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"Once in a Lifetime"
Cover art of UK 7" vinyl single
Song by Talking Heads
from the album Remain in Light
ReleasedFebruary 2, 1981
GenreArt pop[1]
Songwriter(s)David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth
Producer(s)Brian Eno
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Alternative cover
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"Once in a Lifetime" is a song by new wave band Talking Heads, released in 1981 as the first single from their fourth studio album, 1980's Remain in Light. The song was written by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth, and produced by Brian Eno. It was named one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century by National Public Radio[2] and is also included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.[3]

Background and production[]

The creation of the sound[]

Brian Eno introduced Fela Kuti's multiple rhythm music style to the band, and during production Eno used a different rhythm count for some members of the group than others, starting on the "3" instead of the "1." It gave the song what Eno called "a funny balance within it. It has really two centers of gravity: their '1' and my '1.'" This rhythm imbalance was exaggerated in the studio, and is present throughout the song.[4] Jerry Harrison developed the synthesizer line and added the Hammond organ climax, taken from the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On".[4]

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


At first, 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. On the way he spoke them Byrne has said: "Most of the words in 'Once in a Lifetime' come from evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I'm fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can't imagine living like that." Some of these evangelist recordings also made their way onto the 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Byrne and Eno.

This speaking style was also the basis for his approach of starting several consecutive lines with the same phrases "And you may find yourself...", and with the chorus singing in part "letting the days go by, let the water hold me down," the song presents an existential mood to it. According to AllMusic critic Steve Huey, one of the main themes of the lyrics is "the drudgery of living life according to social expectations, and pursuing commonly accepted trophies (a large automobile, beautiful house, beautiful wife)."[5] Although the singer has these trophies, he begins to question whether they are real and how he got them.[6] This leads him to question further the reality of his life itself, providing the existential element.[6]

Eno wasn't particularly fond of the song, and it was almost dropped from the album before he came up with the vocal melody for the chorus, which "saved" it.[4]

Release and reception[]

At the time of its original release, the song gained modest chart success, peaking at #14 on the UK Singles Chart[7] and at #31 in the Dutch singles chart.[8] While the song failed to chart on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, various American 80s format radio stations have come to programming it in their playlists over the years.[9]Template:Fv It was also an early MTV staple[10] and was one of the most heavily played videos upon MTV's debut in August 1981.[11]

Music video[]

The video[]

The music video features a bespectacled David Byrne in a tight-fitting suit and bow tie, appearing out of breath but still dancing around, much like a marionette against a video representation of blue/green waving field, possibly a liquid (water). Speaking the lyrics he makes sudden jerking movements and flings his arms, taps his head and gets onto his hands and knees to make patting gestures near the floor. Later, against a blank white background, smaller video images of himself appear, behind him, dancing in perfect synchrony; in the foreground, he gets progressively out of sync with the rhythm of the song, as the background occasionally flashes with segments of old films with tribal dancing and ritualistic arm and body gestures, similar to his own.

At the end a serene Byrne appears, dressed in white, but also chanting. The closing shot briefly sees the original Byrne, small against the entire video colourfield, apparently waving for help, but then fading into the "water".


Many of Byrne's mannerisms, such as the physical spasms, unfocused eye movements, and sharp intakes of breath, were inspired by his choreographer Toni Basil, after showing him footage of epilepsy sufferers and also viewing footage of various tribal religious rituals from around the world, incorporating some of their movements as well, in keeping with the "unconscious religious lyrics."[10]

The video has made appearances on the "Midnight Video Special" episode of SCTV and an episode of the 90s show Beavis and Butt-Head, and was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Stop Making Sense[]

Talking Heads' performance of Once in a Lifetime in their 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense is notable for its almost 4-minute long, unbroken chiaroscuro shot of Byrne performing the song. This version was remixed to remove the live audience and was released as a single, peaking at #91 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in May 1986.[12]

"We used to have so much fun playing this song live," Chris Frantz remarks in the liner notes of Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads. "It was a soaring feeling, and the audience was right there with us."


