70. Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime

Even though this song has become famous in the years since its release in 1980. The video of the song, and particularly the video they released from their concert film, Stop Making Sense, helped launch the song into popularity years after its initial release. It goes to show you that great songs still have a chance at success and popularity even if they're virtually ignored when they're first released.

For the album Remain in Light, the song that contains "Once in a Lifetime," the band worked with Brian Eno, who exposed them to all sorts of new music, especially the music of Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti, and the polyrhythms of the African style rubbed off. So "Once in a Lifetime" has a complex rhythm to it, both in Chris Frantz's drums as well as the additional percussion they added to give the song an even more varied rhythmic sound. The bass line that Tina Weymouth plays is actually the heartbeat of the song, giving the percussion section a chance to play around with the African themes.

Even though I've listened to the album version of the song dozens of times, just now I realized that there's a few vocal punctuations of the bass line, giving it a fuller, cooler feel. And even though Jerry Harrison's keyboards are basically just a loop at the beginning of the song, he adds atmosphere and texture throughout the song via various synthesizer sounds.

Lead singer and lead songwriter David Byrne's voice is perfect for a song like this. It's a song about a man's midlife crisis. Byrne talk-sings the verses with the desperation of a man who is questioning the direction his life has taken. So many men in my generation and older have felt this pressure. Our friends have a bigger house, so we need a bigger house. We need more stuff because we have a bigger house. I need a new car, right? To pay for all of this stuff and the newer, bigger house, I need a job that pays me more money. A job that takes me away from my family more, but it provides the lifestyle that we've all become accustomed to. But do I even know my wife anymore? My kids? Is this American dream my dream?

And you may ask yourself

How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

The choruses are musically lifting, and Byrne abandons the talk-sing style of the verses for an almost wail. The desperation takes a new, more frantic feel, so the way he sings matches the lyrics:

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money's gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

David Byrne has always been the thinking man's musician. Throughout the stuff he did in the Talking Heads and even more so in his solo career, he's wanted to expose us to new musical styles and older ones in a newer way. That's why it amazes me that this song is almost 30 years old. Listening to it, the lyrics may be even more relevant than they were back then. Musically, the song still has a fresh sound that doesn't sound dated.

In the song, Byrne sings, "My God what have I done?" Well, David (and Tina, Chris and Jerry), you've made a great song that's still relevant 30 years after you recorded it. That's a feat that many musicians and lyricists aspire to, but so few actually achieve. The Talking Heads were always a band that weren't going to "let the days go by" without achieving something. No midlife crisis for this band.

(Fun Fact #64 - The concert film that the band made in 1983, Stop Making Sense, was a seminal film that really brought the band's live energy and skillful performance to an audience who had maybe never heard them before. The video below is from the film. The fun fact? It was directed by Jonathan Demme, who went on to win an Oscar for 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.)

Okay, I couldn't help myself. I found this parody while trying to find the original video of the song. I thought it was pretty damn funny. I hope you enjoy.

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