Once In A Lifetime

Album: Remain In Light (1980)
Charted: 14 91

Songfacts®:

  • This song deals with the futility of not being happy with the things you have. Like trying to remove the water at the bottom of the ocean, there's no way to stop life from moving on. The forces of nature (like the ocean) keep you moving almost without your conscious effort - like a ventriloquist moving a puppet.

    Head Head David Byrne shed some light on his lyrical inspiration when he told Time Out: "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 to a 1981 album called My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by David Byrne and Brian Eno.
  • This stalled at #103 in February 1981, but when MTV launched that August, they played the video a lot, giving the song much more exposure.

    David Byrne's choreography in the video was done by the Toni Basil, who had a hit as a singer with "Mickey." It was a very odd video, and for many viewers it was the first look they got at the Talking Heads (or at least Byrne - the full band didn't appear in a video until "Burning Down the House" two years later).

    As you watch David Byrne spasm like a malfunctioning robot interspersed with gesturing in Martian sign language, ponder this excerpt from the book MTV Ruled the World - The Early Years of Music Video, in which Toni Basil fills in some details about the choreography for this video: "He [Byrne] wanted to research movement, but he wanted to research movement more as an actor, as does David Bowie, as does Mick Jagger. They come to movement in another way, not as a trained dancer. Or not really interested in dance steps. He wanted to research people in trances - different trances in church and different trances with snakes. So we went over to UCLA and USC, and we viewed a lot of footage of documentaries on that subject. And then he took the ideas, and he 'physicalized' the ideas from these documentary-style films."

    Basil adds: "When I was making videos - whether it was with Devo, David Byrne, or whoever - there wasn't record companies breathing down anybody's neck, telling them what to do, what the video should look like. There was no paranoid A&R guy, no crazy dresser that would come in and decide what people should be wearing, and put them in shoes that they can't walk in, everybody with their own agenda. We were all on our own."

    Basil also directed and choreographed the video for the Remain In Light track "Crosseyed And Painless," which features dancers from a crew called The Electric Boogaloos. None of the band members appear in it.
  • Some critics have suggested that "Once In A Lifetime" is a kind of prescient jab at the excesses of the 1980s. David Byrne says they're wrong; that the lyric is pretty much about what it says it's about. In an interview with NPR, Byrne said: "We're largely unconscious. You know, 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?'" >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Lauren - Lakeland, FL
  • Brian Eno produced this song and wrote the chorus, which he also sang on. David Byrne wrote the verses, which he talk/sings in an intriguing narrative style. Remain In Light was the fourth Talking Heads album, and the third produced by Eno, whose artistic bent and flair for the unusual were a great fit for the group.

    Unlike their previous album, the songs on Remain In Light were mostly written in the studio (Compass Point, the Bahamas) and all credited to the four band members plus Eno.
  • A surprising number of musicians cite "Once In A Lifetime" as one of the best songs ever recorded. Here are three:

    Charlotte Church, who named it the first song she fell in love with. "The first time I heard it, my mind was blown," she told NME. "There's so magic in that song. I think David Byrne is an absolute G."

    Nick Feldman of Wang Chung, who loves the "almost randomly cacophonous keyboard burblings, the wonderful bass line and rhythm section groove and David Byrne's slightly preacher-like vocals." He told Songfacts: "When my personal life started to unravel many years later, the lyrics to this song still resonated for me. Byrne's mesmeric and intense physical performance in the video to this track still compels today, and compliments and reflects the music it is interpreting."

