Phil Collins has had many hits, but few have reached the fame of 1981’s In The Air Tonight. The solo single debuted on his first solo album and climbed to No. 2 on the UK Singles chart. While it remains one of Collins’ signature tracks, the song’s meaning has been surrounded by rumor and legend for decades. So what was the meaning behind In The Air Tonight, and what inspired it?
Meaning & Inspiration for the Song
The meaning of In the Air Tonight has been hotly debated ever since it debuted. The song was born out of Collins’ grief after divorce. He and his first wife, Andrea Bertorelli, had finalized their divorce the year prior. Collins would say, years later, that he had written the lyrics spontaneously without knowing what the song was about. His anger, despair, and frustration permeate the track in an emotional avalanche that is simply mesmerizing.
Collins also later explained that his divorce from Bertorelli was the cause of his hiatus from the band Genesis for part of 1979. Collins had initially planned to release In the Air Tonight on Genesis’ album, Duke.
The Musical Style
Collins leaned heavily into experimental early 1980s pop music with In the Air Tonight. The result was a rock oddity classic that drew inspiration from unconventional musicians such as Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel. The song, often described as one of the best soft rock tracks in history, has greatly influenced the genre.
In The Air Tonight was noted for its ominous sequential chords played over a Roland CR-78 Disco-2 drum machine pattern. Electric guitar and vocoded vocals, strategically increased for added power, seal the deal. Together, these elements flawlessly communicate a controlled anger leading to an explosive drum burst in the final chorus.
The drum machine, too, had its roots in Collins’ divorce. The singer initially bought it to help him during that time of emotional upheaval and increasingly turned to it to process his feelings during songwriting sessions. Collins improvised lyrics during these sessions, experimenting with chords as he went. These spontaneous practices resulted in the lyrics that became In The Air Tonight.
Initial Release & Reception
The song’s massive success was a complete surprise to the singer, who watched it climb to the top three worldwide charts. He later expressed the opinion that the time of the song’s release was a time of chaos and unpredictability (the track was notably released within weeks of John Lennon’s murder). Collins felt that this era of chaos was relevant in popularizing In The Air Tonight, a song of frustration and despair.
In Urban Legend
Over the years, a strange urban legend has developed around In The Air Tonight. It states that the song’s lyrics were inspired by a drowning incident that Collins witnessed. According to the legend, the singer helplessly looked on, too far away to help, as the victim flailed for help; meanwhile, another person watched and did nothing.
The story has been embellished further over the years, sometimes including an account of Collins recognizing the guilty party in the middle of a concert and stopping the performance to call them out.
The singer has repeatedly said that these stories are all untrue, denying ever witnessing a person drowning or experiencing a similar event as an inspiration for the song.
“I don’t know what this song is about,” Collins said in an interview with the BBC. “When I was writing this I was going through a divorce. And the only thing I can say about it is…it’s the angry side, or the bitter side of a separation. It’s so frustrating, ’cause this is one song out of all the songs probably that I’ve ever written that I really don’t know what it’s about, you know?”
Nevertheless, the myth continues; it has been regularly referenced in popular culture. The song Stan by Eminem describes the urban legend in full, including the mythical concert call-out. It was also referenced in the show Family Guy, in a scene where two characters are arguing about the lyrics.
Part of the song’s perennial popularity is due in part to the music video, which helped establish In The Air Tonight as a classic of soft rock. The music video was played heavily on MTV and released on home video in 1983. It was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Video, Short Form.
The music video depicts an animated photo of Collins’ face, used on the cover of Face Value, as it slowly fills the screen. After the first chorus, the video cuts to the singer alone in an empty room at night. A specter appears in the window, with Collins noticing and examining it.
The singer walks to the room’s only door, with his face returning for the second chorus. He leaves the room to find a hallway full of doors. The first being locked, Collins tries the second. He here sees himself looking out the window, but the specter is now his own reflection. The third door is locked like the first, while the fourth opens.
At this moment, the famous drum break drops and Collins’ face returns to the foreground in thermal coloring. Slowly, it changes to a black and white image. His window reflection is superimposed on his face with the appearance of water. The song fades out as the singer recedes into darkness.
In The Air Tonight is regarded as a major highlight of Collins’ solo career, and he continues to perform it regularly at live concerts. He sang it during his first live solo performance at The Secret Policeman’s Ball and famously played it on the same day in both London and Philadelphia.
It has also become a staple on classic rock radio stations. Notably, the single version of the song incorporates drums earlier than the album version. Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records was concerned listeners wouldn’t stick with the song long enough to hear the drum drop. Collins thought this unnecessary but accepted it for the single debut as a compromise.
The Infamous Drum Beat
In the Air Tonight contains one of the most renowned drum beats of all time. The gated reverb drum sound has been commended by critics, fans, and other musicians alike. Some have even called it the best drum fill ever in a major rock song. Halfway through the song, the drums become a blatant and essential part of the music. It had a lasting impact on music in the 1980s down to the present day.
Collins created the drum fill using a Solid State Logic SL 4000 mixing board with a reverse talk-back circuit. Playing the drums through this setting created the unique sound the song is famous for. This was as a result of Collins accidentally playing drums through the reverse talk-back in a prior recording session. The group required the board overnight to ease the recording process. This was later incorporated into the designs of SSL 4000s, which were updated to easily record the listen mic.
In The Air Tonight was an international hit, reaching No. 1 on charts in Germany, Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland; it climbed to the Top 10 elsewhere in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. In the US, it was listed at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 9 on the Hot Rock Songs chart.
Later, it became a favorite for film and television use, first appearing on the soundtrack of 1983’s Risky Business starring Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay. The following year, it was featured in the pilot episode of Miami Vice and became intrinsically linked to the show for its run; in the 2006 film adaptation of the television show, the song is featured as a cover version performed by Nonpoint.
The song later received a platinum certification for having sold three million copies. In The Air Tonight has been called Collins’ signature song, marked by his stylistic drums and powerful vocals. Among its other many accolades, it has been listed on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Its enduring popularity may be attributed in part to the haze of urban legend surrounding it, but ultimately it comes down to the pioneering instrumentals and Collins’ own powerful performance. It is considered a landmark track in the development of experimental pop.
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