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Pack of Lies: The Enduring Legacy (and Mystery) of Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight"

Kenneth Partridge
Phil Collins in Chicago, circa 1986.
Phil Collins in Chicago, circa 1986. / Michael Putland/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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The classic rock canon is packed with songs featuring epic drum fills. The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans” come to mind. There are also loads of great songs whose lyrics have spawned urban legends—just ask The Beatles. At the center of this Venn diagram sits "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins, a tune that’s inspired vigorous air-drumming and bizarre rumors for more than 40 years.

Released in January 1981, "In the Air Tonight" was Collins’s first solo single (previously, he had been the drummer and replacement lead singer for Genesis, the English prog-rock band initially fronted by Peter Gabriel). With its spooky-spare sound, thundering drum break, and oblique lyrics, “In the Air Tonight” sounded like nothing else on the radio. It reached No. 2 on the UK charts and No. 19 in America, and in the process announced Collins as a viable artist in his own right.

Many, many more hits followed, both for Collins and his increasingly pop-oriented incarnation of Genesis. But “In the Air Tonight” stuck around. As the ’80s progressed, the song received massive boosts from a flashy new cop show and a crazy rumor involving Collins and his supposed role in witnessing a drowning. All the while, fans kept drumming along in their cars.

In the decades since, superstar rappers, social media personalities, fictional Russian spies, and even Mike Tyson have helped to ensure that nobody forgets “In the Air Tonight.”

"That will outlive me, I think, that song," Collins aptly told Jimmy Fallon in 2016.

“Anger, Bitterness, and Hurt”

Collins wrote “In the Air Tonight” during a dark time in his life. He’d just split up with Andrea Bertorelli, his first wife, who moved out with their two children and the musician suddenly found himself alone at home with nothing to do. So he grabbed some gear—including a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer and a Roland CompuRhythm CR78 drum machine—and got busy writing new material.

"One of the songs was a moody thing with a bit of an atmosphere," Collins told Uncut in 2016. He started with a sparse drum machine beat, followed by some haunting synth chords. Rather than clutter up the composition, like Genesis might have done, Collins resolved to keep things simple. He stepped to the mic and freestyled some lyrics—virtually all of which made the finished version of “In the Air Tonight.” Collins claims he has “no idea” what any of the words mean.

“Obviously, having my wife leave me, and losing my two little ones, there was anger, bitterness, and hurt,” he said. “Those emotions are in the song, but in an abstract way. I have no idea what 'coming in the air tonight' means—apart from an impending darkness, possibly.”

When Collins wrote down the words he had ad-libbed, he used a piece of stationery belonging to the interior decorator he says his wife left him for. Bertorelli has since disputed this claim, insisting that Collins's "short fuse and preference for arguing" were the real reasons for the divorce.

Either way, it was an acrimonious split, and that filters into the sound of “In the Air Tonight.” In addition to the chilly synths, there are harsh, distorted chords—which Collins liked to an “electric razor”—from guitarist Daryl Stuermer. And then there’s the drum fill, which comes in at the 3:40 mark, just as the tension of the song reaches a breaking point. As with the lyrics, the iconic drum passage wasn’t something Collins fussed over. The original demo had the drums dropping in without fanfare. But in the studio, Collins improvised a little flourish, as drummers often do.

“We decided to keep that take, and it happened to have that drum fill in it,” Collins said. “It’s just become what I’m known for. But it was real luck."

It helped that Collins cut the track with producer Hugh Padgham, a proven partner in creating mammoth drum sounds. While working on Peter Gabriel’s self-titled 1979 album, Collins and Padgham discovered that Phil’s drums sounded incredible when recorded through the microphone that engineers used to converse with musicians on the other side of the studio glass. Such mics utilize heavy compression, which makes loud sounds quiet and quiet sounds loud. Padgham also ran the drums through a “noise gate,” which artificially cuts off recorded sounds right after they start. Thus was born gated reverb, the drum effect that would power “In the Air Tonight” and define pop music in the ’80s.

The lack of drumming for the first 3 minutes and 40 seconds of “In the Air Tonight” was a sticking point for Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary head of Atlantic Records, Collins’s label in America. Ertegun thought the song needed a clearer beat that listeners could understand, so he requested that Collins add in extra drums. They can be heard in the single version of the song, though the version on Collins’s Face Value album retains the original spartan feel.

“It’s not really a pop song, but you know, we weren’t interested in pop songs,” Padgham told Uncut. “We were much more interested in getting cool musicians on the record and making them sound good.”

Miami Vice and Urban Legends

"In the Air Tonight" came with an eerie music video directed by Stuart Orme. The clip features black-and-white close-ups of Collins that make him look a bit like the face on Mars.There’s also a super-creepy scene where Collins walks down a hallway filled with doors. The video went into heavy rotation on a fledgling cable network called MTV, which debuted in August 1981.

By 1984, the fast cuts, bright colors, and blaring rock music associated with MTV had begun to influence the wider worlds of film and television. Perhaps no TV show embodied the new aesthetic better than Miami Vice, which premiered in September 1984 with a pilot called “Brother’s Keeper.” In one famous sequence from the episode, “In the Air Tonight” plays as detectives Crokett and Tubbs—portrayed by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas—cruise through the streets of Miami at night in a Ferrari. (Collins’s involvement with Miami Vice didn’t end there. He wound up playing a con man in the season 2 episode “Phil the Shill.”)

