV launched that August, they played the video a lot, giving the song much more exposure.

David Byrne’s choreography in the video was done by the Toni Basil, who had a hit as a singer with “Mickey.” It was a very odd video, and for many viewers it was the first look they got at the Talking Heads (or at least Byrne – the full band didn’t appear in a video until “Burning Down the House” two years later).

As you watch David Byrne spasm like a malfunctioning robot interspersed with gesturing in Martian sign language, ponder this excerpt from the book MTV Ruled the World – The Early Years of Music Video, in which Toni Basil fills in some details about the choreography for this video: “He [Byrne] wanted to research movement, but he wanted to research movement more as an actor, as does David Bowie, as does Mick Jagger. They come to movement in another way, not as a trained dancer. Or not really interested in dance steps. He wanted to research people in trances – different trances in church and different trances with snakes. So we went over to UCLA and USC, and we viewed a lot of footage of documentaries on that subject. And then he took the ideas, and he ‘physicalized’ the ideas from these documentary-style films.”

Basil adds: “When I was making videos – whether it was with Devo, David Byrne, or whoever – there wasn’t record companies breathing down anybody’s neck, telling them what to do, what the video should look like. There was no paranoid A&R guy, no crazy dresser that would come in and decide what people should be wearing, and put them in shoes that they can’t walk in, everybody with their own agenda. We were all on our own.”

Basil also directed and choreographed the video for the Remain In Light track “Crosseyed And Painless,” which features dancers from a crew called The Electric Boogaloos. None of the band members appear in it.

Some critics have suggested that “Once In A Lifetime” is a kind of prescient jab at the excesses of the 1980s. David Byrne says they’re wrong; that the lyric is pretty much about what it says it’s about. In an interview with NPR, Byrne said: “We’re largely unconscious. You know, 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?'” 

Brian Eno produced this song and wrote the chorus, which he also sang on. David Byrne wrote the verses, which he talk/sings in an intriguing narrative style. Remain In Light was the fourth Talking Heads album, and the third produced by Eno, whose artistic bent and flair for the unusual were a great fit for the group.

Unlike their previous album, the songs on Remain In Light were mostly written in the studio (Compass Point, the Bahamas) and all credited to the four band members plus Eno.

A surprising number of musicians cite “Once In A Lifetime” as one of the best songs ever recorded. Here are three:

Charlotte Church, who named it the first song she fell in love with. “The first time I heard it, my mind was blown,” she told NME. “There’s so magic in that song. I think David Byrne is an absolute G.”

Nick Feldman of Wang Chung, who loves the “almost randomly cacophonous keyboard burblings, the wonderful bass line and rhythm section groove and David Byrne’s slightly preacher-like vocals.” He told Songfacts: “When my personal life started to unravel many years later, the lyrics to this song still resonated for me. Byrne’s mesmeric and intense physical performance in the video to this track still compels today, and compliments and reflects the music it is interpreting.”

Glen Ballard, who produced and co-wrote hits for Alanis Morissette, Dave Matthews and Aerosmith. “That song can’t be touched,” he said in a Songfacts interview. “I listen to it like once a month because everything about it is so perfect.”

The video broke new ground when it was exhibited at the New York Museum of Modern Art as part of a 1982 exhibition called “Performance Video.” The exhibit helped explain to parents what their kids were watching on MTV. It explained how the “Once In A Lifetime” video “expands upon the song’s complex interweaving of moods and images as well as Byrne’s interest in African music and percussion.”

When Talking Heads toured to support their next album, Speaking in Tongues, in 1983, Byrne did the movements from the video when he performed the song. Not only that, he added movements to other songs they performed on that tour as well, making for some very unorthodox visual expression. Audiences were used to seeing pyro and flashing lights, but had never seen anything like the full band running in place (“Burning Down the House”) or Byrne turning himself into a human corkscrew (“Life During Wartime”). The experience was so striking it got the attention of director Jonathan Demme, who filmed a few of the shows and turned it into the acclaimed concert film Stop Making Sense.

This was used in the pilot episodes of That ’80s Show (2002) and Numb3rs (2005). It was used twice on The Simpsons (“Days of Future Future” – 2014, “Trust But Clarify” – 2016) and in these series:

The Deuce (“Morta di Fame” – 2019)
Being Erica (“Being Adam” – 2010)
Chuck (“Chuck Versus the Suburbs” – 2009)
WKRP in Cincinnati (“Real Families” – 1980)

It also shows up in these movies:

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
Secret Window (2004)
Rock Star (2001)
Alice and Martin (1998)

The live version from Stop Making Sense was used in the opening sequence of the 1986 movie Down And Out In Beverly Hills, which shows a homeless Nick Nolte pushing his grocery cart of possessions around Los Angeles and doing some dumpster diving. His character is in a classic, “How did I get here?” situation, but soon his fortunes take a turn. This version of the song was re-released as a single that year and charted at #91 in America.

