Talking Heads was one of the premier punk bands of the 1970s and 1980s, and were considered by many to be leaders in the revolutionary new wave of punk music that was sweeping the US and the UK at the time. This was especially true in 1980, when they released the album Remain in Light. It was their fourth studio album, but certainly one of their most ambitious up to that point. One of its most notable features was the inclusion of “Once in a Lifetime,” a song that was named by talk radio station NPR as one of the most influential pieces of music to emerge from the United States during the twentieth century.
Punk music is often associated with raucous lyrics, sometimes more screamed than sung. It is also associated with a strong presence of drums and guitar. While Talking Heads found impressively innovative ways to utilize percussion and bass, their melodies were much more ambient than those of many other punk bands at the time. Their lyrics, while strong, were also easier on the ears than music by punk bands such as Black Flag. In similar fashion to punk bands such as The Clash, Talking Heads was known for basing their lyrics on the life lessons they had learned since beginning their career. For instance, “Once in a Lifetime” is about the midlife crisis that arises from growing older and having to let go of ideals held in youth.
It’s worth noting that Remain in Light followed their album Fear of Music, another album with songs that addressed the difficulties of living in the then-modern era. The lyrics in albums such as these are essentially timeless, applying to those in all walks of life who have had to grow and adjust to a modernizing world.
Of course, like all bands, the spirit of their success was in the music. The bass lines and percussion in their songs were more than just inventive; they somehow managed to mix with the Talking Heads’ ambient sound in an implausible fashion, combining beats and melodies that wouldn’t traditionally go together, and did not always appear to match the tone of the lyrics at first glance.
Not every song was some innovative take on music set to the strong lyrics of David Byrne. Sometimes, a band just has to be a band. While their producer, Brian Eno, certainly encouraged them to keep things fresh, they also managed to turn out barebones numbers that were not entirely innovative but still managed to have an impact on the music world. Byrne may have liked to write lyrics that commented on the artificial nature of our lives and of American culture, but he also knew the basics. Attempting to write an honest love song, he came out with “This Must Be the Place,” one of the band’s most popular songs ever.
Talking Heads might have been a new wave band, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t able to rock the essentials. As a band not only able to deliver quality standard numbers as well as unique and progressive hits, they made it big in the 1980s with albums such as Fear of Music, Remain in Light, and Speaking in Tongues. Given the quality of some of their breakout hits, it isn’t surprising that their legacy has far surpassed the 1980s, extending into today.
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