By the early 1980s, rock music had split into two separate realms: the Led Zeppelin-inspired classic rockers with long hair, tight pants, and mad guitar skills; and the three-chord punk rockers like the Ramones.
When Talking Heads first walked into the punk club CBGB where they got their start, it was clear that they didn't fit into either category. With their clean, cut look, clothes that fit, and unique musical style, Talking Heads weren't your normal rock group. And they weren't interested in the things that most rock bands were interested in, either. They didn't flex their musical muscles—muscicles?—with insane long, laborious guitar solos, and they weren't interested in the sloppy-on-purpose style of punk rock.
Lead singer David Byrne thought the new punk revolution "wasn't saying anything new, it was just a sloppier version of the Stones, the same clothes and the same pose. I thought: Let's see if we can just throw all that out, start from square one. Walk onstage in your street clothes and sing with no affectation in a kind of unromantic but passionate way." (Source)
So, that's what they did. Talking Heads defined their early sound with clean guitar, un-syncopated beats, and Byrne singing in his honest, everyman voice about every day things like listening to records. Some music writers have commented that the Talking Heads and much of the New Wave movement of the 1980s had purged themselves of the influence of Black music. What they probably mean to say is that the blues and jazz influences of early rock had been done away with.
In reality, though, Talking Heads were simply injecting new forms of Black pop music into the mainstream white American consciousness before these forms were fully accepted. 1980's Remain in Light transformed Talking Heads' musical style with just these forms. The album's iconic song, "Once in a Lifetime," capitalized on two important developing styles: rap music and Afrobeat.
The massively influential pop producer Brian Eno, who worked with David Bowie and U2 during their most successful periods, produced Remain in Light. Eno has a knack for accurately predicting and creating big new directions in music.
With Remain in Light, Eno introduced the band to Fela Kuti's Open & Close, an album of African-funk-and-jazz fusion music known as Afrobeat. Kuti's music was an essential influence on the band as it introduced Byrne and Eno to polyrhythms. Polyrhythms, or "cross-rhythms," are the result of two conflicting rhythms happening on top of each other. For example, if a drummer is playing a bar of 4/4 but he plays eighth notes on his snare drum and triplets on his hi-hat, he is playing a polyrhythm.
"Once in a Lifetime" doesn't have this exact scenario going on, but it does contain two conflicting rhythms, and it is all heard in the bass groove. According to Brian Eno, the band and he heard the bass riff, which was the first part of the song the band completed, with different "ones," different rhythms.
Try listening to the song yourself and counting out the 4/4 rhythm. Where do you start each meter of the two-bar rhythm? The band heard the bass line like you probably do, starting on the first beat of each meter. Eno, however, heard the beat emphasizing the third beat of each meter, much like reggae beat. As the producer of the song, Eno decided to make each band member record their part independent of each other, with either rhythm in mind, so that the final mix would have both of these rhythmical interpretations playing against each other as a polyrhythm in the style of Fela Kuti. It's a cool effect that you rarely see in music.
Perhaps the best comparison is a certain scene in the 2000 film American Psycho, in which Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a serial killer, is talking with a detective (Willem Dafoe) that is looking for a man that Bateman killed days earlier. Director Mary Harron told the actors to do the scene several times in different ways. They would shoot the scene as if the detective knew that Bateman was the murderer, as if the detective had no idea, and with Bateman in varying states of panic over the situation.
The final cut of the scene combines all these takes to create an ambiguous, but exciting, scene in which there is no center of emotional gravity. In a sense, the song ends up with two centers of gravity, the instability of the beat reflecting, perhaps, the instability that Byrne's narrator feels.
But Fela Kuti's Afrobeat wasn't the only cool thing to happen in music. In 1979 rappers brought the heat with the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." Talking Heads found inspiration in the writing process of hip-hop songs. Hip-hop defined itself as a genre through the use of sampling and looping alongside improvised mic checking.
Talking Heads replaced their process of writing songs and then recording them with improvised studio jams. The band and engineers would pick interesting elements of the jam, relearn them, and loop them. The band came up with the bass riff that plays throughout the entire song first. They looped that and added a trance-like keyboard, and the song largely goes from there, with Byrne adding in his famous sermon-style delivery on the lyrics. In the end section of the song, we hear some more obvious hi-hop influence; not only did the band "sample" itself to write the song, they also sampled the Velvet Underground. The organ track playing over the end was admittedly stolen from "What Goes On."
The music isn't the only thing about the song that was new for Talking Heads at the time, though. "Once in a Lifetime"—especially the music video—is a kind of sermon describing the shock to the system one experiences when they stop moving and simply look at where they are:
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself: well...how did I get here?
Writer of Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime—The Stories Behind Every Song Ian Gittins holds that this song is about the "psychic meltdown" of Talking Heads' lead singer David Byrne's speaker.
"Byrne's loquacious achiever slides into self-doubt and existential questioning of all he has achieved and accrued," Gittins writes. The narrator finds his world to be a fantasy. ("This is not my beautiful wife!") Gittins concludes that the song must be either "'the horror, the horror' that submerged Conrad's Colonel Kurtz in Africa's Heart of Darkness, or a dramatization of a suburban mid-life crisis/nervous breakdown." (Source)
Byrne says that he's wrong, though, and that his message is more straightforward. "We're largely unconscious," says Byrne. "We operate half-awake, on autopilot. And we end up with a house and family and job and we never stop and ask how did we get here." (Source)
And the song backs this up. Notice how the song is spoken in a reflexive sort of way, as if the speaker is relating something that happened to him. He must not have had a meltdown, because the choruses of "Once in a Lifetime" are ecstatic with their call-and-response pattern:
Letting the days go by (let the water hold me down)
Letting the days go by (water flowing underground)
Into the blue again (after the money's gone)
Once in a lifetime (water flowing underground)
In fact, Byrne's delivery method suggests the roots of this call-and-response pattern: African and African American culture. The celebration evokes the Black spirituals and gospel music of post-Civil War America. This doesn't sound like a nervous breakdown; it sounds like emancipation.
The song seems to reflect not what producer Brian Eno calls "a kind of urban pessimism," but an awe at the standard of living that was available to certain people during the 1980s. As Brian Eno says of the song and Remain in Light as a whole, "that record is terribly optimistic, looking out to the world and saying 'what a fantastic place we live in, lets celebrate it.'" (Source)