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What's That Sound? The blind forward steps of Talking Heads song 'Once In A Lifetime'

The convergence of Brian Eno and Talking Heads was remarkable, and it produced a three-album run that the world of music is still in awe of today. The experimental and critically acclaimed trio is: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979), and Remain in Light (1980). 

While all three albums are respected and loved, Remain in Light is often regarded as the band’s masterpiece. The groundbreaking recording techniques that compose it convey the pioneering gravity of the Eno/Talking Heads relationship. Furthermore, the coupling between producer Eno and the band is astonishing when you note just how influential on music and culture that time period would be. Eno, being the cerebral aesthete he is, had become known for his work with Roxy Music, David Bowie and John Cale.

Eno, who has been on record saying he started a band after hearing The Velvet Underground’s first record, once said: “Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Whilst he went on to be known for his unrivalled musical ability and production skills, we must give the nod to the indie rock outfit, and in particular Cale, without whom, Brian Eno, in the form we know, would not exist. In fact, neither would the CBGB scene of 1970’s New York, nor Talking Heads – and without the pioneering trio of albums these factors culminated in, alternative culture as we know it would not be the same. Without this relationship, we would not have acts that have touched many, including the likes of Trent Reznor, Radiohead, The 1975 and many more who have gone on to achieve a measure of success.

It would be Cale who introduced Eno to the band, a meeting that occurred at a club in Covent Garden, London 1976. The band had played a solo show that night, but they were actually in London because they were on tour with another legendary group going by the name of The Ramones. The year later, Talking Heads released their debut Talking Heads: 77 to positive reviews – including their first charting single, the classic, ‘Psycho Killer‘. 

The band had stayed in touch with Eno after their initial meeting, and it was no secret that he was a fan of the New Yorkers and, in fact, the title of his 1977 song ‘King’s Lead Hat’ is an anagram of the band’s name. As both parties were committed to pushing boundaries and wanting to dispel rumours that the band was primarily a vehicle for frontman David Byrne’s songwriting, this musical dream team assembled. 

There is no doubt that all three albums are trailblazing, but Remain in Light remains their masterpiece. From start to finish, it is enthralling and is the perfect sum of its parts. The piece that most encapsulates this genre-bending production and musical composition is 1981’s hit, ‘Once in a Lifetime‘.

The song is well known for its iconic music video, anti-yuppie lyricism, and that it was composed of extensive jams by the band. However, the production of the track really tops it. The techniques employed by Eno and the band provide another example of music being defined by experimental recording techniques. With the band now fully in-tune with their new milieu – and utilising techniques they had picked up – they effectively became “human samplers”, according to Byrne. The recording process involved the band recording their jams, isolating the best parts, and then learning to play them.

Initially, Eno was not keen on the song, as he felt it was too trance-like and, with very few chord changes, it became hard to define each section. Regardless, Byrne insisted on ploughing on. Ironically, it was Eno who came up with the vocal melody, singing wordlessly until the “song fell into place”. Briefly coming back to The Velvet Underground’s genealogical influence, keyboardist Jerry Harrison developed the trademark, bubbly keyboard line after listening to ‘What Goes On’.

Even more interestingly, each band member and Eno interpreted the first beat at different points. This polyrhythmic practice was, of course, inspired by Fela Kuti, but also Eno’s own recording technique, Oblique Strategies. Additionally, the band recorded their parts individually, in isolation from the rest of the band, effectively blindfolding them. Subsequently, when Eno mixed these “blind overdubs” back into the original track, it would give it that fluid but glitchy feel. Showing the extent of his impact on the song, he even re-recorded the bass part, removing the first note, as he felt it was “too obvious“- adding more to the lopsided feel.

According to Eno, “the song has a funny balance, with two centres of gravity – their funk groove, and my dubby, reggae-ish understanding of it; a bit like the way Fela Kuti songs will have multiple rhythms going on at the same time, warping in and out of each other.”

At face value, it is true that ‘Once in a Lifetime‘ is “an art-pop rumination” on the “time bomb of unchecked consumerism and advancing age”, but it is also so much more. Through producer and band taking blind steps forward, it culminated in ‘Once in a Lifetime’ brilliantly marrying disparate genres, paving the way for the genre-bending artists of the future.