The Exies released a haunting version of this song in 2006, releasing a video to go with it. It has also been covered by Smashing Pumpkins and sampled by Jay-Z on his song “It’s Alright.”

Phish covered the entire Remain In Light album on Halloween, 1996 at the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta. It took up the entire second set of their show and featured guest brass players. The performance is considered one of the best Phish “album-cover” attempts. 

Benin superstar Angélique Kidjo covered this song along with the rest of Remain in Light in 2018. She explained to Mojo: “I wanted to bring the resilience of the Africans, and the joy, despite everything they throw at us.”

On May 5, 2018, Kidjo sang “Once In A Lifetime” with David Byrne at Carnegie Hall. She told Mojo: “It was not rehearsed or planned. I think if I thought about it I wouldn’t have been able to sing one note.”

In his 2019 Broadway production American Utopia, David Byrne evokes this song a few times, doing the movements associated with it and at one point asking, “How did I get here?” He does the song in the play as well, and on February 29, 2020, Byrne performed it on Saturday Night Live with his cast members. Later that year, American Utopia was released on HBO as a movie.

Once In A Lifetime

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground

And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground

Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was

Water dissolving and water removing
There is water at the bottom of the ocean
Under the water, carry the water
Remove the water at the bottom of the ocean!
Water dissolving and water removing

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again into silent water
Under the rocks and stones, there is water underground

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground

You may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say yourself
“My God! What have I done?”

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again into the silent water
Under the rocks and stones, there is water underground

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground

Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Look where my hand was
Time isn’t holding up
Time isn’t after us
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Letting the days go by
Same as it ever was
And here the twister comes
Here comes the twister

Letting the days go by (same as it ever was)
Same as it ever was (same as it ever was)
Letting the days go by (same as it ever was)
Same as it ever was
Once in a lifetime
Let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by

Author: badfinger20 (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

27 thoughts on “Talking Heads – Once In A Life Time”

  1. I think the video did distract from how great the song is. I didn’t realize how complex of a creation it was, and where the inspiration came from. I hear it and picture the video from MTV. Hopefully I can retrain myself to hear the great song.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think Fela Kuti is the musician that Ginger Baker lived near and worked with and who later turned into a politician/terrorist (not sure there is any difference between those two these days.) Talking Heads are in a class by themselves and I’ve loved that video from the first time I saw it. Creativity let loose to fly its freak flag.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep that is him…they are so different. In high school I thought…wow that guy is a nerd…yes…and a very talented one.

      Politician genocide…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You know what I learn most from your blog are the singers. I never pay attention to the actual names of people in the bands, unless like Vince Neil, Steve Perry , David Lee Roth, but when you give the names, like David Byrne, I’m like I have some solo music and recognize that name but had no idea he was lead singer for a band lol

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s another song I would characterize as weirdly catchy – strange way of singing the verses, catchy chorus, good groove.

    When I was growing up back in Germany, my parents didn’t have cable TV for the longest time. As such, I couldn’t watch MTV.

    In fact, believe or it, your clip was the first time I watched the official video. So I knew the song only from the radio where it was quite popular.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I can imagine. I guess it’s probably hard for you to believe I didn’t have cable at my house for much of the ’80s. Even after my parents got a satellite dish, the cable line-up was fairly limited and did not include MTV or VH1.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. No Christian…I grew up in a small Tennessee town…We didn’t have it until later on…but I did get to see it at friends with satellite and cousins with cable.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Fabulous record! The video was amazing too, promo videos were really taking off in 1980/81 and becoming an artform in their own right – sometimes turing something humdrum into something good, but this is great without the video, and even greater with it. I recorded it off Top Of The Pops with my dad’s expensive Philips 2000 videorecorder (a format that bit the dust, but was great quality). Instead I now have a much-less-good 3rd copy from Philips to betamax to VHS and need to copy to DVD all my 80’s tapes. Doh! Of course, Youtube discourages bothering to go to the effort….! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I never heard of that format…I guess many came and went.
      Yes some songs had so so videos but this one really fit well with the song…and who could forget this one?

      Liked by 1 person

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