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"In the Air Tonight" is a song written in 1979 and recorded in 1980 by English singer and musician, Phil Collins. It first appeared on Collins' 1981 solo album entitled Face Value. Released as a single in the United Kingdom in January 1981, the song was an instant hit quickly climbing to #2 on the UK Singles chart. It was also an international hit peaking at #19 on the USBillboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1981. The track remains one of Collins' best-known hits. The song's 1981 music video directed by Stuart Orme received heavy play on MTV when the new cable music video channel launched in August 1981.
The recording is notable for its atmospheric production and macabre theme. Collins wrote the song about the anger he felt after divorcing his first wife, Andrea, in 1979. 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.
"In the Air Tonight" remains a popular selection on many classic rock radio stations. It is the song most often associated with Collins's solo career, and he has performed versions of it at many events, most notably at 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.
The lyrics of the song take the form of a dark monologue directed towards an unnamed person:
- I was there and I saw what you did
- 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
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 wrote the song in the wake of a failing relationship with his wife. Collins has described obtaining the drum machine specifically to deal with these personal issues 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's popularity in the 1980s increased after a nearly complete recording of it was featured in the pilot episode of the American television show Miami Vice (“Brother's Keeper"), one of the first pop/rock songs to be featured as part of a TV 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. It subsequently grew popular again, "bubbling under" the Billboard Hot 100 at #102 in late 1984. 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 an episode, "Phil the Shill". In 2013 the song served as the dramatic backdrop for a dialogue-free scene in the pilot of The Americans.
|“||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||”|
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 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.
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.||”|
In an interview with the magazine SFX, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes creator Matthew Graham highlighted the significance of the drum sound when he discussed the use of the song in the Ashes to Ashes series finale: he originally intended to have the whole track play over a climactic scene on a farm where Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) discovers the body of fellow protagonist Gene Hunt (Phillip Glenister), but he chose to fade the song out before that, after he realised that the audience would be “desperately waiting for the 'duh-dum-duh-dum-duh-dum'" and wouldn't “care about Alex or Gene or a scarecrow or anything else".
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. Various, increasingly embroidered 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?
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 . . .'" (The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, p. 162).
The song has been licensed repeatedly for use in television advertisements for various products; in several cases these uses led to a measurable resurgence in popularity for the song.
The song gained additional life in the mid-to-late 1980s when the brewer Anheuser-Busch adopted it for an ad campaign promoting Michelob beer, along with night-related songs by Collins' peers Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton.
Cadbury used the song in their 2007 Gorilla advertising campaign for its Dairy Milk chocolate bar. The commercial features a gorilla playing the piece's famous drum sequence. After its premier week in September, the song reached #14 on the UK singles chart and #9 on the UK Download Chart. The advertisement also helped the song re-enter the New Zealand RIANZ Singles Chart at #3 in July 2008 and went to #1 the following week staying there for two weeks, beating its original 1981 #6 peak. The single was also certified Platinum with sales of over 15,000 copies. 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.
In 2013, a cover version of the song was used in the launch trailer of the video game Dead Space 3, but its production information hasn't yet been revealed.
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 Rearview" 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" and Lil' Kim's "In the Air Tonite", Ke$ha's "Love Into the Light", Av LMKR's "In The Air".
The song is referenced in the lyrics to the single "Greatest Rapper Ever" by the rapper Danny Brown.
The trademark drum roll was reused, but not directly sampled, in the song "Nicotine and Gravy" by Beck.
- "In the Air Tonight" – 4:57
- "The Roof Is Leaking" – 3:36
- A demo track for "In the Air Tonight" also appeared on the "If Leaving Me Is Easy" single.
- "In the Air Tonight" (extended)
- "In the Air Tonight" ('88 remix)
- "I Missed Again" (Album Version)
- "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