    Glen Ballard, who produced and co-wrote hits for Alanis Morissette, Dave Matthews and Aerosmith. "That song can't be touched," he said in a Songfacts interview. "I listen to it like once a month because everything about it is so perfect."
  • The video broke new ground when it was exhibited at the New York Museum of Modern Art as part of a 1982 exhibition called "Performance Video." The exhibit helped explain to parents what their kids were watching on MTV. It explained how the "Once In A Lifetime" video "expands upon the song's complex interweaving of moods and images as well as Byrne's interest in African music and percussion."
  • When Talking Heads toured to support their next album, Speaking in Tongues, in 1983, Byrne did the movements from the video when he performed the song. Not only that, he added movements to other songs they performed on that tour as well, making for some very unorthodox visual expression. Audiences were used to seeing pyro and flashing lights, but had never seen anything like the full band running in place ("Burning Down the House") or Byrne turning himself into a human corkscrew ("Life During Wartime"). The experience was so striking it got the attention of director Jonathan Demme, who filmed a few of the shows and turned it into the acclaimed concert film Stop Making Sense.
  • This was used in the pilot episodes of That '80s Show (2002) and Numb3rs (2005). It was used twice on The Simpsons ("Days of Future Future" - 2014, "Trust But Clarify" - 2016) and in these series:

    The Deuce ("Morta di Fame" - 2019)
    Being Erica ("Being Adam" - 2010)
    Chuck ("Chuck Versus the Suburbs" - 2009)
    WKRP in Cincinnati ("Real Families" - 1980)

    It also shows up in these movies:

    Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
    Secret Window (2004)
    Rock Star (2001)
    Alice and Martin (1998)
  • The live version from Stop Making Sense was used in the opening sequence of the 1986 movie Down And Out In Beverly Hills, which shows a homeless Nick Nolte pushing his grocery cart of possessions around Los Angeles and doing some dumpster diving. His character is in a classic, "How did I get here?" situation, but soon his fortunes take a turn. This version of the song was re-released as a single that year and charted at #91 in America.
  • The Exies released a haunting version of this song in 2006, releasing a video to go with it. It has also been covered by Smashing Pumpkins and sampled by Jay-Z on his song "It's Alright."
  • Phish covered the entire Remain In Light album on Halloween, 1996 at the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta. It took up the entire second set of their show and featured guest brass players. The performance is considered one of the best Phish "album-cover" attempts. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Jeff - Kendall Park, NJ
  • Benin superstar Angélique Kidjo covered this song along with the rest of Remain in Light in 2018. She explained to Mojo: "I wanted to bring the resilience of the Africans, and the joy, despite everything they throw at us."
  • On May 5, 2018, Kidjo sang "Once In A Lifetime" with David Byrne at Carnegie Hall. She told Mojo: "It was not rehearsed or planned. I think if I thought about it I wouldn't have been able to sing one note."
  • In his 2019 Broadway production American Utopia, David Byrne evokes this song a few times, doing the movements associated with it and at one point asking, "How did I get here?" He does the song in the play as well, and on February 29, 2020, Byrne performed it on Saturday Night Live with his cast members. Later that year, American Utopia was released on HBO as a movie.

Comments: 37

  • Chris from Germany great song. When it was released in 1980 nobody understood the relevance of this song

    but years later their album REMAIN IN LIGHT and this song are considered masterpieces

    the crazy video und the sound were pioneering work for 1980
  • Chris from SomewhereSame as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was...
  • P.a from Co. Spgs., CoFor me, APRIMO American band. But, Song Facts where the hell is "Take me to the river"? The TH's version is only one of the best cover versions by anyone, ever...
  • Bruce from San Jose, CaSuch a frenetic, schizoid, mapcap song. I love it. Listening to it helps me just "escape" my cares for a few minutes and just enjoy the strangeness of life.

