David Byrne’s stunning isolated vocal on Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’ is magic
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.
When you isolate Byrne’s vocal on the track it suddenly changes the angle of the song entirely. Stripped of its pop sensibilities all you are left with is Byrne’s abstract poetry. It makes for an engaging listen.
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 but it was his work with another on this song that would push it towards its worthy legend status.
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 alongside one of electronic music’s most fervent pioneers, 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.
After fielding questions about the album’s spirituality, Byrne concedes, “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.