In 1980, Talking Heads released "Remain in Light," the band's last collaboration with producer Brian Eno. The record, which sold modestly, contained the song "Once in a Lifetime," which is one of The NPR 100, our list of the most important pieces of American music of the 20th century. NPR's Rick Karr prepared this history and anatomy of "Once in a Lifetime."
Influence Of Hip-Hop And Afro-Pop
Until 1979, Talking Heads was pretty much a normal pop band. Granted, its members were quirky, but like most other bands, they'd write and arrange their songs before they went into the studio to record them. But, as they were getting ready to make Remain in Light, their fourth album, the group realized that pop music was changing.
"Just the year before, there had been the beginnings of hip-hop," bass player Tina Weymouth says. "It influenced us in different ways to realize that things were shifting."
Meanwhile, Brian Eno, who'd been the band's producer for two years, had turned his attention to Africa.
"The first time I ever met Talking Heads, I played them a record by Fela Kuti, the African-Nigerian musician who'd invented that thing called Afro-beat," Eno says. "I thought that was just the most exciting music going on at the time."
Samples And Loops
Brian Eno and Talking Heads decided that the way to get to that future was to ditch their old technique of writing songs and then recording them, and replace it with improvisation in the studio. They'd try to spontaneously create the kind of grooves that are the foundation of Kuti's music and capture that creative process on tape.
Nobody is totally clear on when "Once in a Lifetime" emerged, but Tina Weymouth told drummer Chris Frantz, her husband, that she thinks he actually wrote the bass riff that's the heart of the song during one of their jam sessions.
Singer David Byrne says that somebody probably noticed that bass riff as they were listening back to one of the tapes of the sessions. The process of picking a good bit and repeating it is an essential element of rap music. Now, producers call it "sampling" and "looping," and they tend to do it with computers. To Byrne, Talking Heads' members were human samplers.
Critical And Popular Reception
Some critics have suggested that "Once in a Lifetime" is a kind of prescient jab at the excesses of the 1980s. Byrne says they're wrong; that the lyric is pretty much about what it says it's about.
"We're largely unconscious," Byrne says. "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?' "
Eno says the album still stands out as an antidote to the jaded attitudes that dominated the pop world in the 1970s.
"It had all been done," Eno says, "and the only thing left worth doing was some sort of urban pessimism of some kind, and that record is terribly optimistic in a way. It's very up and, like, looking out to the world and saying, 'What a fantastic place we live in. Let's celebrate it.' And I think we knew that was a fresh thought at the time."
Click the audio link above to hear more about the making of Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime."