In the Air Tonight

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"In the Air Tonight"
Phil Collins InTheAirTonight.jpg
Single by Phil Collins
from the album Face Value
B-side "The Roof is Leaking"
Released 9 January 1981[1]
Recorded Townhouse Studios
London, 1980
Length 5:34 (album version)
4:57 (single edit)
Writer(s) Phil Collins
Phil Collins singles chronology
"In the Air Tonight"
"I Missed Again"

"Separate Lives"

"In the Air Tonight"

"A Groovy Kind of Love"

"You Touch My Heart"

"In the Air Tonight"

"(Love Is Like a) Heatwave"
Audio sample
file info · help

"In the Air Tonight" is the debut single by English singer-songwriter/drummer Phil Collins. It was released as the lead single from Collins' 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.[2] It was also an international hit, peaking at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States and No. 1 in the Netherlands.[citation needed] It 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. It remains one of Collins' best-known hits and is especially famous for his drum break towards the end, which has been described as "the sleekest, most melodramatic drum break in history".[3][4][5]

Background and recording[edit]


Collins wrote the song amid the grief he felt after divorcing his first wife, Andrea, in 1979. 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."[6] In a 1997 BBC Radio 2 documentary, the singer revealed that the divorce contributed to his 1979 hiatus from Genesis until the band regrouped in October of that year to record the album Duke.

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"


The recording is notable for its atmospheric production and macabre theme. 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".[7] Musically, the song consists of a series of ominous chords played by 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 releases the musical tension, and the instrumentation builds to a thundering final chorus.

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."[8] 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."[9]

Drum sound[edit]

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. – Stuart Maconie[10]

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 (labeled 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 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 minimizes the differences between loud and soft sounds. While recording "Intruder" for his ex-bandmate Peter Gabriel's third solo album, at some point Collins started playing the drums while the reverse talkback was activated. Engineer Hugh Padgham and his friend Jeffrey were 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.[8]

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:[11]

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.

Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne has called the drum fill "the best ever – it still sounds awesome".[5]

In 2007, Mike Gruss, former columnist for The Virginian-Pilot, referred to the song as a "soft rock classic."[12]

Urban legend[edit]

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.[13] 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?[14]

The urban legend is referenced in the song "Stan" by Eminem.[15] The reference is contained in the following lyrics:

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?

In popular culture[edit]

"In the Air Tonight" remains a popular selection on many classic rock radio stations. It is the song most often associated with Collins' solo career, and he has performed versions of it at many events, including at Live Aid, where he played the song on a piano on the same calendar day in both Philadelphia and London.[16] He also performed the song at The Secret Policeman's Ball, which was his first live performance as a solo artist.

"In the Air Tonight" has been licensed repeatedly for use in films, television and advertisements for various products.

It was used in the train sequence of the 1983 film Risky Business and appeared on the soundtrack album.[17]

In 1984 the song was featured in the pilot episode of the U.S. television show Miami Vice ("Brother's Keeper"), one of the first pop/rock songs to be featured as part of a television program in this manner. Its use in that scene was "a moment that first signaled to audiences and critics that Miami Vice had something to offer that few other TV programs on the air in 1984 could match", The A.V. Club wrote in 2012.[18] It subsequently "bubbled under" the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 102 in late 1984 and appeared on the television soundtrack album released in 1985.[19] On the heels of this successful merging of media, Collins became associated with the show; other Collins tracks including "Take Me Home" were later featured, and Collins himself also acted in the second season episode "Phil the Shill". This song was later used in the show's fourth season episode "A Bullet for Crockett" for its car chase opening scene, a clear reference to the show's pilot episode. A cover of "In the Air Tonight", performed by American metal band Nonpoint, also appeared in the 2006 film adaptation.

