Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “80’s New Wave Bands Edition,” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
The Talking Heads, Once in A Lifetime. Album: Remain In Light (1980)
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.
Talking Heads vocalist David Byrne shed some light on his lyrical inspiration when he told Time Out: “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 to a 1981 album called My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by David Byrne and Brian Eno.
When MTV first launched, they played this video a lot, but very few American radio stations played the song. MTV didn’t have much clout back then, and the song never charted in the US.
David Byrne’s choreography in the video was done by 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.
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.”
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?'”
The Remain In Light album was completely covered by Phish on Halloween, 1996. It took up the entire second set of their show and featured guest brass players. It is considered one of the best Phish “album-cover” attempts.
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.