How Talking Heads and Brian Eno Wrote “Once in a Lifetime”: Cutting Edge, Strange & Utterly Brilliant

Few albums of the late 1970s and ear­ly 1980s have held up as well as those by Talk­ing Heads, but what to call the music record­ed on them? Rock? Pop? New Wave? In the dif­fi­cul­ty to pin it down lies its endur­ing appeal, and that dif­fi­cul­ty did­n’t come about by acci­dent: impa­tient with musi­cal cat­e­go­riza­tions and expec­ta­tions, front­man David Byrne and the rest of the band kept push­ing them­selves into new ter­ri­to­ries even after they’d begun to find suc­cess. When they set out to cre­ate their fourth album, 1980’s Remain in Light, “they were look­ing to change the way they made songs.” Instead of leav­ing the writ­ing to Byrne, “the band want­ed a more demo­c­ra­t­ic process. And so they tried some­thing they nev­er had before.”

So says the Poly­phon­ic video above on how the band wrote “Once in a Life­time,” sure­ly the most beloved song on Remain in Light and quite pos­si­bly the most beloved in Talk­ing Heads’ entire cat­a­log. “Inspired by Afrobeat leg­end Fela Kuti, the instru­men­tal­ists in the band record­ed a num­ber of jams,” such as the proto-“Once in a Life­time” out­take “Right Start” (which itself fol­lowed on “I Zim­bra” from Talk­ing Heads’ pre­vi­ous album, Fear of Music).

When bassist Tina Wey­mouth came up with a strik­ing bass line, the band “took that lick and extrap­o­lat­ed it, slow­ly build­ing a piece around it. After weeks of jam­ming, David Byrne and pro­duc­er Bri­an Eno came in to the stu­dio to start adding arrange­ments and lyrics to the music pieces.”

Eno count­ed the rhythm of the song dif­fer­ent­ly than every­one else did, result­ing in a dis­tinc­tive lay­er­ing of dif­fer­ent grooves all at once. On top of this came the lyrics, which Byrne devel­oped as he “sat down and lis­tened to tel­e­van­ge­list ser­mons, pulling phras­es from them and craft­ing them into lyrics.” Put togeth­er, “the song cre­ates a trance­like state, cap­tur­ing the man­ic monot­o­ny of mid­dle-class exis­tence” with both its cap­ti­vat­ing­ly repet­i­tive music (played by the band mem­bers act­ing as “human sam­plers”) and its words, as Byrne him­self inter­prets them, “about the uncon­scious, about how we oper­ate half-awake on autopi­lot.”

Like so many hits of the 1980s, “Once in a Life­time” launched into the zeit­geist from the plat­form of MTV — a net­work that did­n’t even exist when the song came out. “Made on a shoe­string bud­get, the video for ‘Once in a Life­time’ is one of the most mem­o­rable of its time.” Co-direct­ed by Toni Basil (of “Mick­ey” fame), it “played with blue­screen tech­nol­o­gy, com­pos­ing mul­ti­ple David Byrnes on top of a white back­ground or images of reli­gious cer­e­mo­ny.” Byrne and Basil “pored over film of preach­ers, peo­ple in trances, reli­gious sects, and much, much more. Some of these were put in the back­ground, but more impor­tant­ly, they were used as the basis for Byrne’s danc­ing.” When the con­tent-hun­gry MTV launched six months after “Once in a Life­time” came out, the video went right into heavy rota­tion. 37 years lat­er, we can look back at both it and the song as “the walk­ing embod­i­ment of all that the Talk­ing Heads were: it’s cut­ting-edge, it’s strange, and it’s utter­ly bril­liant.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How David Byrne and Bri­an Eno Make Music Togeth­er: A Short Doc­u­men­tary

The Iso­lat­ed Vocal Tracks of the Talk­ing Heads’ “Once In A Life­time” Turn David Byrne into a Wild-Eyed Holy Preach­er

The Genius of Tina Wey­mouth: Break­ing Down the Style of Talk­ing Heads and Tom Tom Club’s Basslines

Hear the Ear­li­est Known Talk­ing Heads Record­ings (1975)

Talk­ing Heads Per­form The Ramones’ “I Wan­na Be Your Boyfriend” Live in 1977 (and How the Bands Got Their Start Togeth­er)

Talk­ing Heads Fea­tured on The South Bank Show in 1979: How the Ground­break­ing New Wave Band Made Nor­mal­i­ty Strange Again

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Ted says:

    Not men­tioned: Jer­ry Har­rison’s dis­tort­ed organ coda was based on the Vel­vet’s “What Goes On.” Once you hear the sim­i­lar­i­ty…

  • Babara says:

    Every song on this album is excel­lent. A no brain­er for any seri­ous music col­lec­tion.

  • Julio says:

    Chris Frantz came up with the bass line.

  • Jeffrey Kinart says:

    The miss­ing link in this arti­cle, was the link to the Talk­ing Heads sound on this record. Adri­an Belew per­haps the sin­gle great­est gui­tarist on this rock changed every­thing about the Heads. Every track and for the entire tour that fol­lowed were focused on what Adri­an was able to get out of his gui­tar. Wiki him for those not in the know…

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