It was used in 1986 when the brewer Anheuser-Busch adopted it for an ad campaign promoting Michelob beer, along with night-related songs by Collins' peers Steve Winwood ("Don't You Know What the Night Can Do?") and Eric Clapton ("After Midnight").[20]

The instrumental for this song was prominently used in the 2007 film Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, where it was reproduced and performed by Matt Maiellaro, Michael Kohler, and Bluetube Productions.[21]

Cadbury used the song in their 2007 Gorilla advertising campaign for its Dairy Milk chocolate bar. Afterwards, the song reached No. 14 on the UK singles chart and No. 9 on the UK Download Chart. The advertisement also helped the song re-enter the New Zealand RIANZ Singles Chart and went to No. 1, staying there for two weeks, beating its original 1981 No. 6 peak, and become his first chart topper song on the country. The single was finished also certified Platinum with sales of over 15,000 copies.[22] This advert was so popular, it won the awards for the Best Ad of the Year, at New Zealands Fair-Go Ad Awards. It was also subsequently parodied in a spoof ad by Wonderbra.[23]

The famous drum fill of the song is featured prominently as part of Mike Tyson's cameo in the 2009 comedy film The Hangover.

The song is also featured in Ari Gold's 2008 film Adventures of Power.

In the game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, the song is featured in one of the in-game radio station, Emotion 98.3, and as part of the game's storyline, where the main protagonist Victor Vance must protect Collins' concert from a group of assailants trying to kill him. Vice City Stories

The song was used in the pilot episode for Allen Gregory for a montage when Allen Gregory is having an erotic fantasy about his elderly principal.

The song also featured in the hit British show Ashes to Ashes. In an interview with SFX, series creator Matthew Graham discusses his editorial choices in using the iconic song and its referential value for the dramatic finale. He considered the piece ideal for his purpose, evoking the mood of the early-1980s.[24]

The song was also in the 2013 video game NBA 2K14.

Pro wrestler Nikita Koloff used the song as his entrance theme in the American Wrestling Association.

The song also featured in a pilot episode of the TV-show The Americans.

The song is also used in other films such as The Girl From Paris, Big Trouble, The New Guy, Paid in Full, Miami Vice, and The Hangover Part III.

The song was played when the banner containing NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal's #32 jersey number was raised to the rafters of Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena during the halftime of the Miami Heat's game against the Los Angeles Lakers on December 22, 2016. O'Neal had played for the Heat from 2004 to 2008, winning the Heat its first ever NBA Championship in 2006. O'Neal had also previously won three NBA championships during his tenure with the Lakers in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Sampling of the song[edit]

The song has been sampled by many artists, including Shaquille O'Neal in his song "Edge of Night", Nas in his song "One Mic", and Tupac Shakur on his tracks "Starin' Through My Rear View" and "Letter to the President". Other tracks which include samples of "In the Air Tonight" include DMX's "I Can Feel It", Krayzie Bone's "Silent Warrior", Joe Budden's "Rest in Peace (In the Air)", Sean Kingston's "Can You Feel It", Young Buck's "New York City", Big Audio Dynamite's "Innocent Child", Lil' Kim's "In the Air Tonite", Ke$ha's "Love Into the Light", and Av LMKR's "In The Air".[citation needed]

It was used in 2009 by Canadian rapper Roi Heenok in his song "La Mama Coca."[citation needed]

According to video game music composer David Wise, he sampled the percussion track of "In the Air Tonight" for "Bayou Boogie", a track in the 1995 SNES game Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest.[25]

It was also sampled by MiC LOWRY on their single "Oh Lord".

Use in literature[edit]

U.S. author Mohja Kahf obtained permission to cite two lines from the song in her novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (Perseus Books, 2006). When the novel's protagonist, a young Syrian American woman named Khadra who is coming of age during the 1970s and 1980s in America, performs the Muslim ritual pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca and views the Ka'ba for the first time, the author writes that: "Khadra tried to keep the joyous talbiya [ritual chant] in her mind and on her tongue: Here I am, O my Lord, Here I am! Labbaik, allahumma, labbaik! But she kept getting it crossed with Phil Collins in her head crooning, 'I can feel it coming in the air tonight, Oh Lo-ord ... I've been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lo-ord ...'"[26]

