It was in this moment that Collins well and truly thundered into the 80s, introducing the world to the new drum sound that he and Padgham had pioneered. Loud and echo-laden, the drum fills Collins launches into see him channel his marital woes into an era-defining classic, heavy with deep-seated emotion and gravitas. “Anger, bitterness, hurt. All that stuff is in In The Air Tonight,” Collins said on the Face Value episode of the British TV documentary series Classic Albums, “and then finally losing your temper at the end when the drums come in.”
The inspiration: “The lyrics you hear for In The Air Tonight, I just sang. I opened my mouth and they came out”
There has been much speculation as to what In The Air Tonight is actually about. With its dark and haunting lyrics (“If you told me you were drowning/I would not lend a hand”), countless urban legends have sprung up claiming that the song was inspired by an incident in which Collins witnessed a man drowning, but did nothing to save him (even rapper Eminem has been guilty of spreading this myth, in his famous hit Stan). Astoundingly, however, the truth behind the song is far more mysterious.
“The lyrics you hear for In The Air Tonight, I just sang,” Collins revealed. “I opened my mouth and they came out.” The singer has refused to give credence to any conspiracy theory – such as one where he invited the drowning man’s murderer to a concert and then singled him out in the crowd – instead claiming the song’s lyrics are just an abstract expression of his rage following his split from his wife. “The verses have a bit of a storyline,” Collins admitted, “but there’s no link necessarily between them and the anger.”
Nevertheless, the sheer power of the words on In The Air Tonight – particularly when matched with its suspenseful synthscapes and doom-filled drum fills – are hugely evocative, so it’s hardly surprising that the song has led people’s minds to run wild. Not only were its lyrics a masterclass in cryptic storytelling, but, by pioneering and popularising a unique approach to producing drum effects, In The Air Tonight set the sonic standard for many of the best 80s songs.
The influence: “This song has become a stone around my neck, though I do love it”
Released on 9 January 1981 as Phil Collins’ debut solo single, In The Air Tonight peaked at No.2 in UK and No.19 in the US, selling over three million copies stateside and eventually being certified gold by the Recording Industry Association Of America. Its iconic music video, directed by Stuart Orme, received heavy airplay on MTV, featuring Collins singing to camera in a dark room while ghostly figures lurk outside his window, as well as showing him walking down a corridor full of strange doors.