The Non-Expert

Not Fade Away

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we go back through our priest’s record collection to find out when the music died.

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Question: Why do most songs on records end with fade-outs? It just seems like a copout to me, since the band could just end the song in a more planned way or something instead of just turning down the volume. —Fred W.

Answer: As soon as I read this question, I was certain I knew the answer.

In 1922, the Department of Commerce prohibited large, commercial radio stations from playing recorded music. New technology always puts a paranoid buzz in someone’s bonnet and I guess people were afraid radio had the potential to put professional musicians out of work. Unfortunately, as the career of Kenny Loggins has shown, it didn’t work out that way.

The Federal Communications Commission eventually relaxed the rules but still required radio hosts to disclose when music was coming from a recording instead of being played by a live orchestra crammed into the studio like Earth Wind and Fire on TRL. This was where I thought it added up. A fade-out at the end of a song would be a cue to the listener that she was hearing a record and not a roomful of professional band geeks blowing ever more softly into their flugelhorns. It would also provide a convenient opportunity for the announcer to make his legally mandated disclaimer.

Just to be sure, I checked with a few people who might know for sure.

‘That’s just frigging stupid,’ said Pat, a professional musician.

‘Stupid,’ agreed Jim, a recording engineer.

The fade-out didn’t become popular until much later, they explained, in the late 50s or early 60s. ‘None of that old Big Band, jazz-singer stuff ended with a fade-out,’ Pat said. ‘The fade didn’t catch on until rock-and-roll.’

Throughout the late 50s and 60s, conventional wisdom said a song would never be played on the radio if it clocked in over three minutes. The fade-out gave producers (and record execs) extra control after the musicians had left the studio to score some Malaysian Super Skunk, which was being sold in the street from duffel bags by G.I.’s returning from ‘Nam. If the song was a sure hit but finished at 4:06, the producer just dropped it out in the middle of the chorus. When the band returned for the final mix, they were too stoned to notice and contractually prohibited from doing anything about it if they did.

My own record collection is far from complete, but, true enough, the earliest instance of a fade I can find is on ‘Lean Baby,’ a terrible Sinatra tune about dating skinny women recorded in 1953, some 13 years before his marriage to an emaciated Mia Farrow. It’s a now familiar technique, with Frank’s ‘do, do, dos’ sounding farther and farther away before diminishing into nothing, but, as Pat suggested, it was also an anomaly for records of the period.

An informal listening of chart-making tunes shows the fade-out gaining popularity through the early sixties until 1965 when three-quarters of number-one records employed a fade at the end. These results are skewed somewhat by the popularity of Motown during this period; Berry Gordy, apparently, hated to hear any song end.

Jim, the recording engineer, thinks this was the point: ‘There’s an aesthetic to it. When you fade-out on the chorus, it sounds as if the song goes on forever. It’s eternal. The listener is just dropping in on a few minutes of a performance that never ends.’

[Okay, forget everything I’ve written before this paragraph and anything I’m going to write after it; this is all you need to know. The Baby Boomers were fond of their vinyl soul LP’s, sure, but those of us born since The Graduate—and who now swoon over the films of Wes Anderson—have a different relationship to music than our parents, or even our older brothers and sisters. For us, music is omnipresent. A wall-to-wall soundtrack. We listened to it when we did our homework, or washed the dishes, or worked in the yard. We had so many discs under the passenger seats of our cars, they had to move the CD player to the trunk. Sony developed the Walkman for us, then the Discman, but still it wasn’t good enough so Apple gave us the iPod. Now we take on the RIAA because music is like water to us—we bathe in it, cocoon in it—and the music industry, right or wrong, wants to keep its hand on the spigot. Record companies employed the fade-out to convince us the music is always on, and now they’re pissed off because we no longer think that’s a metaphor.]

By the end of the 60s, the three-minute rule had been shattered by ‘Hey Jude’ and lesser tunes, but the gimmick had become entrenched. In 1969, two in three chart-toppers still vanished into the AM static like Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains into the Moroccan fog. [Incidentally, I compiled these stats by actually listening to the songs. In college I knew this priest who was really into 60s music. He had original 45s or album cuts of every top-10 hit from about 1955-70. I borrowed all the number ones from the best years and made tapes. Sadly, you can’t even tell a story anymore about a teenager going through a priest’s record collection without it sounding dirty.] As album-oriented rock became the radio format of choice, DJ’s cross-faded ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ and ‘Carry On My Wayward Son’ at will. The fade became part of our musical vocabulary and not a single person gave it another thought until you brought it up just now.

If you’re determined to do something about it, your options are few. You could become an iconoclastic record producer known for Albini-esque, anti-fade rants (‘Imagine a trench four feet wide and nine feet deep, filled with decaying, runny shit. Now imagine the Beach Boys harmonizing on ‘Help Me Rhonda’ as a bunch of suits from Capitol Records force their heads down slowly into the sea of feces’). Or you could sit by your radio and rage against the end of each song, turning up the volume as the tunes decay. This requires diligence, however, as well as some fast, counterclockwise knob-turning action before the opening bass line on the next track cracks your skull against the headrest.

Better yet, you can boycott tunes that fade on you, grabbing only the MP3 singles that end the way you like. That’s right, turn your illegal downloading from felony theft to noble protest: How can you buy the albums when media monopolies take advantage of artists doped up on the leafy, poisonous residue of an unnecessary war and force bastardized art on an ignorant public at inflated prices, when these ill-gotten gains only pay for the poisonous weed that dopes up the artists, and so on.

And when you burn that next CD, turn off the three-second gap after each track. There will be no more silences for you, my friend. Not even a breath between songs. The mix always will be full. The levels high. The spigot open.