The song title was used by the band for two later compilation albums—the 1992 Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads and the 2003 Once in a Lifetime. Reviewing the 2003 album for the BBC, Chris Jones said: "Three discs encapsulate the band's career while a fourth gives us an updated DVD version of their video greatest hits, Storytelling Giant. The inclusion of this disc is significant in that the Heads were prime movers in the early days of the promo format. Their hilarious video for "Once in A Lifetime", with David Byrne's twitchy Middle American preacher in horn rims, remains as compelling as it was in 1981. And how many other videos can you say that about?"[13]

In popular culture[]

  • The live version plays over the opening and closing titles of the 1986 comedy film Down and Out in Beverly Hills.[14]
  • Kermit the Frog performed the song on a 1996 episode of Muppets Tonight, complete with the "big suit".[15]
  • A trailer for Oliver Stone's 2008 biopic W., following the life of President George W. Bush, uses the song in a way that suggests the film will be a critical and witty portrait of how Bush became President of the United States.[16]Template:Or-inline
  • An instrumental version is used as part of the opening soundtrack for the pilot episode of US TV crime drama Numbers.[17]
  • The 2016 film A Hologram for the King shows Tom Hanks singing or lip-syncing to a version of the song with altered lyrics. This version is also present in the film's trailer.[18]


Talking Heads

Additional Personnel


Original version
Chart (1981) Peak
Australian Singles Chart[19] 23
Canadian Singles Chart[20] 28
Dutch Singles Chart[8] 24
Irish Singles Chart 16
UK Singles Chart[7] 14
US Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100[21] 103
Live version
Chart (1985) Peak
Dutch Singles Chart[8] 22
New Zealand Singles Chart[22] 15
US Billboard Hot 100[21] 91


  1. Potton, Ed (August 15, 2015). "David Byrne: composer, curator, cyclist — not just a Talking Head". The Times. Retrieved February 28, 2016.
  2. Karr, Rick (March 27, 2000). "The 100 Most Important American Musical Works of the 20th Century". NPR. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  3. "The Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 "Once in a Lifetime" National Public Radio broadcast, March 27, 2000 The 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century
  5. Huey, S. "Once in a Lifetime". Allmusic. Retrieved March 30, 2014.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Gittens, I. (2004). Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime : the Stories Behind Every Song. Hal Leonard. pp. 68–71. ISBN 9780634080333.
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Chart Stats – Talking Heads". Chart Stats. Archived from the original on February 17, 2012. Retrieved August 13, 2011.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "Discografie Talking Heads". (in Dutch). Retrieved August 13, 2011.
  9. "Last Songs Played". 101.5 The Point. Archived from the original on May 23, 2011. Retrieved October 23, 2016.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads Songfacts". The Top 13. Retrieved August 13, 2011.
  11. "The Top 13 Videos from MTV's First Day". The Top 13. Retrieved August 13, 2011.
  12. "The Hot 100: Week of May 3, 1986". Retrieved April 28, 2015.
  13. Jones, Chris (November 17, 2003). "Music - Review of Talking Heads - Once In A Lifetime". BBC. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  14. "Down and Out in Beverly Hills | WHAT A FEELING!". June 26, 2012. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  15. Schneider, Martin (September 27, 2014). "It's not easy being David Byrne: Kermit the Frog covers 'Once in a Lifetime'". Dangerous Minds. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  16. "Oliver Stone's W. trailer review".
  17. "NUMB3RS Music - S1E1: "Pilot"". TuneFind. Retrieved February 19, 2016.
  18. "Watch Tom Hanks Reinvent Himself In First A Hologram For The King Trailer".
  19. "Discography Talking Heads". Retrieved August 13, 2011.
  20. "Talking Heads Top Singles positions". RPM. Retrieved August 13, 2011.
  21. 21.0 21.1 "Talking Heads > Charts & Awards > Billboard Singles". Allmusic. Retrieved August 13, 2011.
  22. "Discography Talking Heads". Retrieved August 14, 2011.

External links[]

Template:Talking Heads