In 1980 the new wave band Talking Heads released an album called Remain in Light, which featured a song that would go on to become their most famous work. The song was ‘Once in a Lifetime’, and there had never been a song like it before. There has never been another song like it since. It didn’t redefine music, or start a new genre, or become the rallying cry of a generation. What it did, I think, is show quite what a song — a pop song in the pop charts — can do in just under four and a half minutes. It has become so well-known that last year a major Hollywood film called A Hologram for the King featured a one minute dream sequence in which Tom Hanks performs a pastiche of ‘Once in a Lifetime’ to the camera: something that no studio would allow unless they could be pretty sure everyone got the reference.
It’s just the kind of song I love: dazzlingly original, goose-bump inducing, and yet we all just take it for granted. It’s been part of the cultural furniture for so long that no one ever takes the trouble to stop, take a good hard look, and say wait, how did that get here?
Let’s start with the music. Everything is in the wrong place. If you were to look at the sheet music, or try to explain to a band what they should play when, it would become pretty clear that the song was an incoherent mess, with no real direction or focus. The bass line loops the same two note and then three note phrase all the way through: it doesn’t follow the chords the way bass lines are supposed to. The drums make it really hard for the listener to figure out what the downbeat is. The keyboards make it equally hard to figure out what chord is supporting the vocal melody, and the guitars are like an absent parent: just showing up for the fun parts before vanishing. Most of the time singer David Byrne isn’t even singing, he’s just, sort of… shouting.
What I find fascinating about this song is not so much that it breaks just about all the rules of conventional songwriting, because people have actually been doing that forever. It’s that breaking the rules doesn’t seem to be the main objective: it’s one of those rare occasions when it sounds like it’s done to make the track better, rather than just to seem edgy. It sounds like everything is there for a reason. The song is deliberately disorientating, and then the chorus just pulls everything together into focus and it all makes sense, like (excuse the cheesy metaphor, but I really can’t think of a better way to describe it) a dark and overcast landscape suddenly lit up by sunlight streaming through a gap in the clouds.
The album proved to be a turning point for the band, when they and their record producer Brian Eno felt that, with the rise of Hip Hop, music was changing and there was a danger they’d get left behind. Eno suggested that they try writing the material in the studio, by recording their improvisations and picking the best bits. He was also fascinated by the music of Fela Kuti, and Kuti’s grooves that sounded like the musicians were all starting the bar on different beats. Out of that came ‘Once in a Lifetime’, which at first only David Byrne thought was any good. Then Brian Eno came up with the melody for the chorus, and the song finally came together. (There’s a good radio programme by NPR on the history of how the song was recorded, featuring interviews with the key players.)
So that’s the music. Then there are the lyrics. Byrne said that many of the sentences were taken straight from radio evangelists, and that makes sense when you hear it. But the song itself doesn’t reference religion at all. Instead, to me at least, it has always sounded like he’s singing directly to you.
The first verse begins with the famous “And you may find yourself…” line, and proceeds to imagine all these scenarios in which the listener’s life could be good, bad, happy, unsatisfied. And then chorus sings of ‘letting the days go by’ and ‘water flowing underground’.
The song had a big effect on my when I was at school, and I didn’t realise it at the time. It seemed to be saying something very important about life in general. And for me the key line was always “Into the blue again, after the money’s gone”. It never really occurred to me, but if you’d asked me I think I would have said that I could tell you exactly what the song is about. Even though the words are abstract and all over the place. It seemed to be painting a picture that I understood on some deep, subconscious level.
To me it seemed to be a song about those moments just after your world has collapsed entirely. Everything you had has fallen away, and there you are, into the blue again, with nothing. And it’s only then that you realise… maybe this is not actually a bad thing. Maybe you had been sleepwalking through your life up to this point. Maybe you had been frantically trying to acquire things that you didn’t really need. And all the while there had been these undercurrents in your life, like water flowing underground, that you weren’t fully aware of, defining your choices and making roots and shoots and stems spring up in unexpected places.
In that NPR radio interview I mentioned, Byrne is asked what the song means, and he says:
“We’re largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?'”
And still, at regular intervals in my life, I think about this song, as I’m sure millions of people do, and I think: what would I do if I lost everything, and had to start again from nothing? I’ve listened to it a (figurative) million times, and each time feels like the first time. Same as it ever was…