“Songwriters reflect on where they’re from,” David Bridie says. “Your work is a reflection of your country and the way you feel about it, at its best.”
Throughout decades of making music, David Bridie has been applying a wide lens to where he’s from and how he feels about it.
This goes for his work with Not Drowning Waving and My Friend the Chocolate Cake, as well as his own solo albums, countless soundtrack projects and producing albums for prominent Indigenous and Melanesian artists.
“You look at music, creating a song and performing as an art form, but then the music industry has a very strong tacky side of it,” he continues. “And then there’s really strong statement stuff. ‘Once In A Lifetime’ straddled all those areas.”
Released in 1981, this Talking Heads hit made its mark as an instant classic. To David Bridie, who has had a long, varied and distinguished career, this song, and the album it’s from, provide him with the simple pleasure of enjoyment as a listener.
However, it also stimulates his keen producer’s ears, and speaks to his broader social and cultural interests.
“Here’s a song that ticks all the boxes as a pop song, but it had a really existential lyric about accumulating possessions and does it make you feel any better,” he says. “And it sampled preachers which David Byrne and Brian Eno continued in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
“Lyrically, it was really smart and interesting. Musically, it was influenced by a lot of African rhythms of Fela Kuti without appropriating them.
“A lot of the post-punk stuff that was coming out of the UK and Europe, there was a lot of African and Jamaican musicians involved in those bands and that’s what I really liked about the punk and post-punk movement, it had a social justice edge to it. It was also seeking new ways to be creative. It had a real strong purpose, so that was very influential.”
The song’s incredible video clip was a large part of its immediate appeal and penetrating presence for many of us. It was choreographed by Toni Basil (she of the 1982 mega hit ‘Mickey’) and featured an intense, sweat soaked, body shuddering performance by Byrne.
“You always remember the big suit, the chopping [action] up the arm and throwing the head back,” Bridie says.
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To his producer’s ears, there are many levels on which to appreciate this song.
“The keyboard at the beginning sounds like water, Tina Weymouth’s bass grooves like anything and it’s got these three power chords at the end,” he says.
“Brian Eno and David Byrne would talk about how some people would start on the one [beat] and some would start on the three [beat], it’s a build-up of little simple rhythms that sound really complex at the end.
“He would get all the musicians to play and he would start them off in a different part of the song and they wouldn’t hear what the other members would play – when they were recording the percussion parts – so there’s polyrhythmic stuff going on. It’s got this really interesting sound texture going on in the rhythm section.
“It still works. You hear songs and you go ‘that’s really dated’, but ‘Once in a Lifetime’ – actually the whole of Remain in Light – would be a desert island disc for me.”
David Bridie has also been a passionate and vocal advocate for the rich culture, arts and politics of our many Oceanic neighbours, particularly through his Wantok Musik label. His great hope is that Australians will come to realise the wonders and wisdom that are on offer right on our doorstep. Something reflected in the song choice he’s made for Don’t Look Back.
“At the same time that ‘Once in A Lifetime’ came out, a lot of people, whether it be in the counterculture movement or in universities in the United States, they knew all about Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico because that was their immediate region,” he says. “There was political uprisings going on, culturally fascinating stuff going on, different alcohols, a place to go and travel to.
“Melanesia’s had all that for Australia. There’s been awful but important wars in East Timor, in West Papua it’s still going on. The leader of the Kanak movement in New Caledonia was assassinated in 1984, that’s not long ago.
“If you’re into bird life or nature walks, mountain climbing, surfing, musically and culturally it’s fascinating. Like all places its very multi-layered, the wise men and women up there are really wise, they’ve got a take on the world that’s fascinating.
“So to go and explore and listen to their story, I think should be part of being an Australian. It’s perhaps more important to engage with our First Nations people here, but Melanesia is a part of our world, whether we like it or not.”
Hear more about the song that changed it all for David Bridie on Don't Look Back.