Collins wrote this song about the anger he felt after divorcing his first wife Andrea in 1979 - he was so devastated that he left Genesis for a short time. All of the original songs on the Face Value
album, including the followup hit "I Missed Again
," were at one time intended to be "messages" to his first wife in an attempt to lure her back to him.
The lingering tension caused by the divorce led Collins to the title, as these negative feelings were "In The Air," and affecting not just the couple getting divorced, but the entire family.
By the time the album was released, Collins had moved on and was dating Jill Tavelman, who became his second wife. His split with Jill would inspire the songs on Collins' 1993 album Both Sides
Collins explains the lyrics, "If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand," by saying the drowning is symbolic.
The meaning of this song became a pervasive urban myth. The story, which is not true, is that Collins watched as a man who raped his wife drowned. Another version has Collins writing this about about a man who watched another drown, and singing it to him at a concert. Yet another variation claims that when Collins was a young boy, he witnessed a man drowning someone but was too far away to help. Later, he hired a private detective to find the man, sent him a free ticket to his concert, and premiered the song that night with the spotlight on the man the whole time. We repeat, these stories are not true.
This was Collins' first single as a solo artist; he claims that he offered it up as a Genesis song, but that his bandmates rejected it, saying it was "too simple." Tony Banks of Genesis insists that Collins never played them the song.
The Face Value album sold more than any prior Genesis release, prompting the group to change musical direction.
In an interview with Mix magazine, Collins explained that he wrote this song after returning from a tour. Said Collins: "I got back to find that I had a lot of time on my hands because the family wasn't there, I rang up and said, 'Can I have my drum machine?' because I had to start writing some of this music that was inside me. Face Value was all written over a period of a year-and-a-half, and some songs were written overnight. 'In the Air Tonight' was just a drum machine pattern that I took off that CR78 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. I probably added an acoustic Fender piano pretty early. I was coming from Genesis recording and rehearsing history where sometimes we didn't know what the vocal was going to be doing when we recorded the track because lyrics were sometimes written after the track was recorded. I remember the first principle I had for making my record was that I would get a voice down very quickly so everything else would fit to the voice. The lyrics you hear for 'In the Air Tonight,' I just sang. I opened my mouth and they came out. I never wrote anything down and then afterward, I listened to it and wrote them down."
Collins played this at Live Aid, a benefit concert for famine relief held in 1985. There were stages in London and Philadelphia, and Collins, with the aid of time zone differences and a very fast airplane (the Concorde), was able to perform at both. He played this in both sets.
This was featured on the first episode of the TV show Miami Vice. The show used lots of popular music and featured cameos by Sheena Easton and Glenn Frey. It's theme song, by Jan Hammer, was also a hit.
Eminem mentioned this in his 2000 song "Stan
," which is about a crazed fan. In the song, the character Stan sings to Eminem, "You know that song by Phil Collins, 'In The Air Tonight,' about that guy who could have saved that other guy from drowning but he didn't? Then Phil saw it all then at his show he found him? That's kind of how this is. You could have rescued me from drowning."
The group Nonpoint remade this for the 2006 movie Miami Vice.
This has charted in the UK on three different occasions. On its original release in 1981 it peaked at #2. In 1988 a re-mix by Dutch DJ and producer Ben Liebrand got to #4. Finally in 2007 after the song was featured in a TV advert for Cadbury's Dairy Milk, featuring a drumming gorilla, the song reached #14.
The Cadbury's television advertisement was one of the best-received commercials in the UK in recent times and it succeeded in helping to boost sales of Dairy Milk by an increase of 9% in a year. Collins was asked by the London Times newspaper whether Cadbury's made it clear to him that the advert would feature a gorilla playing drums to the song. He replied, smiling: "As much as it's possible for such a thing to be made clear."
In Collins' speech at the 2008 Ivor Novello Awards where he was being honored for International Achievement, the Genesis drummer paid tongue-in-cheek homage to the Cadbury's gorilla advert. He quipped: "I have two sons back in Switzerland and my life is now focused around them, but I do know that I will continue to write songs. As for the gorilla, I might put him forward as the next drummer of Genesis."
When it emerged that his former wife had run off with a painter and decorator, Collins dryly performed this song on the UK pop music show Top of the Pops with a pot of paint and brush atop the piano. According to the London Times newspaper, the song itself was written on the back of a stray piece of wallpaper.
This popularized a new studio effect, which was known as "gated drum" or "gated reverb." Engineer Hugh Padgham had discovered it during 1979 sessions for Peter Gabriel's third album in London, which Collins played on. Collins bonded with Padgham and enlisted him to produce the Face Value album.
The guitarist on this track Daryl Stuemer recalled to Uncut magazine June 2008 his recording of his guitar part: "My guitar part was done much later, in a studio in LA. I sat in the control room with Phil, and my amp was out in the studio, as loud as I could get it. I hit this chord, which Phil described as the sound of an electric razor, Rrrrzzzzz. People write me emails about that chord, asking what it. The song's in the key of D minor, but the chord itself has no minor notes. It's a low A, and a D, and another A and a D. But it depends how you play it, it has to have that overdriven, distorted sound from the amp. It's a distant sound, but a distant powerful sound. It's a sound you imagine being deafeningly loud a mile away."
This song has provided comedy fodder in a variety of clever ways. Some examples:
It appears in the aptly titled Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, based on the Adult Swim TV show. Throughout the second half of the movie, Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" plays an integral part, as it is used to foreshadow a relationship between the characters and the mysterious Dr. Weird. Once the song appears, Calamity ensues. Probably the most elaborate use of the song yet.
It is used in the Family Guy episode "Petergeist" during the scene when Stewie is trapped in the TV. He starts singing a few lines form the song as a joke because his voice echoes the way Phil's does in the song.
In the 2009 movie The Hangover, Mike Tyson appears in a hotel room looking for his missing tiger. When the main characters walk in, Tyson is singing this song, and when it gets to the drum part, he makes them stop talking and plays air-drums to it, punctuating at the end by punching one of the guys. (thanks, Stephanie - Stratford, CT and Logan - Troy, MT)
In the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, there are several levels surrounding a subplot of a Phil Collins concert coming to Vice City. The missions all entail protecting Phil Collins from a gang his manager owes money to. In the final mission of the game, entitled "In The Air Tonight," you must stay on the catwalk of the stage while Phil performs the song and stop gang members from killing him. After you beat the mission, you can return to the stadium, purchase a ticket to the concert and watch an animated video of Phil Collins performing the song on stage. (thanks, Adam - Salisbury, MD)
The music video, directed by Stuart Orme, was a popular fixture on a brand new cable network dedicated to music videos: MTV. The clip shows an extreme close-up of Collins singing into the camera, and cuts to images of him sitting in a bare room with mysterious figures appearing and disappearing outside the window. We also see him walking down a corridor full of doors.
In 2014, Collins performed this at the Miami Country Day School in Miami, Florida, with his son's middle school band.
This was featured on the 2013 pilot for The Americans, starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Soviet KGB spies living in America during the Cold War.