Miami Vice helped cement “In the Air Tonight” in people’s memory banks. But what really ensured the song’s permanent place in the public imagination was the urban legend that began circulating sometime during the decade after the song came out. There are numerous versions of the story, but the most popular one goes like this: Sometime before writing “In the Air Tonight,” Collins saw someone drowning. Either because he was inebriated or busy calling for help, Collins was unable to rescue the person. But from his vantage point, Collins saw that someone else could have saved the person—only they didn’t. The person in the water died.

What Collins supposedly did next is pretty wild. Instead of calling the police, he learned the identity of the person who allowed the drowning to happen. He then invited the person to one of his concerts and gave them front-row tickets. Then, while performing “In the Air Tonight”—a song evidently written about the incident—he shined a spotlight on the guilty person and exposed their crimes in front of thousands of people.

It’s an incredible story, but unfortunately, it’s not even remotely true. “It's so frustrating,” Collins told the BBC, "because 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?”

It’s impossible to trace where, when, or how the legend began. But it likely has something to do with lyrics like, “Well if you told me you were drowning / I would not lend a hand.” Again, Collins was very upset about his divorce.

From “Stan” to Spies

Phil Collins performs in concert in 1985.
Phil Collins performs in concert in 1985. / Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Proof of the legend’s pervasiveness came in 2000, when rapper Eminem referenced the story in “Stan,” his groundbreaking song about a deranged fan. The lyrics take the form of letters being written to Eminem by the eponymous super-fan, and in the third verse, Stan tells his hero, "You know the song by Phil Collins, 'In the Air of the Night' / About that guy who coulda saved that other guy from drownin’ / But didn’t, then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?" Stan gets the name of the song slightly wrong, but all the basic elements are there.

The following year, rapper Lil' Kim sampled “In the Air Tonight” to create “In the Air Tonite,” her contribution to Urban Renewal, a Collins tribute album featuring hip-hop and R&B stars. The single wasn’t a big hit in America, but it fared well in other countries, including the UK, where it reached No. 26. As per the website WhoSampled, numerous other artists have sampled "In the Air Tonight," including 2Pac, DMX, and Sean Kingston.

Throughout the 2000s, video games became an important platform for popularizing music. In 2006, Rockstar Games introduced Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, a game set in the ’80s and heavily influenced by Miami Vice. Collins plays himself in the game and stars in a mission that requires players to save his life during a concert. Succeed, and you’re able to attend the show and watch a pixelated Phil perform “In the Air Tonight.”

In 2007, the song surfaced in a British commercial for Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars. The ad features a gorilla waiting patiently as “In the Air Tonight” plays. The camera slowly zooms out to reveal the ape is sitting at a drum kit. When the time comes, the gorilla bashes out the drum fill and continues thumping along for the remainder of the track. On the strength of the spot, “In the Air Tonight” returned to the UK charts, peaking at No. 14, and Cadbury’s sales increased by 9 percent. In 2015, it was voted the most popular commercial in UK history.

The decade ended with another high-profile showcase for “In the Air Tonight.” In a memorable scene from the 2009 comedy The Hangover, the main characters return to their hotel after a wild night in Vegas to find Mike Tyson blasting the Collins classic. The former heavyweight champ shushes them just before air-drumming along to the fill—his favorite part, naturally.

The makers of Family Guy love a good pop culture reference, and they’ve twice based jokes around “In the Air Tonight.” It turns up in the 2006 episode “Petergeist,” wherein Stewie sings the song while trapped in a TV set, and in the 2017 episode “The Peter Principal,” which opens with a conversation between the characters Joe and Bonnie about the drowning story and whether Phil is partially guilty, since he didn’t help the person himself.

In the 2013 pilot episode of the FX drama The Americans, “In the Air Tonight” plays during a scene where Russian spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings—played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys—dispose of a body and then have sex in a car. The episode is set in 1981, the same year the song came out.

TikTok and Beyond

“In the Air Tonight” was basically a TikTok song before the platform existed. Much of its appeal lies in the four-second drum break, a passage that’s ripe for recontextualizing on social media. In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to stay indoors and find new ways to amuse themselves, “In the Air Tonight” spawned its own TikTok challenge. Most of the videos involve people slamming kitchen drawers in cabinets in time with Collins's drums.

Later that year, the YouTube duo TwinsthenewTrend—brothers Tim and Fred Williams—went viral with their “In the Air Tonight” reaction video. The siblings had never heard the song prior to filming the clip and, predictably, the best part of the video comes at 4:56, as Collins unleashes his fill and the brothers lose their minds. “I ain’t never seen nobody drop a beat three minutes into a song,” Fred says.

That’s not the only “In the Air Tonight” content on YouTube. A little searching reveals cover versions by everyone from Lorde to Chris Daughtry to metal artist Leo Moracchioli. There are also drum tutorials and plenty of live performances by Collins, including two from Live Aid in 1985, when he famously crossed the Atlantic via the Concorde to play both the London and Philadelphia concerts.

During the stripped-down piano-and-vocal Philly rendition of “In the Air Tonight,” Collins pauses where the drum break would normally come in and lets the audience sing the “bum-bum, bum-bum, bum-bum, bum-bum, bum-bum” back to him. Were Collins to try that today, he might get an even louder response.

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