"Once in a Lifetime" is a song by New Wave band Talking Heads, released as the first single from their fourth studio album Remain in Light. The song was written by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth, and produced by Eno. It received critical acclaim, and was named one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century by National Public Radio.
At the time of its original release, the song gained modest chart success, peaking at #14 on the UK Singles Chart and at #31 in the Dutch singles chart. While the song failed to chart on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, various American 80s format radio stations have come to programming it in their playlists over the years. It was also an early MTV staple and was one of the most heavily played videos upon MTVs debut in August 1981.
A live version of the song taken from Talking Heads' concert film Stop Making Sense was released as a single in 1984, peaking at #91 on the Billboard Hot 100. The studio version is widely regarded as their signature song, along with "Burning Down the House".
Brian Eno introduced Fela Kuti's multiple rhythm music style to the band, and during production Eno used a different rhythm count for some members of the group than others, starting on the "3" instead of the "1." It gave the song what Eno called "a funny balance within it. It has really two centers of gravity: their "1" and my "1."" This rhythm imbalance was exaggerated in the studio, and is present throughout the song. Jerry Harrison developed the synthesizer line and added the Hammond organ climax, taken from Velvet Underground's "What Goes On".Eno sang nonsense verb sound blocks, which Byrne then converted into lyrics in the call and response style of American radio evangelists on the theme of moving through life with little awareness or questioning. Eno wasn't particularly fond of the song, and it was almost dropped from the album before Eno came up with the vocal melody for the chorus which "saved" the song.
As the song essentially consisted of a repetitive two-bar groove (with the pattern reversed between the verse and the chorus) Brian Eno decided to approach the production by allowing each of the band members to record overdubs of different rhythmic and musical ideas independently of each other, with each member being kept blind to what the others had recorded on tape. In the final mix Eno faded between these different independent ideas at different parts of the song. This is very much in keeping with his production technique of Oblique Strategies.
The verses of the song consist of David Byrne speaking rather than singing. With the lyrics "Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down," the song has an existential mood to it, although it is usually interpreted to be a song dealing with the midlife crisis and the inevitable sacrifice of youthful ideals and dreams for conventional success.