The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #246: Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #246: Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads.

In the totality of the entire Earth, there are hundreds of thousands of singers/bands who have talent and are good at what they do. However, we never hear of 99.9% of them. For those “good” singers, their platform may be their shower stall, the front seat of their car as they head on down the highway or, even, the tiny stages of their local community theatres or clubs. Their audiences are small and tend to be familiar. Those who hear their sweet voices are made better by the experience and, to them, those singers are amazingly gifted. Singing is a cathartic and uplifting experience and brings a sense of pleasure and, for many, that reward is enough to justify their continued attention to their craft. And, that is ok. Not everyone needs to be a “star” in order to make the world around them better.

But, a small fraction of those talented performers DO manage to raise out of the depths of their local scenes and DO become recognizable figures and leaders in the music industry. What is it that causes someone who is a star of their church choir to suddenly become a star on the biggest and brightest stages of the world? One of the most important reasons is thougtful attention to detail in the construction of the original songs they sing. Another is repetition. Hours upon hours spent perfecting notes and keys, dance moves and breath control. Today’s song is a textbook example of what can happen when you have talent and creativity and a work ethic that is second to none. The song is, “Once in a Lifetime” and the band is Talking Heads.

In the mid-1980s, Talking Heads had a string of quirky, intelligent, popular hits including, “Burning Down the House”, “Psycho Killer”, “Life During Wartime”, “This Must Be the Place”, “Girlfriend is Better”, “Road to Nowhere” and “Once in a Lifetime”. To illustrate how a band can achieve national recognition for their work, we will focus on the song, “Once in a Lifetime” and, in particular, the inspiration for the song, the innovative way the musical structure was created, how the music video was choreographed to give it such herky-jerky originality and, finally, how all three aspects tie together to elevate this song above most others to the deliver the message that Talking Heads intended.

Talking Heads consisted of singer, David Byrne, guitarist/keyboards, Jerry Harrison, bassist, Tina Weymouth and drummer, Chris Frantz. All four performers had a background in the Arts and brought that sensibility to the music they created as a group. They never viewed themselves as simply, musicians. They viewed themselves as artists who used the medium of music to tell stories. Movement, language, music, visual props and images all combined to add layers of meaning and interest to their performances. To Talking Heads, how they presented their work was often just as important as the work, itself.

The inspiration for “Once in a Lifetime” was fundamentalist religion in the southern US, in particular. Specifically, singer David Byrne was interested in the mindset of those people who attended those churches where evangelists promised healing and miracles and the coming of The Rapture. In return, parishioners responded with trance-like waving of arms in the air, heads tilted, eyes closed, ready to fill their hearts, minds and souls with the Glory of God. After church was over, many of these same people climbed into their ordinary cars, returned to their ordinary homes with their ordinary families and carried on with their lives. Byrne wondered what those people were like. Did they actually believe the Second Coming was at hand? Were they able to focus of the mundane aspects of living a normal life, such as doing the laundry, mowing the lawn, etc., after being promised miracles? To Byrne, he found the whole thing fascinating and thus, he was able to approach the subject in a non-judgemental manner.

So, in the song, “Once in a Lifetime”, he acts as the preacher and sings/talks his way through the song in the same cadence familiar to anyone who has watched a Gospel sermon in person or on tv. Byrne’s lyrics ask questions about how the lives of those involved in these religious experiences have come to be the way they are and, in doing so, do the parishioners even realize what has become of them? The musical structure of the song is such that each musician was given carte blanche to come in and out of the song as they saw fit. They don’t share the same starting notes nor do they finish on the same beats. Instead, they weave in and out of each other’s musical “noise” in a way that creates a continous wave of music that comes from all directions at once. It isn’t exactly like Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technique. Instead, it is meant to replicate the waves of emotion and spirituality that characterize many of these religious revival meetings. So, you have lyrics that sound like a sermon from a Gospel preacher, combined with music, whose sound structure replicates the emotions felt during these services which, when taken together, give the song the feel of a live, religious experience.

The final element added by Talking Heads was the construction of the music video that accompanied the song. As mentioned, Byrne was fascinated by the people who wanted so badly to feel the Lord enter their hearts. He was fascinated by them, intellectually but, he was, also, fascinated by them, physically. So, together with choreographer, Tony Basil (who some may remember from her own hit song, “Mickey”), they watched thousands of clips of people in the throes of religious ecstasy. Byrne watched these clips, not as a trained dancer but, in the same way an actor like Robert Deniro or Johnny Depp, would. Once he felt he understood the mannerisms, Byrne and Basil recorded him singing and dancing to various parts of the song, hundreds and hundreds of times. When that was done, they assembled the best of the recorded clips and put them in a sequence that best matched the musical structure and the lyrics. The result was one of the most unique and original music videos of the early MTV-era. Byrne was so pleased with the result that he decided to apply the same technique to the Talking Heads live concert performances of their hits and, as a result, he and Basil created unique choreography/movements for each song. The effect of that was so striking that a movie was made of a live tour called, “Stop Making Sense”.

So, as you watch the video for this “official” video for this song, as well as, a live version , too, please keep in mind all of the carefully considered details that went into the making of this song/performance. There are reasons why some musicians end up rising to the top of their genres. In this case, the holistic planning that went into the creation of “Once in a Lifetime” helps to set it apart from so many other songs of that time. I love how smart a song it is and I appreciate how clever it all was conceived. I hope that you like it, too.

Here is “Once in a Lifetime” by “Talking Heads”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads, can be found here.

The link to the video for the live version of the song, “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Talking Heads can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP for always supporting intelligent and creative music. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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