Of all pop songs for which elaborate, apocryphal backstories have been created to explicate the lyrics, Phil Collins’ 1981 hit, “In the Air Tonight” (from his Face Value album), has perhaps the most varied and fantastic set of legends associated with it. Encompassing adultery, rape, murder, drowning, and the dramatic exposure of a reprehensible wrongdoer (resulting in an arrest or suicide), the narratives all include despicable acts either witnessed by Phil Collins or visited upon him and his family (or friends), inspiring the musician to exact a form of revenge by encapsulating the experience in the lyrics of a song:
[I] always thought it was true … seeing a guy drown .,. same guy that he’d seen rape a girl in an alley. (1993)
Every once in a while, I’ll hear someone mention that there is a story behind the Phil Collins song “In the air tonight.”
At any rate Phil supposedly wrote this song after watching another man watch someone drown. He was too drunk/stoned to help himself. The other man apparently could have done something to save the drowning person, but didn’t.
One version of this story even has Phil doing detective work to find the identity of the bystander, inviting him to a concert for free (without revealing why), and then humiliating him in front of a huge crowd. The guy’s wife divorces him, he loses his job, etc. (1994)
Definitely TRUE (except the part about the spotlite, although he was in the front row. Probably looked like a spotlite was on him). Right after
the show the guy in question killed himself. (1994)
Okay. My first girlfriend was a big Genesis/Phil Collins fan, and according to something she had heard ‘In the Air Tonite’ was inspired by Phil finding his then-wife in bed with another man at a party they were attending. (1994)
What I heard about the song is it’s Phil (or the storyteller) noting that a friend watched someone drown in a lake and did not offer to help. (1994)
I heard that Phil Collins when he small, witnessed an individual drowning another individual. Apparently that individual looked up and spotted Phil. To this day, at every concert, Phil starts out singing this song as an accusation aimed at this individual. (1994)
Last nite at happy hour, good ol’ Phil came on the jukebox singin “In the Air Tonite.” Me an the boys got to talkin (and doin the drum solo) when one of ’em mentions what sounds to me like a UL. He says, the inspiration for this song came from years ago. Phil’s wife had been raped and Phil knew who it was. Much later, at nite, Phil is walkin round a lake when he hears calls for help from the lake. Some guy is drowning. Phil swims out to save the guy, but when he reaches him, he finds it’s the rapist! He lets him go, swims back to shore and lets him drown. (1996)
The version of the story that I heard is:
1) Phil’s wife is raped.
2) He (Phil) finds out where the rapist lives.
3) He arranges to play a concert in the rapist’s home town.
4) A ticket for the concert is then sent to the rapist’s house.
5) Phil debuts the song at the concert.
I heard a similar story about 10 years ago about that song … I believe I heard it on Casey Kasem’s Top 40 when I was a young lass. According to memory, Phil and a buddy were sailing and a downpour started, which caused the boat to capsize. Phil was swimming to shore with his friend and saw a guy sitting on his dock just watching them. He screamed for him to help (apparently the guy had a boat and everything) but the guy just sat there and watched. Phil made it back to shore but his friend drowned. Phil later tracked this guy down and send him front row tickets to a nearby concert. The guy showed up and Phil sang “In the Air Tonight” while staring at him the whole song. (1996)
I heard a slight variation on this story in which the drowning victim was a camper at a summer camp and the guy at the concert was a camp
counselor who didn’t save the camper because he was busy getting laid. (1996)
I’ve heard Phil Collins trying to kill this rumor for years, but it keeps popping back up.
About ten years ago there was a rumor circulating that he’d written his song “In The Air Tonight” as a response to having witnessed someone drowning — the rumor went that he raced to the shore of the beach someplace after having spotted someone drowning from quite a ways away, but by the time he’d gotten down to shore the victim had gone under for the third time. That’s when Collins (so the story goes) saw there was someone else right on the beach, who’d been watching the whole time and hadn’t done a thing to help. Variations of the tale that I’ve heard claim that the victim was a relative of his. (1996)
What I had heard about “In the Air Tonight” had to do with Phil’s younger brother who died in some boating accident.
The guy who was goofing off and pushed him in denied it happened and then the whole concert thing. etc., etc. (1996)
I heard a story that the song “In the Air Tonight” is about a guy who had seen his wife raped, and then later saw the same man drowning, but didn’t help him. Acording to the person who told me this, it was a true story (they also told me that this had happened to Phil Collins?) (1996)
My story on this song is somewhat different. It involves Collins being the witness to a death — someone who he was with either allowed someone to drown, or out-and-out killed him. Collins stayed quiet for a number of years and then finally turned the killer in — by inviting him to a concert and having him arrested, quietly and without circumstance, right after this tune, which he dedicated to the killer during that performance. (1996)
On the radio in the area where I work, a song by Phil Collins was playing. One of my co-workers, who is a good Phil Collins fan, told me that this song was written when one of Phil Collins’ friends drowned … She said that one of Phil Collins’ friends went swimming after having too much to drink, started having problems trying to swim, and Phil Collins tried to get a bystander to help … The bystander just gave him the finger, walked away, and Phil Collins’ friend drowned!
Anyway, Phil Collins found out who the guy was, wrote In The Air Tonight, and mailed front row tickets to the guy for a concert in this guy’s town, anonymously …
During the concert, Phil Collins pointed the guy out, while Phil Collins sang this song.
The guy went home and hung himself. (1996)
The non-specificity of the song’s lyrics allowed for a variety of interpretations, with lines such as “Well, if you told me you were drowning I would not lend a hand” and “I’ve seen your face before my friend, but I don’t know if you know who I am,” and “Well, I was there and I saw what you did; I saw it with my own two eyes” lending themselves to the construction of some particularly sinister scenarios:
I can feel it coming in the air tonight, