INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Uncut NOVEMBER 2007 - by John Lewis
THE MAKING OF... ONCE IN A LIFETIME BY TALKING HEADS
How a messy jam became one of the most influential video hits of the '80s.
An exuberant collision of downtown New York, Nigerian Afrobeat and Brian Eno's space-age production, Once In A Lifetime is the most successful example of how Talking Heads explored the possibilities of the studio on the 1980 LP, Remain In Light. It started as a Fela Kuti-style jam, one that you'll find as a bonus track on the 2006 reissue entitled Right Start. Eno and the band - inspired by the methodology of Krautrockers Can and Miles Davis' producer, Teo Macero - then set about ripping that jam session apart, recreating the groove, stripping out certain instruments and superimposing numerous other melodic and rhythmic ideas upon that basic template.
It remains a massively enduring and influential track. It's been covered by the Smashing Pumpkins, Phish, PM Dawn, cabaret duo Kiki And Herb, Sengalese griot Wasis Diop and country rock singer Jimmy Buffett. It has been sampled by Jay-Z and numerous hip-hop producers. It's featured in Down And Out In Beverley Hills, The Family Man, The Truman Show, Lost, Numb3rs and The Simpsons. It's even been parodied by Weird Al Yankovic and Kermit The Frog (check out the Muppets' version on YouTube). And Toni Basil's promo is one of the truly ground-breaking videos of the 1980s, even getting exhibited in the New York Museum Of Modern Art.
lead singer, lyricist, guitarist
Most of the tracks on Remain In Light were based around jams. We'd listen to the tapes, isolate the best bits, then learn how to play them over and over again. It was exactly what producers do these days with loops and samplers and sequencers. We were human samplers!
At first, it wasn't one of Eno's favourite tracks. We very nearly abandoned the song. I insisted that I could write words to it and pull it together. Then Eno had an idea for a melody for the chorus, and it fell into place. It worked as a call-and-response pattern, like a preacher's conversation with his congregation. I improvised lines as if I was giving a sermon. Some people interpreted the lyrics as a parody of yuppie greed - "where is my beautiful house?" - but I don't think it's like that at all. It's about the unconscious. It's about how we operate half awake, on autopilot. At that time I loved how bands - ourselves included - were trying to play funk, but got it brilliantly wrong, inadvertently creating something really interesting music. Then people started to get a bit too good at playing funk and it was all downhill from there.
producer and co-writer
The first time I heard that jam session, I misheard the riff - in fact I still mishear it to this day. I always think that the "one" of the bar is in a different place to where the rest of the band thought the "one" was. So I counted "one-two-three-four" differently to them. Now I know that this might seem like a ridiculously technical detail, but it's crucial. It means the song has a funny balance, with two centres of gravity - their funk groove, and my dubby, reggae-ish understanding of it; a bit like the way Fela Kuti songs will have multiple rhythms going on at the same time, warping in and out of each other.
The idea for the chorus melody was mine - I started singing a wordless riff over the top of the bassline. "Doo-de-doo-dd-dah". But the lyrics were all David's. It was an extension of the stuff we'd been researching for My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. For that, we were listening to recordings of TV evangelists, preachers, the Islamic call to prayer, religious people getting into a trance. We were also fascinated by the way in which politicians and shock jocks spoke. It wasn't the words they were saying, it was the feverish intensity with which they were delivered. It suggests that people only really enter that intense spirit when they're talking about religion or politics!
What's fantastic about David's lyrics is that he's using that blood-and-thunder intonation of the preacher, but his words are terribly optimistic. It's saying what a fantastic place we live in, let's celebrate it. That was a radical thing to do when everyone was so miserable and grey!
bassist and co-writer
It was a really good atmosphere for those sessions. We were aware that Brian and David had had some falling out during My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, so we really needed it light and playful and inclusive. For that jam session, I remember that Brian and Jerry both played Prophet keyboards. Brian also played little percussion instruments, and Jerry moved between keyboards and guitar. David played a little R'n'B guitar part which was stripped out afterwards. Even the lovely Robert Palmer, who was in the studio with us that day, jammed with us on guitar and percussion. Encouraged by Chris, I came up with the bassline - it was a really dumb bass part, but I had to leave lots of space for the cacophony that surrounded me. I felt like I was pounding away like a carpenter, just nailing away to get it in the groove!
Brian and I had a dispute over the bassline - he wanted me to drop out on the crucial "one" beat. He thought it was too "obvious". He even re-recorded my bass. It was only when we were back in New York, when Brian had gone home, that the engineer asked me to get it locked in and get it to groove again. It wasn't a big fight between me and Brian, as it has sometimes been portrayed, it was just a musical dispute. It only got heavy again when it was all finished, when we found out that [Brian and David] wanted to co-opt the song-writing credits for the album and that was a real surprise - it really was a jointly written enterprise. But the music was just wonderful.
Eno was great fun in the studio - he was still using those "oblique strategy" cards. It was always a fun way to work. Just when you were getting daunted by something, he'd hold up a card that read: "Don't care about what other people think", which was helpful! There were other ones, too: "Start at the end and not the beginning", "Don't be afraid of easy things"; "Only a part, not the whole". Thing like that.
What we were going for was a "rhythm bed", something to be expanded upon later on. We tried to do something that had a transcendent feeling, something that people could dance to, that would transport people. It was quite spiritual. David disappeared for about two months to write the lyrics; they were recorded later, in New York.
Jerry came up with that burbling synth sound, which really changed the mood, and then he used that fantastic, doomy organ sound towards the end. He said he always wanted to use the riff from The Velvet Underground's What Goes On. It's a "sample", I guess.
choreographer and co-director
I met David through, while they were working in LA on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Brian had seen films I'd made with an underground film-maker and artist called Bruce Connor. I hung out with them a lot - I felt like Mary Shelley, hanging out with these two amazing minds!
David wanted a video for the songs to be themed around the arcane rituals of religious behaviour. We booked an appointment at the film and video archive at UCLA and ordered a ton of footage: they had a huge library of preachers, evangelists, people in trances, African tribes, Japanese religious sects. Some of this footage ended up in the final video, bluescreened into the background. We watched the footage together, examined the movements and discussed how to incorporate it into his performance. Technically, I was the choreographer, but David kind of choreographed himself. I set up the camera, put him in front of it and asked him to absorb those ideas. Then I left the room so he could be alone with himself. I came back, looked at the videotape, and we chose physical moves that worked with the music. I just helped to stylise his moves a little.
None of my videos had much of a budget - not even "Mickey"! - but this cost next to nothing. It was shot on video, at the Soundstage in LA,with a couple of lights. I used a real old-fashioned zoom lens to make his jerky movements even more pronounced.It's about as lo-tech as you could get and still be broadcastable! In the end it was shown on MTV for years and won several awards.
Performers David Byrne (vocals, guitar), Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), Tina Weymouth (bass and backing vocals), Brian Eno (vocals, keyboards and percussion), Nona Hendryx (vocals), Robert Palmer (percussion)
Released February 7, 1981
UK chart highest position 14
US chart highest position did not chart (live version re-released April 1986, highest chart position 91).
Produced by Brian Eno
Engineer Stephen Stanley