    As for that iconic hand-chopping movement: I believe it's featured in the video in the background where there are some natives performing a ritualistic dance as the lead singer mimics their hand movements.
  • Walter from Abington, MaI've heard the that the whole "hand chopping" movement was inspired by the way servers garnished hot dogs at "The New York System", a popular restaurant near the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI (RISD) where Byrne, Weymouth, and Frantz went to college. The servers laid the hot dogs on their arms and added the condiments by going up and down his/her arms in a "chopping" motion.
  • Camille from Toronto, OhLots of good explanation of lyrics (I read them all); whatever they mean, the song reamains a C.L.A.S.S.I.C.
  • Chris from Negaunee, MiI think this song is about getting divorced. Getting married is only supposed to happen once in a lifetime. This guy starts out as a poor schmuck living in the sticks. Guy is just letting the days go by and a little at a time finds himself living the family man life with a nice house and wife, and wonders, in a midlife crisis way, how did i get here? Things don't work out and he gets divorced. Thinks ah well things are just the same as they ever were, no big deal. Wakes up in a cheap apartment with some nasty bar slut and says this is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife! He feels like he is being drowned under the weight of an ocean of stress and uncertainty. Running out of cash like divorced men do after paying thru the nose, it's time to hit the highway and head out into the blue again. Heads out wondering if giving up his family life was the right or wrong thing to do, and it kind of hits him that maybe it wasn't. My god what have I done? He is just part of the invisible river of life that keeps on flowing, just as it always has. Same as it ever was.
  • Jackie from Virginia Beach, VaFor Mike who said it is "painfully repetitive" that was very planned. I can't quote source, but Tina wanted to change the bass part (which does not change a single time throughout), but David convinced her not to. He wanted it to be beaten into your skull. Musically, repetition fits the rest of the song so well. No bass player or lover I know of, none goes for an entire song with the same. eight. notes. in. the. same. pattern. constantly.
  • Eric from Bend, OrWhen Talking Heads performs this on their "Stop Making Sense" DVD, at the points where they sing, "You may say to yourself...", David Byrne makes gestures as if he's talking to himself, using his hand as another mouth talking - one of my favorite concert moments. :)
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesWas a good era for music, particularly if you happened to be fond of New Wave and indeed Talking Heads. The 'Heads broke through with this single after years of good reviews but poor sales, David Byrne and Jerry Harrison both began successful solo projects on the side, and Chris Frantz and Martina Weymouth's side project the Tom Tom Club scored three massive hits worldwide in 1981/1982. Commercially, it wasn't until 1985's "Road to Nowhere" that the four-piece's collective talents finally came to full fruition, but the "Remain in Light" album was the zenith of their respective careers. Truly innovative stuff - sadly such innovation, imagination, eclecticism and ingenuity are very much lacking in music nearly 30 years on...
  • Mike from Santa Barbara, CaThis is both one of the worst songs to hit the charts and one of the best songs to hit the charts. It's noisy, poorly sung, badly scored, and painfully repetitive. In spite of that, it's profound in that it spoke to many people and addressed what was going on in the back of their minds. It still can have that effect. In 1980, millions of people felt as if they were disconnected from their own lives and fates, and just drifting from one task to another without any purpose or reason. While their lives were often materially comfortable, there was always the chance that it could be lost and that their fates were in the hands of more powerful people (government or business) that were indifferent to them at best. That's still the case now, but now we're used to it, while it was a kind of new feeling back then and people were very disturbed by it. Alienation has been one of the most common themes of modern times.
  • Joe from Baltimore, MdI started listening to this a lot very recently and it has become like a mantra of sorts to me. It's one of those songs that for some reason...just helps me to de-stress after a long day. "Once In A Lifetime" is unusual in that it is upbeat and yet it has this somewhat calming effect (both lyrically and musically).
  • Travis from Mobile, AlThis song is featured in the new Oliver Stone film, "W" as well as the previously mentioned "Down and Out In Beverly Hills". Richard Dreyfuss stars in both films.
  • Chuck from Joppa, Md, MdThe video is styled as if Byrne is a marionette, but some of his gestures are taken from the behaviors of patients epilepsy.
  • Alex from Fresno, CaThis song is on the movie Rock Star. Perfect song for that movie. Btw, you should see it. Its amazing.
  • John from Dundee, United KingdomOne of the GREATEST songs EVER.
    Byrne recalls the whole American preacher thang.
