One of Talking Heads most famous songs, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ is a nuanced and quirk-filled alt-pop powerhouse. In many ways, the track represents the collective creativity of the band but its power resonates largely in the lyrics and tone of David Byrne’s brilliant vocal. The isolated vocal on this track changes the angle of the song entirely.
The song appears on the band’s fourth album Remain in Light and is around the midpoint of Talking Heads’ output as a band. At this time, Byrne, the leading man and creative force of the band was at his most exuberantly expressive.
During the recording of the album, Byrne was working with Brian Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts while also working on the soundtrack of The Catherine Wheel. It was this kind of continuous creativity that made Byrne one of the most exciting and prospering rock and roll singers of the day.
‘Once in a Lifetime’, and it’s massive fame, came in no small part due to the fantastic video. With the concept of MTV being only a short-lived project at the time the need for engaging and interesting videos became ever more important. But while others tried to go bigger and better with every new song, Byrne and his whirring mind instead decided to do it a little differently – as ever.
The video sees Byrne dancing awkwardly amid a host of strange and odd graphics. Toni Basil worked on the choreogrpahy with the band and deliberately asked that Byrne “remained at midpoint between dance and muscular spasms.”
One beautiful moment of the song lands with Byrne’s vocal being multiplied and layered which provided the backing vocal to the song. It makes the song fill even more like a conversation with oneself. In a 1981 interview with David Breskin in Musician, Byrne talked about this and the inspiration behind the “voices” on Remain in Light and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
Breskin: Do you think of the voices on Bush Of Ghosts as ghosts?
Byrne: No. But I think of the music on the record as very spiritual, so you might connect that with ghosts.
Breskin: How spiritual?
Byrne: It’s difficult to explain. I think it’s a combination of the rhythms and the more mysterious textures and sounds. Like Remain In Light, there’s a positive, affirmative feeling there but then there’s also a mysterious, other-worldly feeling. Almost all the vocals we put on it have to do with one kind of religious experience or another …
Breskin: Which in a couple of cases intersect with current political experiences, like with the “Unidentified indignant radio host” railing against our lack of nerve in the you-know-what crisis and on the other side of the coin, you include Algerian Muslims chanting Qu’ran. Where did you get the “Unidentified exorcist” vocal to take Kuhlman’s place?
Byrne: Right off the radio. It was a phone-in show, people called in to have this guy drive off the evil spirits. There’s another guy in California who has you put your hands on the TV screen and he puts out his hands to touch yours and heal you through the TV.
Breskin: Can you imagine yourself in a similar role?
Byrne: What, telling people to put their hands on the set?
Breskin: C’mon David, you know what I mean …
Byrne: Helping to heal people? Preaching? Yeah, in a way. I get a lot of inspiration from the evangelists one hears on the radio throughout the U.S. I think they’re dealing with a similar aesthetic; in the more exciting preaching I think they’re going after a thing similar to the music. But I’m not very direct about it though. I like to plant just the seed of an idea in someone’s head rather than telling him exactly what I think.
With this knowledge, the isolated vocal of Byrne’s takes a (slightly odd) song into a brand new direction. It lands like a poem or masonic chant for the modern man. An unwavering, ungilded and unadulterated view of a society which provides a series of tick boxes for what a ‘good life’ is. Listen below.