Credit: Talking Heads

The Story Behind The Song: Talking Heads' abstract pop classic 'Once In a Lifetime'

Talking Heads have always cut a peculiar shape amidst the pop-culture milieu, and that’s only partly due to the massively oversized suits David Byrne wore in a bid to make his head “appear smaller”. They burst onto the scene as a totally original entity, classifiable by nothing other than a Bowie-Esque otherworldliness. They were art-school punks of the highest order sporting a benevolent rebellion against mundanity.

After their initial surge onto the airwaves with Talking Heads 77, the group grew further into their welcomed weirdness. Nowhere was the bands middle finger to banality thrust more forcefully than with the flippy floppy madness of ‘Once In a Lifetime’. Released 40 years ago today, the track still stands up on any playlist as an incomparable piece of music for a multitude of reasons.

Before trying to dissect the science behind the song’s effervescent fizz, it is worth regarding one of its more peculiar but perhaps fittingly epitomising accolades: being covered by Kermit the Frog; for what artist other than Talking Heads could make afrobeat rhythms, absurdist poetry and angular soundscapes palatable enough to be performed by everyone’s favourite green straight man?

There is a tendency in music to reserve the word ‘masterpiece’ for only the most earnest of works and taint anything sincere and joyful with the sordid tag of ‘satire’. ‘Once In a Lifetime’ is a raucous work in eviscerating subtly, but it is hard to imagine anything more singular that is so simultaneously poignant and playful.

When taking a deep dive beyond the song’s gaudy surface, you unearth various musicological anomalies. The song is somehow incredibly busy sounding but features very few chord changes. Synthesisers meddle with the more traditionally folky Hammond organ, rhythms overlap, reggae-like guitar playing meets with funkadelic bass and dubby drums all creating a wall of sound that is somehow like nothing you’ve ever heard before but unmistakably Talking Heads. No doubt a central protagonist to this unique genre-blending sound was producer Brian Eno. Eno introduced the band to Africa’s most challenging musical export Fela Kuti, which explains the Afrobeat undertones. Singer-songwriter Robert Palmer was also present at the recording sessions lending his musical talents to rolling jams. It was this mixed-up world of instrumentation and energies that, ultimately, results in the songs cacophonous sound. The best parts of these ensemble jams were recorded and looped into finished songs, inadvertently achieving something like modern sampling sessions. From the outside looking in, all this seeming disorder sounds like the exact sort of frantic creative space that Bryne would relish, the final frenetic sound that they managed to capture is testimony to this.

When it comes to the layering of lyrics and vocals over the top of the track, Byrne was reaching for something akin to a sort of sermon, a style that inexplicably does actually become abundantly clear, once pointed out. In an interview with NPR, rock music’s most whimsical frontman elucidated a semblance of meaning behind the lyrics by stating the following, “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?'”

Throughout the song, Bryne yells out those all-important questions. However, he does so without any cynicism; he acknowledges that it’s not easy being green. He does not besmirch the white-collar way of life but instead asks us to be guarded against complacency and to consider and embrace the absurdity of life from time to time. In the most meta Talking Heads way, he does this not only interpretively but through the very song itself, surely one of the most absurd hits that the charts have embraced? It is all part of the Dada-ist ethos that has permeated Bryne’s work, the art is an expression of the message even if that’s not easy to make out.

To listen to ‘Once In a Lifetime’ is to champion the very act that Bryne is singing about and 40 years on is as a good a time as any to kick off your shoes, blast out this tune, have a flip flop around and realise that life can get away from us sometimes, but realising that fact is a cathartic act in itself.

With ‘Once In a Lifetime’ the Talking Heads rung out some meaning from the meaningless and that’s as vital now as it was upon release four decades ago. Just like all of Talking Heads’ back catalogue, it sounds just like it could have been released tomorrow. With the release of the album Remain in Light and the astounding live show Stop Making Sense that would follow, the early eighties represented an era where Bryne, Frantz, Weymouth and Harrison were operating at the very top of their game.

‘Once In a Lifetime’ is a masterpiece so pleasantly branded on the weirder regions of the public consciousness that even the dance moves are a well-rehearsed exercise in ‘breaking loose’, you should try it sometime.