Thursday, April 27, 2006

Not Fade Away

Something that really bugs me - songs that fade out.

I don't know when this started, but I'm guessing it's with radio and recorded media. Because it's pretty difficult to perform a fade out live on stage. I'm always moved to laughter when I see some pop act on TV performing live (read: miming). The dance moves are rehearsed, the lip-synching how come nobody ever noticed that, come the end of the track, the poor singer has to stand there mouthing to a microphone while their voice gets lower and lower?

This is presumably WHY I don't like the fade out - because it doesn't make any attempt to sound like a real, live performance.

When music tracks are mixed down, there's usually some effort to imply that the singer and musicians are really doing what they're doing; more specifically that they sang the song in one go. You try to make it sound like the track isn't pieced together from various takes. Let the listener hear the singer take breath, not come in again so quickly that they couldn't physically have done it.

But come the end of the song...ah, sod it. We've versed, chorused and middle-eighted ourselves out. To hell with a solid conclusion, we'll just ramble on until people stop listening. Fade out.

And yet you see these performers live - really live, or at least in live concert footage - and someone, somewhere has realised the problem. Suddenly the track has a solid conclusion. Because it's the only way the band, the singer, the dancers can work.

So how come nobody mentions this when recording the track?

I guess some of it has to do with radio - it gives DJs something to waffle over, makes things less abrupt. Plus there may be an off-air piracy issue - a solid ending makes it easier to tape the track cleanly. No DJ waffle.

Only...well, is anyone recording off air any more? Isn't digital piracy really where it's at these days when it comes to illegal music recordings?

I was going to say that you don't get this anywhere else. Books and movies don't just keep going until the steam runs out. But sometimes, if we're being honest, they kinda do.

How many times have the codas for movies gone on too long? Everything from Return of the King to Schlinder's List. The story ends, and yet here we still are, reinforcing the themes, making sure all the characters are neatly tidied away.

Isn't this just a fade out of a different hue?

Not quite, actually.

I had a film lecturer once who hated the final scene of The Commitments. Jimmy does his voiceover, tidies all the characters away in a nicely cut and shot coda that lets you know just what became of everyone. He hated it. Why not finish outside the nightclub? Wilson Pickett's limo shows up - he came after all, but too, too late! - and drives off. Jimmy and his merry band missed out on greatness by minutes.

Me, I like the coda. You can have too many, sure, can bang on too long. But without it, it's brutal, harsh.

So maybe THAT'S why the music fades out. Because anything else seems harsh. And, indeed, some of the live tracks you hear with the newly-added full-stop DO feel brutally cut off.

The trick - in films, in books, and in music - is to find a coda that gees you up, that reinforces your love of what's gone before without affecting it. I adore 'new location' movie codas - Blade completes his mission, then cut to Moscow and he's off on a new one. The sword comes out and - hard cut. End of film.

I love films that end like this. Back to the Future did it, and that's one of the best movie screenplays ever. (Name one other time a sci-fi-action-comedy got an Oscar nomination!) I love it when people get to the end and close lids, car boots, doors. (Hey, now we're talking - The Godfather. Best. Ending. Ever. And I can't tell you how many TV shows since I've seen that have nicked the door-closing-on-a-formerly-trusted-friend tag.)

Still, why shouldn't the Star Wars guys be given medals and applause at the end of Episode IV? It mirrors the audience's feeling. It works.

So, like a coda, and love a solid The End moment...but hate a fade away.


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