Entertainment & Arts

Is it better to fade away than burn out?

The Beatles
Image caption The Beatles were one of few bands to use the double fade - fading out only to fade back in again

That noted pop pundit Lao Tzu once said: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," acknowledging the importance of getting off to a good start.

Musicians have always known this.

From the suspended G chord at the beginning of A Hard Day's Night to the famous four note clarion at the start of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, grabbing them early is what every tunesmith wants to do.

But what then? What about three - or 30 - minutes later when you want to bring your mini or magnum opus to a satisfying end?

If you want to know how tricky this is, ask Jimmy Cliff.

Every time I play his reggae classic The Harder They Come on the radio, I wonder what happened in that Kingston studio at the end of the song.

It does not so much end as unravel like a badly-knitted sweater snagged on a barbed wire fence, amidst a general sense of deflation.

I imagine Jimmy and band looking at their watches, thinking that the sun must be over the yard-arm and fancying a rum punch on the corner.

Neil Young once sang "it's better to burn out than to fade away" but the option is there for the music maker to do so. It has been since the technology to fade a piece of music became available in the early part of the last century.

In the fustian era of mechanical recording, and in order to accommodate long pieces of orchestral and chamber music onto the sides of a 78rpm disc, the engineers would actually move the microphones away from the players.

With the coming of electrical recording, a fader could achieve the same effect but in a smooth and controlled fashion.

But the most famous orchestral fade was designed to mesmerise audiences in the actual concert hall rather than on record.

At the end of Neptune in his Planets Suite, Gustav Holst wanted to convey the sense that the mystical music was drifting off into the realms of the eternal and infinite.

His score stipulates that the women's choruses are "to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed", and that the final bar is "to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance".

Audiences were transfixed and the experience is still wonderfully effective in the modern concert hall.

The first commercial pop record to fade out is thought to be Open the Door, Richard by Jack McVea.

Based on an old vaudeville routine, it is the tale of a drunk waking the neighbours as he tries to get into his apartment. We leave the story as irate neighbours begin to wake and the police arrive.

Chase the fade

By the time pop music hit its stride in the 50s, though, the fade had become both commonplace and more practical in its application.

Swift, neat fades done by experts in the field gave the DJ the chance to prattle - sorry, impart erudite and relevant information - over the record's close. If time was really tight, he might manually fade the song himself, or "chase the fade" as it was known.

With pop musicians being the capricious, unorthodox lot they are, it was not long before they were taking advantage of new studio effects and messing about with the conventions.

Thus, Eight Days a Week by The Beatles fades in at the start.

And in their later, darker, stranger incarnation, Helter Skelter fades out and then, disconcertingly comes back, as does Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds.

Some Girls are Bigger than Others by The Smiths begins, fades out almost immediately and then comes back for no good reason. I have always thought that this sounds more like a stray elbow on the mixing desk than a judicious creative decision.

Most modern pop singles end rather than fade, maybe to stymie the impatient DJ and stop him curtailing the tune to give a big "shout-out" to someone out there.

A month or two back, I marvelled as Scottish band Teenage Fanclub faded out one of their songs manually in the studio whilst playing live by actually playing more and more quietly in a delicious diminuendo.

This was the first time I have ever seen this done and harking right back to Holst and moving the recording horn.

There is nothing new in rock and roll, they say. They are probably right.

Not Fade Away is on BBC Radio 4, Thursday 23 September, 1130 BST and will be available to listen again after broadcast on iPlayer.