INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Times OCTOBER 26, 2008 - by Dan Cairns
SONG OF THE YEAR, 1980
Talking Heads: Once In A Lifetime
One of the most sonically and structurally adventurous songs to be recorded in a musically maligned decade, Once In A Lifetime still, twenty-eight years on, reveals new surprises.
Its polyrhythmic intro, with Tina Weymouth's locked-down bass figure - which, extraordinarily, remains unchanged for the duration - crossing swords with Brian Eno's ghostly, tinkling synth and Chris Frantz's brutally terse drumming, bristles with tension. When David Byrne's troubled narrator enters, with the first of a series of existential inquiries, the sense of unease tightens its grip - and it never lets go. Reportedly inspired by a pastor Byrne and Eno heard on the radio while driving through New York, the song was the first single to be released from the band's fourth - and arguably greatest - album, Remain In Light. It flopped in America, despite a memorable and heavily rotated video featuring Byrne as a crazed, horn-rimmed Midwesterner, but gave the band their first big British hit. Once In A Lifetime's genius is in contrasting reassurance - that bass line; the release of the chorus, its "Letting the days go by" lyric implying acceptance and serenity - with insecurity. Lyrically, its repetitions and economy are both catchy and creepy: "Same as it ever was"; "And you may ask / tell yourself"; "This is not my beautiful house / wife". By the third verse, all of which are spoken by Byrne as a sort of geek-rap, his narrator is completely unhinged, muttering about the water (which, in the chorus, is used to symbolise tranquillity) "at the bottom of the ocean". And in the final verse, his questioning reaches its bleakest, most hopeless point, as he asks: "Am I right? Am I wrong?... My God, what have I done?" When the chorus then re-enters, its advice no longer inspires confidence; rather, the saucer-eyed platitudinising seems unreal and deeply threatening. In just over four minutes, Talking Heads confirmed themselves as the makers of dance records they had always aspired to be; created a genuinely disturbing picture of midlife meltdown; and, with Eno's help, charted a new sonic landscape that was at once utterly simple and shockingly strange. Not bad for a mere pop single.