Inarguable Pop Classics #30: Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime

Inarguable Pop Classics #30: Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime

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.’



  1. Bill, enjoyed the writing up until you inject your political bias. Please stick to writing about the music and reserve the op-ed. There is just as much black evangelical rage out there as white ( our former president attended many of those), and authoritarianism? Seriously? Authoritarianism is a congessional leader and presidential administrationthat that passed laws without giving fellow legislators any time to read them…remember “if you want to see whats in the bill you have to pass it first?” Yeah, that coupled with FISA violations, IRS scandals, witholding fast and furious details that incriminate an administration, a secret meeting on a tarmac, now thats autoritarianism. As for protectionist policy?.. yeah an American President looking out for his countrymen after years of getting ripped off by the world… something previous presidents should have done years before. Its also the job of any elected official. Your fellow citizens now have larger takehome pay ( less tax withholding), many received bonuses, businesses are thriving, unions are happy and your point? Yeah your spin didnt work…so shut up and stick to the music Bill.

  2. Stick to the music?Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, I think you should take your own advice sir. I am not American, I was just pointing out what I see from the outside.

    PS If you think a travel ban, imposing steel tarrifs on other countries and seeking to build a wall, aren’t protectionism? Then you are sadly mistaken.

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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.