    Watch him explain it - clear as day. Even for those of you who accept it.
    Best Bass line EVER. Have played guitar/bass guitar for 10,000 years and still use the line as an inspiration for a lotta licks. Tina Weymouth - Bass Player Extrondinaire.
  • Cathy from Redmond, WaWhen this first appeared on MTV I was in my early teens and I thought this was the dumbest song ever. Now in (much) later life, I think it is the most profound song ever. I often find myself thinking, "This is not my beautiful house!" and "How did I get here?"
  • Random TerrainI heard back in the 1990s that David Byrne 'came out,' but when you look it up now, it seems no one knows if he is straight or gay. I say this because when I heard that he was supposedly gay, I thought of 'Once In A Lifetime.' I wondered if this song might be about men who are married with children and eventually discover that they were gay the whole time and then scream "My God, what have I done?!!" They lived a life that really didn't belong to them and now their family is going to be destroyed. Since David Byrne is probably not gay, I guess this song is about something else.
  • John from Overland Park, KsI was always haunted by the last line, "And you may say to yourself, 'My God! What have I done?'" It's one of those things I hear myself saying when I've made a truly colossal mistake.
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesWhy are David Byrne/Talking Head's songs "Burning Down The House", "Road To Nowhere" and "Lazy" featured on songfacts? They were all more famous than "Once In A Lifetime", the reason this is so well-recalled (apart from the video) was that it was simply the band's first big hit
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesMaxwell, Houston, TX - Actually, when you think about it, the bottom of the ocean is NOT made up of water but of sand, salt, coral and rocks. Aside from what the song is obviously about (mid life crisis, going insane) I think it also tries to convey a perfectly sane person who has had their life turned completely topsy-turvy by an event in their life and is trying to figure out why all the everyday things they took for granted have gone
  • Maxwell from Houston, TxThis song has one of the dumbest lines ever. "There is water at the bottom of the ocean"? No kidding Sherlock.
  • Yariv from Ramot Hashavim, IsraelTo me, this song is about the contrast between uncertainty due to the random nature of changes and surprises in life, and the constant never changing things. In this case, the cycle of water in nature, going on forever. Same as it ever was.
  • Shonda from Los Angeles, CaJay-Z sampled this song. It's called "It's alright".
  • Jason from WairoaMy goodness, does no one know that the music video is styled to have David Byrne as a marionette?
  • Sandy from Newburgh, InI think this song is about slowly going insane (as evidenced by the video gestures). I would like to know what Talking Heads have to say about it, though.
  • Wik from Brooklyn, NySo, there was another video after all: the concert version from Stop Making Sense, in which David Byrne showed that he got Tony Basil's choreography down pat, including the 'liqid robot' part.
  • Lindsay from Jackson, WyThe talking heads rock, it's as simple as that. Same as it ever was.
  • Craig from Madison, WiTalking Heads did nothing on accident. Most early videos were filmed in a "throw it all against the wall and see what sticks" manner, but Talking Heads, like Devo before them always saw videos as mini-films, and they thrived off the fact that they were there at the genesis of an entirely new art form. They were art school students so it seems doubtful that they would think of a video as for promotional purposes only. The Buggles and the Go-Go's weren't doing videos where the lead singer was doing angular tribal dances dressed as an accountant while sweating profusely and singing like a robot street preacher. It looks simple but it's hypnotic. The song is also amazing with it's vaguely Caribean sound and Jerry Harrison's cyclical guitar riff.
  • Bill from Southeastern Part Of, FlI heard that David Byrne's gestures in this video were taken directly from various priests and ministers during their Sunday sermons.
  • Todd from Denver, CoDon't read too much into the hand gestures. It was early MTV, where no one knew what to do visually and this was a band that was odd and innovative at the same time. Remember the "Pop Music" video? It was shot with the same lighting & background as Toni Basil's "Mickey." I think David Byrne & company were improvising, probably much the same way their early shows in New York were, although I wasn't there.
  • Scott from Chicago, Ilin "stop making sense", david byrne proves white
    men can "dance" while singing this! heehee!
  • Sigmoid from Vancouver, CanadaThe hidden meanings? I'm pretty sure it's about drugs.
  • Jordan from Ontario, Canadai heard that its Japanese, the hand-movement-things
  • Bethan from Somerset, Uk.I think the song is about having a mid-life crisis.

    I love this song, it's awesome!
  • Duane from Greensboro, NcHow about telling us what the song is about? What are the hidden meanings? What do the hand movements in the video mean?
  • Alatriel from Lothlorien, OtherThis song rocks such serious arse that I taped the friggin video.
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