Whenever I meet a record producer, I always pester him (they’re pretty much always men) about that strangest of pop-music phenomena: the end-of-the-song fade.
Why, I always want to know, does this trick exist? And where did it come from?
The late Joe Saraceno disagreed with me that the fade was just a lazy way out of a pop song.
“A lot of times when you were in the studio recording an album, you didn’t know what the single was going to be,” said Joe, who produced The Ventures and a ton of other rock acts. “The label liked it if they could pull a song from an album that didn’t need a remix. So I tried to treat every track like it was a single. And hit singles all faded out at the three-minute mark.”
It was all about radio, Joe thought. Programmers had decided that no one liked a song that lasted more than three minutes, and DJs needed a fadeout to signal that the tune was ending, so they could talk over the fade about the song coming up next.
The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.” Marianne Faithfull’s “Broken English.” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Blondie’s “Rapture.” The pop-song fade is so ubiquitous, most of us don’t even notice it. But the idea that a song never actually ends and is somehow, somewhere still playing, has always struck me as plenty weird.
Ending a song with a gentle decrease in volume became common in the 1950s and was the musical rule of thumb for nearly half a century. Before then, fading a song would have been more challenging, as studio performances were etched directly onto a disc by a needle vibrated by musical sound waves. Once studios began recording onto magnetic tape in the mid-1950s, post-production fadeouts were a snap, dialed down with sound board knobs and sliders.
Done well, a fade can be a kind of a farewell gift. As it’s leaving us, the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” offers a whole new verse; the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” takes a vulgar (and hilarious) turn in the final moments of its single edit.
In Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, his critical history of The Beatles, music critic Ian MacDonald writes about how the Fab Four revolutionized the fadeout, which they began using after they stopped touring in 1966 and no longer needed to re-create the cold endings of their songs onstage. Of course, the lads would never stoop so low as a tossed-off fade; the final chord in “A Day in the Life” rings for nearly a minute, and the outro of “Hey Jude” begins its sonic disappearance a full minute before its windup.
But why do it in the first place?
“There may be many reasons for the fade out at the end of a song,” music historian Nolan Porterfield said in a Billboard interview a few years ago. “But I don’t think it has much to do with the limitations of the format. ‘Can’t think of an ending’ may be as good a reason as any. ‘Because I like the way it sounds’ is also a contender.”
Recording engineer Al Schmitt, who mixed Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” in 1961, was more blunt: “Most times it was because the arranger didn’t have an ending,” he told New Musical Express in the ’80s.
In that NPR interview, engineer Lou Gonzales thought the fade was meant to imply infinity. “We did it because it sounded good,” he said. “But also it meant ‘this is a song that never ends.’”
Maybe. In Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation, music theorist David Huron writes, “With a fade-out, music manages to delay closure indefinitely. The ‘stop’ gesture is replaced by a gesture toward the infinite.”
But the pop music fade did diminish — for a while, anyhow. In the 1980s, the advent of album-oriented rock (AOR) radio formats and a trend in alt-rock bands who aspired to a more honest musical aesthetic killed the fade. Like The Beatles, these guys were trying to replicate their live sound, leaving producers to work harder at arranging cold closes.
The fade remains a trick in many a producer’s bag, though streaming culture has put listeners in charge. In the old days, no one was getting up from their beanbag chair to cross the room, lift the tonearm, and advance it a few grooves to the next track when that lazy fade signaled the end of the song. But today, one can skip to what’s next with a button once a song starts to whisper.
I guess I just like things to have nice, tidy endings. “But no one was asking you,” Jerry Greenberg told me last year over coffee in a Scottsdale cafe. Jerry is the former president of Atlantic Records. He did the edit on Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and the fade on “Roundabout,” a chartbuster that broke the band Yes in 1971.
“Radio wanted songs that were three minutes or less and faded out at the end,” he told me between sips of latte. “It was my job to provide radio with what they wanted. And it was your job to hear that fadeout so often, you stopped noticing it.”