“Once in a Lifetime” is not only one of best-known tracks ever released by Talking Heads, in some ways it represents the culmination of the entire Talking Heads project. It appeared on the band’s fourth album Remain in Light, which represents the approximate midpoint of their run. David Byrne was in the arguably most creative phase of his career, working with Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (a very relevant album for the messianic preaching found in “Once in a Lifetime”) as well as churning out the soundtrack to The Catherine Wheel. Shortly after the release of Remain in Light, Esquire magazine unveiled its list of 373 Americans under 40 who are “changing the world”—according to Sytze Steenstra in Song and Circumstance: The Work of David Byrne from Talking Heads to the Present, Byrne was the only figure from the rock world to be selected.
I was in middle school when “Once in a Lifetime” came out—I saw that video countless times on MTV. Nobody who’s seen the video can really forget it, what with twitchy, skinny David Byrne rapping himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand, backed up by a quartet of Byrnes all sync’d together in this hypnotic way. Toni Basil, who was also a choreographer on top of being a singer, and Byrne worked out the unusual movements, pitched (per Steenstra) “remained at midpoint between dance and muscular spasms.”
In the pages of the April-May 1981 issue of Musician, another David B.—namely Breskin—asked Byrne about the origins of the “voices” that inspired Remain in Light and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts:
Breskin: Do you think of the voices on Bush Of Ghosts as ghosts?
Byrne: No. But I think of the music on the record as very spiritual, so you might connect that with ghosts.
Breskin: How spiritual?
Byrne: It’s difficult to explain. I think it’s a combination of the rhythms and the more mysterious textures and sounds. Like Remain In Light, there’s a positive, affirmative feeling there but then there’s also a mysterious, other-worldly feeling. Almost all the vocals we put on it have to do with one kind of religious experience or another …
Breskin: Which in a couple of cases intersect with current political experiences, like with the “Unidentified indignant radio host” railing against our lack of nerve in the you-know-what crisis and on the other side of the coin, you include Algerian Muslims chanting Qu’ran. Where did you get the “Unidentified exorcist” vocal to take Kuhlman’s place?
Byrne: Right off the radio. It was a phone-in show, people called in to have this guy drive off the evil spirits. There’s another guy in California who has you put your hands on the TV screen and he puts out his hands to touch yours and heal you through the TV.
Breskin: Can you imagine yourself in a similar role?
Byrne: What, telling people to put their hands on the set?
Breskin: C’mon David, you know what I mean …
Byrne: Helping to heal people? Preaching? Yeah, in a way. I get a lot of inspiration from the evangelists one hears on the radio throughout the U.S. I think they’re dealing with a similar aesthetic; in the more exciting preaching I think they’re going after a thing similar to the music. But I’m not very direct about it though. I like to plant just the seed of an idea in someone’s head rather than telling him exactly what I think.
Breskin: With a lot of those testifyin’ preachers, there seems to be a contradiction — or a tension — between what they’re actually saying and the way they’re saying it.
Byrne: Yes, sometimes there is. Sometimes their delivery is real ecstatic, but what they’re saying is so conservative and moralistic. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that these guys are going absolutely berserk while they’re telling everyone to behave themselves. And they’re madly raving, jumping all over the place. In that kind of preaching — like in a music piece — as much is said in the delivery and the phrasing as in the words. What’s important isn’t what’s literally being said.
Not surprisingly, the isolated vocal track for “Once in a Lifetime” sounds very strange indeed—you almost wouldn’t think it was part of a song.
Listen after the jump…