A Deeper Look at the Meaning Behind “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“In The Air Tonight” is eerie, haunting, goosebump-inducing even. And who doesn’t love that iconic drum fill? 

Released in January 1981, “In The Air Tonight” was written by English drummer and singer/songwriter Phil Collins with co-producer Hugh Padgham. It was his first-ever solo single after serving as the lead vocalist for the rock band Genesis for several years. Safe to say, Collins had picked up a thing or two while performing with the Genesis rockers.

“In The Air Tonight” was also the lead single off of Collins’ debut album, Face Value. The song eventually charted at the number two position on the U.K. Singles chart and number 19 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. 

But what is it about this song that makes it so striking? 

The origins.

“In The Air Tonight” sounds haunting because, well, it is slightly haunted. Collins wrote this song after he and his first wife Andrea Bertorelli divorced, and the singer was haunted by the emotions that came rolling in afterward. 

“I wrote it after my wife left me,” Collins told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Genesis had done a tour that was far too long. She said to me, ‘We won’t be together if you do the next tour.’ I said, ‘I’m a musician. I have to go away and play. Just hold your breath when I’m over there.’ Then Genesis toured Japan. When I got back, she said she was leaving and taking the kids.”

After this jarring separation, Collins turned to songwriting. “One day I was working on a piece in D-minor, the saddest [key] of all. I just wrote a sequence, and it sounded nice. I wrote the lyrics spontaneously. I’m not quite sure what the song is about, but there’s a lot of anger, a lot of despair, and a lot of frustration,” he said

The lyrics.

Distraught and heartbroken, Collins sang his emotions into existence. The lyrics almost seem as if they were divined—they just spilled out of the singer. In an interview with Mix, Collins explained that he simply “opened [his] mouth and [the lyrics] came out.” He then recounted how he didn’t even write the lyrics down at first, but rather penned the lyrics on a piece of scrap paper after hearing his vocals back.

I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord
And I’ve been waiting for this moment, for all my life, oh lord
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord, oh lord

The drums and the drum solo/fill.

“In The Air Tonight” is the reason why we love playing the air drums. Just past the 3:40 minute mark, the anticipation of the track drops as the iconic drum fill changes the pace of the song. It’s a descending 10-note tom-tom break that changed Collins’ career.

“Barking seals, that’s what it sounds like,” he said in a recent interview.

Logistically, though, the drum fill was created using the recording tool talkback.

“One day, Phil was playing the drums and I had the reverse talkback on because he was speaking, and then he started playing the drums,” producer Padgham explained. “The most unbelievable sound came out because of the heavy compressor. I said, ‘My God, this is the most amazing sound! Steve, listen to this.’ But the way the reverse talkback was set up, you couldn’t record it. So I had the desk modified that night. I got one of the maintenance guys to take the desk apart and get a split output of this compressor and feed it into a patch point on the jack field so I could then patch it into a channel on the board. From there, we were able to route that to the tape recorder.”

In addition to the fill, Collins used a drum machine pattern from a Roland CR-78 drum machine. “You could eliminate certain sounds and program bass drums and snare drums, so I programmed a bass drum part into it, but basically the rest of it was already on there,” Collins said.

Urban legend.

Due to the dark lyrics, many urban legends and myths have bubbled up over “In The Air Tonight.” Particular scrutiny has been paid to this verse for lore musings:

Well, if you told me you were drowning
I would not lend a hand
I’ve seen your face before my friend
But I don’t know if you know who I am

Theories emerged online about how Collins wrote this song somewhat autobiographically after witnessing a man drown. Some even guessed that he refused to save a drowning man after discovering that man had an affair with his wife. The legends began to loom so large that they were injected into popular culture. In one instance, Eminem included a reference to the “In The Air Tonight” myths in a verse from his song “Stan“: You know the song by Phil Collins, “In the Air of the Night” / About that guy who could a saved that other guy from drowning / But didn’t, then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?

Collins has repeatedly denied these myths simply stating, “Nobody knows what the song is about, and I kind of like the mystery.”

Listen to the mystery of “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins below.

Photo Credit: Atlantic Records

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