It was a big day for what would become a huge song. Phil Collins‘ first solo single, “In the Air Tonight” peaked at #19 in the U.S. this day in 1981. That low position probably seems pretty hard to believe given that the song is now one of the most iconic of the whole decade and has been one of the most played on radio stations, from hard rock to easy listening, for the past 30 or more years.
The song with the drums was off Collins’ first solo album, Face Value, that he’d recorded the year before in London. Phil was going through a nasty divorce (his wife Andrea was living in Canada and thought Collins was out on the road far too much) and seemed to immerse himself in music to escape from that pressure. In considerably less than two years, he put out Face Value as well as two albums with Genesis. In fact, “In The Air tonight” was one of the first ones he’d written and done a home demo tape for and he offered it to Genesis to record with their ’80 album Duke, but the other pair (Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford) weren’t big on it and declined. Woops! Mistake there, boys.
The lyrically bleak tune fit the rest of the album, although the record itself was a mix of slow, quiet songs and more upbeat, up-tempo ones like the next single, “I Missed Again” which utilized the Earth, Wind and Fire Phenix Horns. As to the lyrics referencing drowning and so on, Collins says “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, a lot of frustration.”
The anger and frustration thunder through with the famous drum break which wake the song up about three minutes in. It would have been an impressive little solo no matter what, but was made the trademark drum sound of the late-20th Century by producer Hugh Padgham. The pair had met while working on Peter Gabriel’s 1980 solo album and had discovered that some neat effects could be had using “talkback mics” on the drums, and Padgham refined the “gated reverb” sound to create the spooky, echoing sound we hear on the Collins’ record… and many since. The quick, five second explanation is approximately that they record the drums to have echo and a bit of feedback , they ramp up the echo then (either by physically stopping the tape or digitally doing so) stop the note dead in its tracks. Surprisingly, one person who wasn’t keen on it was Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun who wanted more drums all through the song with less of a sudden drumroll punctuating it.
The angry singer and thundering drums sounded quite unlike anything else on the radio in ’81 and was an instant smash … some places. It got to #2 in his UK and in Canada, and went to the top in New Zealand, Germany, France and a few other countries. But in the States it had a hard time breaking into the top 20.
Although as a vinyl record, it would go on to sell enough to get Phil a gold record in the U.S., it’s popularity rose steadily after its release to reach the now almost-legendary status it has. It’s been downloaded enough to give him a triple platinum single. Helping the song’s popularity were its use in the first episode of Miami Vice, Collins’ own increased profile with his next couple of albums and him playing it twice at Live Aid…once in London and once in Philadelphia. Amazingly, the song has hit #1 again in New Zealand in 2007, then entered the download charts here yet again in 2020 due to a Youtube video of a couple of teens listening to it for the first time.
Daryl Steurman, who played the guitar on the track remembers hearing it played for the first time. “Good song, Phil,” he told the singer, “you’ve got a nice little career ahead of you.” Yes he did.