Once In A Lifetime has since become one of the signature tunes of the ’80s but, when the song was first released in 1981, it didn’t even manage to break the top 100 on the US charts, peaking at 103. (The song did find more success in the UK, where it reached #13.) At the time, the song was not considered to be “radio friendly.” Not even the fact that the video was put into heavy rotation during the early days of MTV could change the minds of stubborn programmers who were convinced that the sound of David Byrne considering his life would lead to listeners switching the channel.
The video, which features multiple David Byrnes performing against a white backdrop, was directed by Byrne and the famous dancer/choreographer Toni Basil. (Basil, of course, had her own hit around the same time with her video for Mickey.) In the book, MTV Ruled the World – The Early Years of Music Video, Basil discussed making the video with Byrne:
“He wanted to research movement, but he wanted to research movement more as an actor, as does David Bowie, as does Mick Jagger. They come to movement in another way, not as a trained dancer. Or not really interested in dance steps. He wanted to research people in trances – different trances in church and different trances with snakes. So we went over to UCLA and USC, and we viewed a lot of footage of documentaries on that subject. And then he took the ideas, and he ‘physicalized’ the ideas from these documentary-style films … 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 stylize his moves a little.”
As for the song, Byrne has said that he came up with most of the lyrics while listening to radio evangelists and the song’s plaintive cry of “How did I get here?” should sound familiar to anyone who has ever heard any of the old style preachers going at it. The song’s signature bassline was developed by Tina Weymouth, who has said that she based it on the sound of her husband (and Talking Heads drummer) Chris Frantz yelling.
As for the song, it may not have charted but it has gone on to become one of the defining songs of the 80s. The song would also be one of the highlights of the greatest concert film ever made, Stop Making Sense.