|"In the Air Tonight"|
Standard artwork (handwriting variant pictured); also used for the parent album Face Value
|Single by Phil Collins|
|from the album Face Value|
|B-side||"The Roof Is Leaking"|
|Phil Collins singles chronology|
"In the Air Tonight" is the debut solo single by the English drummer and singer-songwriter Phil Collins. It was released as the lead single from Collins's debut solo album, Face Value, in January 1981.
Collins co-produced the single with Hugh Padgham, who became a frequent collaborator in the following years. The song was an instant hit, quickly climbing to No. 2 on the UK Singles chart but was held off the top spot by the posthumous release of John Lennon's "Woman". It was also an international hit, achieving top 10 status in Australia, New Zealand and several European territories, reaching No. 1 in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. It peaked at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, and was later certified Gold by the RIAA, representing 500,000 copies sold. The song's music video, directed by Stuart Orme, received heavy play on MTV when the new cable music video channel launched in August 1981.
"In the Air Tonight" remains one of Collins' best-known hits, often cited as his signature song, and is especially famous for his drum break towards the end, which has been described as "the sleekest, most melodramatic drum break in history" and one of the "101 Greatest Drumming Moments". The song was ranked at number 35 on VH1's "100 Greatest Songs of the 80s" in 2006. In 2007, Mike Gruss, former columnist for The Virginian-Pilot, referred to the song as a "soft rock classic." The song received renewed attention in 2020, when twins Tim and Fred Williams published a popular video on YouTube that showed their initial reaction to the song.
Background and recording
Collins wrote the song amid the grief he felt after divorcing his first wife Andrea Bertorelli in 1980. In a 2016 interview, Collins said of the song's lyrics: "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." In a 1997 BBC Radio 2 documentary, the singer revealed that the divorce contributed to his 1979 hiatus from the band Genesis until they regrouped in October of that year to record the album Duke. Originally, Collins was going to include the song on Duke, but it was rejected by the band; Tony Banks later regretted the decision.
The lyrics of the song take the form of a dark monologue directed towards an unnamed person:
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
Well I was there and I saw what you did
I saw it with my own two eyes
So you can wipe off that grin
I know where you've been
It's all been a pack of lies
It has been described as being "at the vanguard of experimental pop" in 1981 and "a rock oddity classic", having been influenced by "the unconventional studio predilections of Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel". Musically, the song consists of a series of ominous chords played on a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 over a simple drum machine pattern (the Roland CR-78 Disco-2 pattern, plus some programming); processed electric guitar sounds and vocoded vocals, an effect which is increased on key words to add additional atmosphere. The mood is one of restrained anger until the final chorus when an explosive burst of drums finally releases the musical tension and the instrumentation explodes into a thunderous crescendo.
Collins has described obtaining the drum machine specifically to deal with personal issues relating to his divorce through songwriting, telling Mix magazine: "I had to start writing some of this music that was inside me". He improvised the lyrics during a songwriting session in the studio: "I was just fooling around. I got these chords that I liked, so I turned the mic on and started singing. The lyrics you hear are what I wrote spontaneously. That frightens me a bit, but I'm quite proud of the fact that I sang 99.9 percent of those lyrics spontaneously".
The song is known for its use of the gated reverb drum sound. Fellow musicians and journalists have commented on its use in the record. Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne called the drum fill "the best ever – it still sounds awesome", while music critic and broadcaster Stuart Maconie was quoted:
Musically, it's an extraordinarily striking record, because almost nothing happens in it ... It's the drum sound in particular that's amazing. You don't hear it at all for the first two minutes of the song ... then there's that great doo-dom doo-dom doo-dom comes in, and the drums come in half way through the song, setting the template for all the Eighties drum songs after that.
The means by which Collins attained the drum sound on this recording was long a source of mystery. The exact process was a result of serendipity: an unintended use of studio technology giving unexpectedly useful results.