Single and credits[edit]

VSK102 UK Single Release (Martin H)

  1. "In the Air tonight"
  2. "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)[edit]

  1. "In the Air Tonight" – 4:57
  2. "The Roof Is Leaking" – 3:36

12" German maxi-single (1981)[edit]

  1. "In the Air Tonight" (full-length version including the extra drums) – 5:34
  2. "The Roof Is Leaking" – 3:36

Japan CD single (1988)[edit]

  1. "In the Air Tonight" (extended)
  2. "In the Air Tonight" ('88 remix)
  3. "I Missed Again" (Album Version)

German CD single (1990)[edit]

  1. "In the Air Tonight" (extended version) – 7:33 (Additional production by Ben Liebrand)
  2. "In the Air Tonight" ('88 remix) – 5:07 (Remixed by Phil Collins and Hugh Padgham)
  3. "I Missed Again" – 3:42

(catalogue 2292-57672-2)

Charts and certifications[edit]

Preceded by
"Shaddap You Face" by Joe Dolce Music Theatre
German Singles Chart number-one single
15 May 1981
Succeeded by
"Stars on 45 Medley" by Stars on 45
Preceded by
"Always on My Mind" by Tiki Taane
New Zealand RIANZ number-one single
21 July 2008 – 28 July 2008
Succeeded by
"Nesian 101" by Nesian Mystik

Cover versions[edit]

A cover of the song appears on the Nonpoint album Recoil and on the godheadSilo album Share the Fantasy. The Nonpoint cover was featured in the film Miami Vice (2006), and a video was made to promote the track using clips from the film. Nonpoint's version was also used in teasers for the fifth season of Dexter in 2010.

The band Shinedown also released a version of the song.

In 2007, The Finnish heavy metal cover supergroup Northern Kings released on the album Reborn a cover version of the song, with Marco Hietala (Nightwish, Tarot) as a solo vocalist.

X Factor Australia 2015 winner Cyrus Villanueva's version, which he sang is on his self-titled album. Other recent versions of the song include the one by Kelly Sweet (2014) and Julio D (2016). Chicago based band Umphrey's McGee incorporated In the Air Tonight in a Halloween "mashup" song along with Loser by Beck and National Anthem by Radiohead called National Loser Anthem. It was first performed at The House of Blues Boston on 10/31/2015 and a studio recording is on Umphrey's McGee's forthcoming album Zonkey.


