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.”
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.