Stupid Question ™
Sept. 15, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: What was the first song to fade out at the end?
—Dennis, Columbus, Ohio
A: It is of course impossible to say exactly—there have been too many recordings over the years, and too many of them lost.
More importantly, the exact aesthetic and/or technical reasons for the fade-out are unclear. It wasn’t always a quick song-ender or DJ segue convenience.
Bill Haley’s cover version of “Rocket 88” (1951), often considered the first rock song, fades out to indicate the titular car driving away. There are claims that the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” (recorded 1964) was the first song to use the reverse effect—fade-in. (It also fades out.)
Both songs were influential hallmarks of modern music. But both fade-in and fade-out were used together long before to simulate the sound of a marching band passing by the listener.
The earliest such recording anybody could name for me is an 1894 78 rpm record called “The Spirit of ’76,” a narrated musical vignette with martial fife-and-drum that gets louder as it “nears” the listener and quieter as it “moves away.”
The fade-out as a simulation of a moving sound source seems to continue right up to “Rocket 88.” But other examples aren’t so obvious (though fade-out may always imply that the song continues forever and we’re only passing by it for a few minutes).
The oldest true songs with fade-out pointed out to me by 78 record fans bear no obvious relationship to movement. One is “Barkin’ Dog” (1919) by the Ted Lewis Jazz Band. Another contender is “America” (1918), a patriotic piece by the chorus of evangelist Billy Sunday.
Interestingly, some composers of this era wrote music that was supposed to be performed in a way that evoked a fade-out (typically implying motion). A major example is Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” (1914-17), which ends with a repeating, gradually quieter choral phrase and the instruction, “The sound is lost in the distance.”
By the early 1930s longer songs were being put on both sides of records, with the piece fading out at the end of Side One and fading back in at the beginning of Side Two. Records at the time held only about two to five minutes of music per side. The segue allowed for longer songs (such as Count Basie’s “Miss Thing”), symphonies and live concert recordings.
However, shorter songs continued to use the fade-out for unclear reasons—for example, Fred Astaire’s movie theme “Flying Down to Rio” (1933).
Even using fade-out as a segue device doesn’t seem obvious, though we certainly take it for granted today.
As a film buff, I have a gut feeling that movies were an influence here.
Fade-ins and fade-outs are cinematic devices that begin and end scenes—film language that developed at the same time as these early recordings.
The term “fade-out” itself is of cinematic origin, appearing in print around 1918. And jazz, a favorite of early records, was a popular subject of early movies, too.
But I’ll have to fade out without connecting all the dots.