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  2. ^ a b c "Official Charts > Phil Collins". The Official UK Charts Company. Retrieved 16 February 2016. 
  3. ^ "The 20 Best Drummers of All Time". LA Weekly. Los Angeles. 11 November 2014. Retrieved 24 July 2015. 
  4. ^ Veix, Joe (11 April 2014). "An intense 30-minute loop of Phil Collins's 'In The Air Tonight' drum fill". Death and Taxes. Retrieved 24 July 2015. 
  5. ^ a b Wardrop, Murray (8 May 2009). "Ozzy Osbourne: 'I love Phil Collins'". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 24 July 2015. 
  6. ^ Greene, Andy (2016-02-29). ""In the Air Tonight" (1981) | Phil Collins: My Life in 15 Songs". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2016-10-19. 
  7. ^ Mills, Gary (26 May 2010). "No Flak Jacket Required: In Defence Of Phil Collins". The Quietus. Retrieved 23 October 2015. the single's place in 1981 at the vanguard of experimental pop 
  8. ^ a b "Mix Magazine - Classic Tracks: Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight"". 
  9. ^ Thompson, Dave (November 2004). Turn It On Again: Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, and Genesis. Backbeat Books. p. 182. ISBN 978-0-87930-810-0. 
  10. ^ Sold on Song - Song Library - In the Air Tonight
  11. ^ Collins, Phil; et al. (2007). Genesis: Chapter and Verse. St. Martin's Griffin. pp. 220–221. ISBN 978-0-312-37956-8. 
  12. ^ 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)
  13. ^ "In the Air Tonight". Retrieved 2015-11-11. 
  14. ^ "BBC World Service - "The Singer and the Song" Phil Collins"". 
  15. ^ "Eminem – Stan Lyrics". MetroLyrics. Retrieved 9 September 2016. 
  16. ^ "BBC News: Stars recall Live Aid spectacular". 8 November 2004. 
  17. ^ "The top ten sex scenes in film" The Michigan Daily 14 February 2002: 5B
  18. ^ Murray, Noel (2 August 2012). "How Miami Vice launched the '80s on TV, then died with its decade | TV | A Very Special Episode". The A.V. Club. The Onion. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  19. ^ Whitburn, Joel. Bubbling Under Singles & Albums (1998): 51
  20. ^ Lippert, Barbara. "Michelob Taps Sultry Feel In Night Moves" The Milwaukee Journal 17 June 1986: XTRA14
  21. ^ Closing credits found at the end of the 2007 film Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters.
  22. ^ "New Zealand Platinum Certification". RadioScope New Zealand. 25 October 2009. Archived from the original on 24 July 2011. Retrieved 28 October 2009. 
  23. ^ Wonderbra drums up sexy hit, Daily Mail, 9 November 2007. Retrieved 27 February 2012.
  24. ^ Setchfield, Nick; Graham, Matthew (22 May 2010). "Ashes exclusive". SFX. Retrieved 17 June 2010. 
  25. ^ "David Wise on Twitter: "@pantalytron No coincidence. I was trying to get the SNES to sound like the Roland CR78 that Phil Collins used for In the air tonight."". Twitter. Retrieved 2016-10-19. 
  26. ^ (The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, p. 162)
  27. ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992 (Illustrated ed.). St. Ives, N.S.W.: Australian Chart Book. p. 71. ISBN 0-646-11917-6. 
  28. ^ "Offizielle Deutsche Charts > Phil Collins - In the Air Tonight (single)" (in German). GfK Entertainment. Retrieved 16 February 2016. 
  29. ^ " - Phil Collins - In the Air Tonight". Retrieved 14 June 2016. 
  30. ^ Salaverri, Fernando (September 2005). Sólo éxitos: año a año, 1959–2002 (1st ed.). Spain: Fundación Autor-SGAE. ISBN 84-8048-639-2. 
  31. ^ * Zimbabwe. Kimberley, C. Zimbabwe: singles chart book. Harare: C. Kimberley, 2000
  32. ^ "Offizielle Deutsche Charts > Phil Collins - In the Air Tonight ('88 Remix) (single)" (in German). GfK Entertainment. Retrieved 16 February 2016. 
  33. ^ " > Discography Phil Collins". Hung Medien. Retrieved 16 February 2016. 
  34. ^ "Top Selling Singles of 1981". Recorded Music NZ. Retrieved 14 June 2016. 
  35. ^ "Top Selling Singles of 2008". Recorded Music NZ. Retrieved 14 June 2016. 
  36. ^ "Gold-/Platin-Datenbank (Phil Collins; 'In The Air Tonight')" (in German). Bundesverband Musikindustrie. Retrieved 2 February 2016. 
  37. ^ "Italian single certifications – Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight" (in Italian). Federazione Industria Musicale Italiana. Retrieved 2 February 2016.  Select Online in the field Sezione. Enter Phil Collins in the field Filtra. Select 2014 in the field Anno. The certification will load automatically
  38. ^ "New Zealand single certifications – Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight". Recorded Music NZ. Retrieved 2 February 2016. 
  39. ^ "Latest Gold / Platinum Singles – RadioScope New Zealand". Recording Industry Association of New Zealand. RadioScope New Zealand. Archived from the original on 24 July 2011. Retrieved 2 February 2016. 
  40. ^ "British single certifications – Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved 2 February 2016.  Enter In The Air Tonight in the field Keywords. Select Title in the field Search by. Select single in the field By Format. Select Gold in the field By Award. Click Search
  41. ^ a b "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

External links[edit]