Classic Rock Wiki

"Once in a Lifetime" is a song by new wave band Talking Heads, released as the first single from their fourth studio album Remain in Light. The song was written byDavid Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth, and produced by Eno. It received critical acclaim, and was named one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century by National Public Radio.[1]

At the time of its original release, the song gained modest chart success, peaking at #14 on the UK Singles Chart[2] and at #31 in the Dutch singles chart.[3] 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.[4] It was also an early MTV staple[5] and was one of the most heavily played videos upon MTV's debut in August 1981.[6]

A live version of the song taken from Talking Heads' concert film Stop Making Sense was released as a single in 1984, peaking at #91 on the Billboard Hot 100.[7] The studio version is widely regarded as their signature song, along with "Burning Down the House".[citation needed]

Kermit the Frog performed the song on a 1996 episode of Muppets Tonight. The song is featured in the films Down and Out in Beverly HillsRock StarHot Tub Time Machine and Reagan, and in trailers for the films The Family ManW. and Wreck-It Ralph.

The song is included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.[8]



  • 1 Production
  • 2 Lyrics
  • 3 Music video
  • Stop Making Sense
  • 5 Charts
  • 6 References
  • 7 External links


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.[9] Jerry Harrison developed the synthesizer line and added the Hammond organ climax, taken from Velvet Underground's "What Goes On".[9] 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. This speaking style was also the basis for his approach of starting several consecutive lines with the same phrase. Eno wasn't particularly fond of the song, and it was almost dropped from the album before Eno came up with the vocal melody for the chorus which "saved" the song.[9]

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.

"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 verses of the song consist of David Byrne speaking rather than singing.[10] With the lyrics "Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down," the song has an existential mood to it, although it is usually interpreted to be a song dealing with the midlife crisis and the inevitable sacrifice of youthful ideals and dreams for conventional success.[citation needed] 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)."[10] Although the singer has these trophies, he begins to question whether they are real and how he got them.[11] This leads him to question further the reality of his life itself, providing the existential element.[11]

Music video[edit][]

The music video features a bespectacled David Byrne in suit dancing much like a marionette. Byrne is shown making sudden flings of his arm, tapping his head, and getting on his hands and knees to pat the floor, much like simple tricks which can be done with actual marionettes. In the background, clones of Byrne dance in perfect synchronization; in the foreground, a larger Byrne is getting further and further out of synchrony.

The video is exhibited in the New York Museum of Modern Art. Some of Byrne's mannerisms (such as physical spasms, unfocused eye movements, and sharp intakes of breath) were inspired by his choreographer,Toni Basil, showing him footage of epilepsy sufferers.[5]

The video also made an appearance on an episode of the 90s Beavis and Butthead.

Stop Making Sense[edit][]

Talking Heads' performance of Once in a Lifetime in their concert film Stop Making Sense is notable for its almost 4-minute long, unbroken chiaroscuro shot of Byrne performing the song.

This version of the song also plays over the opening titles of Down and Out in Beverly Hills. The song was remixed to remove the live audience.

The live performance was released as a single in 1985, peaking at #91 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.


Original version
Chart (1981) Peak


Australian Singles Chart[12] 23
Canadian Singles Chart[13] 28
Dutch Singles Chart[3] 24
Irish Singles Chart 16
UK Singles Chart[2] 14
US Billboard Hot 100[7] 103
Live version
Chart (1985) Peak


Dutch Singles Chart[3] 22
New Zealand Singles Chart[14] 15
US Billboard Hot 100[7] 91