In this case, the Solid State Logic 4000 mixing board had a "reverse talk-back" circuit (labelled on the board as "Listen Mic"). Normal "talkback" is a button that the mixing engineer has to press in order to talk to the recording musicians (the recording and the mixing parts of a studio are, otherwise, completely sonically isolated). Reverse talkback is a circuit (also button-activated) for the engineer to listen to the musicians in the studio. In order to compensate for sound level differences - people can be close to the reverse talkback microphone or far off - this circuit has a compressor on it, which minimises the differences between loud and soft sounds. While recording "Intruder" for his former bandmate Peter Gabriel's third solo album, at some point Collins started playing the drums while the reverse talkback was activated. Engineer Hugh Padgham was amazed at the sound achieved. Overnight, they rewired the board so that the reverse talkback could be recorded in a more formal manner. Later models of the SSL 4000 allowed the listen mic to be recorded with the touch of a button.
When recording engineer Padgham was brought in to help develop Collins' demos that would become Face Value they recreated the "Intruder" sound using the reverse talkback microphone as well as heavily compressed and gated ambient mics. Padgham continued working with Genesis for Abacab later in 1981 and the same technique (generally referred to as gated reverb) was used, and the powerful drum sound has become synonymous with later Genesis projects and Collins' solo career ever since.
The original single version of "In the Air Tonight" features extra drums that play underneath the song until the signature drum crash (referred to by fans as the "magic break") appears. These were added at the suggestion of Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun. In 2007, Collins wrote:
Ahmet came down to the final mix in the cutting room in New York ... The drums don't come in until the end but Ahmet didn't know that at this point, because on the demo the drums hadn't come in at all; it was only drum machine all the way. And he was saying, "Where's the down beat, where's the backbeat?" I said, "The drums come in in a minute." "Yeah, you know that and I know that, but the kids don't know that; you've got to put the drums on earlier." So we added some drums to the mix and put it out as a single.
Speaking about the song's rapid ascension in the music charts, Collins wrote the following in 2007:
It was a surprise. The single came in at No. 36, I did Top of the Pops with Dave Lee Travis, and in one of the down moments he said, "This record is going to be a top three." I didn't believe him, because it had been made so haphazardly, but the next week, there it was at No. 3. And then Mark Chapman shot John Lennon and that was that.
In 1984, the song was memorably used in a scene from the first episode of the television series Miami Vice, which film and television critic Matt Zoller Seitz cited as why the song has been stamped as "Property of Michael Mann" (the series' executive producer) for years, rarely being used in other screen works due to its indelible use in the series, akin to Martin Scorsese's signature use of songs by The Rolling Stones for his films.
An urban legend has arisen around "In the Air Tonight", according to which the lyrics are based on a drowning incident in which someone who was close enough to save the victim did not help them, while Collins, who was too far away to help, looked on. Increasingly embellished variations on the legend emerged over time, with the stories often culminating in Collins singling out the guilty party while singing the song at a concert. Collins has denied all such stories; he commented on the legends about the song in a BBC World Service interview:
I don't know what this song is about. When I was writing this I was going through a divorce. And the only thing I can say about it is that it's obviously in anger. It's the angry side, or the bitter side of a separation. So what makes it even more comical is when I hear these stories which started many years ago, particularly in America, of someone come up to me and say, "Did you really see someone drowning?" I said, "No, wrong." And then every time I go back to America the story gets Chinese whispers, it gets more and more elaborate. 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?
You know the song by Phil Collins, "In the Air of the Night" [sic]
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?
The music video (directed by Stuart Orme) animates the photograph of Collins's face from the cover of the Face Value album, slowly fading in through the introduction until it fills the screen, singing the first chorus. The video then cuts to Collins sitting in an empty room at night. Twice a spectral figure appears in the window, but only the second time does Collins get up to look at it, then is shown walking to the one door of the room.
Collins's face returns for the second chorus. He is then shown leaving the room and entering a hallway full of doors. The first one is locked, then the second opens and Collins sees himself looking at the window again, only now the spectre has turned into his own reflection.
