‘Same as it ever was/Same as it ever was/SAME AS IT EVER WAS’ or maybe not from Talking Heads in 1981, the peerless ‘Once in a Lifetime’ was the lead single from their fourth studio album, Remain in Light (1980). A disorientating, ominous, yet bounding offbeat rhythm is propelled towards the precipice, offering shafts of light, in a somehow life-affirming chorus. An awesome, artful pop song with existential undercurrents that – with its use of vocal contrasts and percussive repetition – flipped preconceptions of what a pop song even was on its head, and it sounds as prescient today as it did in the early 80s.
When producer Brian Eno introduced the band to the rhythmic style of Fela Kuti, they built upon an insistent two-note groove(reversed between the verse and chorus), each member added an overdub blind to what the other was doing into the final mix, where Eno would fade each part up and down. More in common with disco or hip-hop music of the time, this technique was typical of Eno and his bricolage of tricks, that sewed together elements to create this rolling, propulsive rhythm, which one imagines is still playing somewhere with its tumbling baselines and potpourri of instrumentals(Jerry Harrison’s suite of synths is present throughout), spinning off into infinity, over and over again.
Imitating a preacher, David Bryne’s vocals switch from spoken “And you may find yourself …”, to a singalong, as he questions the essence of trudging unconsciously through middle-class existence on a constant rat race of a 9-5 job you hate every day, striving for material possessions and the American ‘dream’ ‘the large automobile, beautiful house, beautiful wife‘,before one day you ask yourself ‘How did I get here?’ and is it even ultimately worthwhile?
Byrne said: “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.”
Before the call and response joy of the chorus hoves into view “letting the days go by, let the water hold me down,” it’s not only a fantastic tune and clever melodic switch, but this combined with that nagging percussive loop burrows its way into your brain and captures your psyche. ‘Once in a Lifetime‘ is still remarkably prescient too, as the middle-class dissatisfaction and white evangelical rage of America has turned into the authoritarianism and protectionist policies of the Trump presidency. Enjoying only moderate chart success at the time, it has still left an indelible mark, and with its brilliant video, it is now rightly considered one of the greatest pop songs of that era. I think ‘Once in a Lifetime’ might be one of the greatest singles ever released.
“Same as it ever was.’