In The Air Tonight

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In The Air Tonight

performed by Phil Collins
written by Phil Collins
released on January 9, 1981

I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, Oh Lord
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord

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

And I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
Well, I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord, oh Lord

Well I remember, I remember don’t worry
How could I ever forget,
It’s the first time, the last time we ever met
But I know the reason why you keep your silence up,
No you don’t fool me
The hurt doesn’t show
But the pain still grows
It’s no stranger to you and me

And I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
Well, I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
I can feel it in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord
But I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
But I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
I can feel it in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord
But I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord, oh Lord

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This song is featured in the 1983 film, Risky Business, but is probably more closely associated, in pop culture, with its placement in the 1984 pilot episode of Miami Vice. The show brought about such a renewed interest in the song that it re-charted and almost returned to the Billboard Top 100 three years after its initial release.

In fact, as a testament to the enduring popularity of In the Air Tonight, the song has returned to charts around the world, regularly, for the forty years since its debut.

Weekly Charts

Chart (1981) Peak position

Australia (Kent Music Report) 3
Austria (Ö3 Austria Top 40) 1
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders) 3
Canada Top Singles (RPM) 2
Ireland (IRMA) 2
Italy (FIMI) 4
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40) 1
Netherlands (Single Top 100) 2
New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ) 6
Norway (VG-lista) 4
Spain (AFYVE) 7
Sweden (Sverigetopplistan) 1
Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade) 1
UK Singles Chart 2
US Billboard Hot 100 19
US Mainstream Rock (Billboard) 2
West Germany (Official German Charts) 1
Zimbabwe Singles (ZIMA) 4


Chart (1984) Peak position

U.S. Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100 2


Chart (1988) Peak position

Dutch Singles Chart 17
Germany (Media Control Charts) 3
UK Singles Chart 4


Chart (1989)Peak position

Australia (ARIA) 47


Chart (2007)Peak position

UK Singles Chart 14


Chart (2008) Peak position

New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ) 1


Chart (2012) Peak position

France (SNEP) 102


Chart (2017)Peak position

Poland (Polish Airplay Top 100) 39


Chart (2020) Peak position

Hungary (Single Top 40) 28
US Hot Rock & Alternative Songs (Billboard) 9

What is the Song About? (From SongFacts.com)

Collins wrote this song about the anger he felt after divorcing his first wife, Andrea Bertorelli, in 1980 – he was so devastated that he left Genesis for a short time. All of the original songs on the Face Value album, including the follow up 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.

Urban Legend and the Song’s Meaning

The meaning of “In The Air Tonight” 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 the song 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. These stories (which we repeat, are not true) spread by word of mouth, then in the mid-’90s when chat rooms and message boards started showing up on the internet they were often a topic of debate.

The urban legend surrounding this song centers around the line, “If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand.” Collins has explained that the drowning is symbolic, representing the pain and anger he was feeling at the time. The line really connected as a rebuke, entering the lexicon along with sayings like “I wouldn’t give you the time of day” and “not if you were the last person on Earth.”

Collins was asked about the urban legend surrounding the song and said the following:

“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?”

Music Style

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 most famous element of the song is the explosive drum burst.

NFL Quarterback Baker Mayfield famously air drums this song as part of his pre-game routine. The song was 14 years old when Baker was born.

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The official music video for the song is also a modern pop culture classic.

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4 thoughts on “In The Air Tonight

    1. Yeah. I remember that, too. That’s the most popular one I can remember involving a celebrity. I can remember a ton of other urban legends involving flashing headlights and driving. (Someone behind you flashing their lights probably means someone is hiding in your car’s backseat; if you flash them at someone coming the opposite way, to let them know to turn their headlights on, they’re probably in a gang and you just told them to kill you.)

      I’m always kind of impressed in hindsight at the way Urban Legends traveled in the pre-internet era.

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