Despite its near-total lack of chart success, "Once in a Lifetime" became one of Talking Heads' most popular and celebrated songs over the years since its initial release on the 1980 album Remain in Light. Produced by Brian Eno, this original version is built around intricate, polyrhythmic percussion and a spacy keyboard wash that evokes the image of flowing water, which dominates David Byrne's lyrics. Simple, start-and-stop bass lines both push the song forward and create a herky-jerky feel. Since the verses are spoken, not sung, there is no melodic hook until the song bursts into its exuberant chorus, which belies the tension and claustrophobia of Byrne's abstract, impressionistic lyrics. Although they defy easy analysis, overall the lyrics address the drudgery of living life according to social expectations, and pursuing commonly accepted trophies (a large automobile, beautiful house, beautiful wife). The recited verses progress through stages of life -- the first has a giddy sense of possibility stemming from newfound prosperity; the second hints at a vague dissatisfaction and sense of estrangement from the things the narrator has worked for; and the third questions the whole direction of the narrator's life -- where he had passively been "letting the days go by." Mumbling "same as it ever was" to himself with an increasing sense of panic, he now explodes in a shout of "My God, what have I done?"
Eno's production, meanwhile, is typically detailed and inventive, weaving subtle elements into the background, adding scratchy funk guitars on the choruses, and fading out with a distorted, Velvet Underground-ish organ drone. Released as a single, "Once in a Lifetime" failed to even chart, although the inventive video -- featuring simple but striking special effects and some of Byrne's quirkiest dance moves -- had an extended life on MTV. The song was later included in the group's 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense and its accompanying live album, and the re-exposure helped land it on the soundtrack of the 1986 film Down and Out in Beverly Hills (which used the Stop Making Sense version). The live "Once in a Lifetime" was issued as a single in 1986, and it managed to scrape the very bottom of the charts, cementing the song's status as a cult classic rather than a popular success. The Stop Making Sense version of the song accentuates the expanded percussion section, and even if some of the crispness and alien quality of Eno's production are lost, the percolating groove makes up for it by creating a looser, more integrated ensemble feel. While it never quite became Talking Heads' signature song (there were too many high-quality candidates for just one to emerge), "Once in a Lifetime" does stand as a new wave classic and one of the most distinctive and memorable songs in the group's catalog, for its substance as well as its quirky style.