Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads song)

Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads song)
"Once in a Lifetime"
Single by Talking Heads
from the album Remain in Light
Released February 2, 1981
Format 7", 12", CD
Recorded 1980
Genre New Wave
Length 4:19
Label Sire
Writer(s) David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth
Producer Brian Eno
Talking Heads singles chronology
"Crosseyed and Painless"
"Once in a Lifetime"
"Houses in Motion" (alternate mix)

"And She Was"

"Once in a Lifetime" (Live)

"Wild Wild Life"

"Once in a Lifetime" is a song by New Wave band Talking Heads, released as the first single from their fourth studio album Remain in Light. The song was written by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth, and produced by Eno. It received critical acclaim, and was named one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century by National Public Radio.[1]

At the time of its original release, the song gained modest chart success, peaking at #14 on the UK Singles Chart[2] and at #31 in the Dutch singles chart[3]. While the song failed to chart on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, various American 80s format radio stations have come to programming it in their playlists over the years. [4] It was also an early MTV staple[5] and was one of the most heavily played videos upon MTVs debut in August 1981.[6]

A live version of the song taken from Talking Heads' concert film Stop Making Sense was released as a single in 1985, peaking at #91 on the Billboard Hot 100[7].



Brian Eno introduced Fela Kuti's multiple rhythm music style to the band, and when producing used a different rhythm count to the band which results in a rhythm imbalance throughout the song.[8] Jerry Harrison developed the synthesizer line and added the hammond organ climax taken from Velvet Underground's "What Goes On".[8] Eno sang nonsense verb sound blocks, which Byrne then converted into lyrics in the call and response style of American radio evangelists on the theme of moving through life with little awareness or questioning.[8]

As the song essentially consisted of a repetitive 2 bar groove (with the pattern reversed between the verse and the chorus) Brian Eno decided to approach the production by allowing each of the band members to record overdubs of different rhythmic and musical ideas independently to each other, with each member being kept blind to what the others had put down on tape. In the final mix Eno faded between these different independent ideas at different parts of the song. This is very much in keeping with his production technique of Oblique Strategies.


The verses of the song consist of David Byrne speaking rather than singing. With the lyrics "Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down," the song has an existential mood to it, although it is usually interpreted to be a song dealing with the midlife crisis and the inevitable sacrifice of youthful ideals and dreams for conventional success.

Music video

The music video features a bespectacled David Byrne dancing much like a marionette. Byrne is shown making sudden flings of his arm, tapping his head, and getting on his hands and knees to pat the floor, much like simple tricks which can be done with actual marionettes. In the background, clones of Byrne dance in perfect synchronization; in the foreground, a larger Byrne is getting further and further out of synch.

The video is exhibited in the New York Museum of Modern Art. Some of Byrne's mannerisms (such as physical spasms, unfocussed eye movements, and sharp intakes of breath) were inspired by his choreographer Toni Basil[5] showing him footage of epilepsy sufferers.

Stop Making Sense

Talking Heads' performance of Once in a Lifetime in their concert film Stop Making Sense is notable for its almost 4-minute long, unbroken chiaroscuro shot of Byrne performing the song.

This version of the song also plays over the opening titles of Down and Out in Beverly Hills. The song was remixed to remove the live audience.

The live performance was released as a single in 1985, peaking at #91 on the US Billboard Hot 100.


Original version
Chart (1981) Peak
Australian Singles Chart[9] 23
Canadian Singles Chart[10] 28
Dutch Singles Chart[3] 24
Irish Singles Chart 16
UK Singles Chart[2] 14
US Billboard Hot 100[7] 103
Live version
Chart (1985) Peak
Dutch Singles Chart[3] 22
New Zealand Singles Chart[11] 15
US Billboard Hot 100[7] 91


External links

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