The third door is locked, but as the fourth one opens, the drum break sounds and the viewer is returned to Collins's face again, this time in thermal coloring, which gradually reverts to black and white. Collins recedes into the darkness as the song repeats and fades.
"In the Air Tonight" remains a popular selection on classic rock radio stations. It is the song most often associated with Collins' solo career, and he has performed it at many events, including Live Aid, where he played the song on a piano on the same calendar day in both Philadelphia and London. He also performed the song at The Secret Policeman's Ball, which was his first live performance as a solo artist. "I remember doing 'In the Air Tonight' at Live Aid," he recalled, "and [Pete] Townshend saying, 'Are you going to do that fucking song again?' as it was the only one I ever played."
Single and credits
VSK102 UK Single Release (Martin H)
- "In the Air Tonight"
- "The Roof Is Leaking"
Sleeve includes a black and white 12 page cartoon storyboard drawn by Collins' brother Clive Collins.
UK and US single (1981)
- "In the Air Tonight" – 4:57
- "The Roof Is Leaking" – 3:36
12" German maxi-single (1981)
- "In the Air Tonight" (full-length version including the extra drums) – 5:34
- "The Roof Is Leaking" – 3:36
Japan CD single (1988)
- "In the Air Tonight" (extended)
- "In the Air Tonight" ('88 remix)
- "I Missed Again" (Album Version)
German CD single (1990)
- "In the Air Tonight" (extended version) – 7:33 (Additional production by Ben Liebrand)
- "In the Air Tonight" ('88 remix) – 5:07 (Remixed by Phil Collins and Hugh Padgham)
- "I Missed Again" – 3:42
Charts and certifications
- Phil Collins – lead vocals, drums, Roland VP-330 vocoder, CR-78 drum machine, Prophet-5 synthesizer, Rhodes piano
- Daryl Stuermer – guitar
- John Giblin – bass guitar
- L. Shankar – violin
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- Gruss, Mike (11 July 2007). "I've been Waiting for a theme song all my life". The Virginian-Pilot. Daily Break section, p. E1. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
... Phil Collins' 1981 soft-rock classic 'In the Air Tonight.'(subscription required)
- Williams, Tim and Fred (27 July 2020). "FIRST TIME HEARING Phil Collins - In the Air Tonight REACTION". Retrieved 13 August 2020.
- Garcia, Sandra E. (13 August 2020). "What Phil Collins and the YouTube Twins Tell Us About Music". The New York Times. Style section. Retrieved 13 August 2020.
Tim Williams and his twin brother, Fred, recently recorded themselves listening to the nearly 40-year-old hit "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins.(subscription required)
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the single's place in 1981 at the vanguard of experimental pop
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- BBC. "Sold on Song – Song Library – In the Air Tonight". www.bbc.co.uk.
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- * Zimbabwe. Kimberley, C. Zimbabwe: singles chart book. Harare: C. Kimberley, 2000
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- "Italian single certifications – Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight" (in Italian). Federazione Industria Musicale Italiana. Retrieved 3 June 2019. Select "2019" in the "Anno" drop-down menu. Select "In The Air Tonight" in the "Filtra" field. Select "Singoli online" under "Sezione".
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- "British single certifications – Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved 2 February 2016. Select singles in the Format field. Select Gold in the Certification field. Type In The Air Tonight in the "Search BPI Awards" field and then press Enter.
- "British single certifications – Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved 14 October 2018. Select singles in the Format field. Select Platinum in the Certification field. Type In The Air Tonight in the "Search BPI Awards" field and then press Enter.
- "American single certifications – Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved 2 February 2016. If necessary, click Advanced, then click Format, then select Single, then click SEARCH.
- The Singer and the Song, a "Learning English" episode from the BBC World Service, which includes a clip from the song and a recording of Collins reading part of the song's lyrics (in RealAudio)
- "Classic track: In the Air Tonight" About the lyrics and the drum sound.
- Lyrics of this song at MetroLyrics