Behind the Wheel of a Large Automobile

‘Once in a Lifetime’ was released in 1980 on the Talking Heads fourth album Remain in Light, where they were all were operating at the top of their game.  The members of Talking Heads David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison used a more democratic process on this song, trying something new by all contributing to the writing along with the track’s producer, Brian Eno, instead of leaving everything up to Byrne.  Eno and the Talking Heads developed ‘Once in a Lifetime’ through extensive jams, inspired by Afrobeat musicians such as Fela Kuti.  Bassist Tina Weymouth came up with a striking bass line, and the band took that lick and extrapolated it, slowly building a piece around it.  After weeks of jamming, David Byrne and producer Brian Eno came in to the studio to start adding arrangements and lyrics to the music pieces to develop music that created a trancelike state, capturing the manic monotony of middle-class existence.

‘Once in a Lifetime’ peaked at #14 on the UK Singles Chart and was certified silver in the UK in 2018, but it didn’t break into the Billboard Hot 100 on its initial release.  NPR web music magazine named this song one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lists it as one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll”.  David Byrne’s lyrics and vocals were inspired by preachers delivering sermons.  This song deals with the futility of not being happy with the things you have and the lyrics were written in a stream-of-consciousness approach, with one thought leading to the next.  The song features a water theme, with water giving life to everything around us, but also holding us down possibly causing us to drown.  Water represents how life is flexible, as it is constantly flowing under your feet.  You can try saving some water for later but if you try taking water from the bottom of the ocean, it won’t make any difference, as more water will still be down there, so this act is meaningless and fruitless.  At the bottom of the ocean, water is cold, you can’t breathe and the pressure will crush you.  Trying to remove the water at the bottom of the ocean, is an analogy standing for the fact that there is no way to stop life from moving on.

The lyrics relate to many average citizens who are not living their lives, because they just let the days pass by and they only worry about life when they run out of money.  These people exist, but their lives are like a hamster on a wheel, bot resembling reality.  The beautiful house, this beautiful wife and his large car have this guy wondering how he ever got into this situation.  In the refrain of the song a very dull repetition of “same as it ever was” occurs 8 times.  This gives the listener a hint at how this guy’s life has become monotonous and routine.  He has trouble believing what is going on and he exclaims, “My God!  What have I done?”

This song touches on how people can operate being half awake, or on autopilot, or not necessarily acting under their own accord, and end up with a house and family and job and everything that the American Dream allows then to have, but they don’t have a clue as to how they accumulated all of this stuff.  At the end of the day, he doesn’t know how he got to this point in his life by following a preset path that destiny took him to.  This leaves him living his life in apathy having these shocking half-hearted expressions that cast self-doubt that his life is real.  He feels that if he stops moving and looks at where he is in his life, that all he will see is a world that is nothing more than a fantasy which leads to his complacency.  He is left with existential questions and all he can do is to embrace the absurdity of life.

David Byrne said that most of lyrics were taken from evangelists that he heard on the radio while he was taking notes and picking up phrases, he thought were interesting.  He thought he might be fascinated with the middle class, because it seems so different from his life, and from what he does.  The music video, co-directed by Toni Basil, has Byrne dancing erratically over footage of religious rituals which were inspired by different trances in church and trances involving snakes.  Byrne’s moves resemble spasms like a malfunctioning robot might do and they are interspersed with him gesturing in Martian sign language, which went over big on MTV.

Talking Heads was an American New Wave and avant-garde band formed in 1975 in New York City and active until 1991.  The band comprised David Byrne (vocals and guitar), Chris Frantz (drums), Tina Weymouth (bass) and Jerry Harrison (keyboards and guitar).  Auxiliary musicians also regularly made appearances in concert and on the group’s albums.  The New Wave style of Talking Heads combined elements of punk, art rock, avant-garde, pop, funk, world music, and Americana.  Frontman and songwriter David Byrne contributed whimsical, esoteric lyrics to the band’s songs, and emphasized their showmanship through various multimedia projects and performances.

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

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

And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

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

Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was

Water dissolving and water removing
There is water at the bottom of the ocean
Under the water, carry the water
Remove the water at the bottom of the ocean!
Water dissolving and water removing

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again into silent water
Under the rocks and stones, there is water underground

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

You may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say yourself
“My God! What have I done?”

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again into the silent water
Under the rocks and stones, there is water underground

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

Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Look where my hand was
Time isn’t holding up
Time isn’t after us
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Letting the days go by
Same as it ever was
And here the twister comes
Here comes the twister

Letting the days go by (same as it ever was)
Same as it ever was (same as it ever was)
Letting the days go by (same as it ever was)
Same as it ever was
Once in a lifetime
Let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by

Written for Song Lyric Sunday where the theme is Automobile, Car, Jalopy, Vehicle.

17 thoughts on “Behind the Wheel of a Large Automobile

  1. I’ve always really liked this song, but never really thought about it or the lyrics. You’ve done a really good write up about it, and gives so much more meaning to the song. Thanks! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife (with chopping down the arm motion)😂😂😂
    I love this song!! Did you see there’s a Muppet version with Kermit doing the video stuff? Pretty funny.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. They were an acquired taste for me and then out of the blue I started to like them and bought some of their earlier albums when this song came out. Good post Jim..

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, Remain In Light is a phenomenal album indeed. The Once In a Lifetime video is second only to Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ in sheer vision and technology in my opinion.

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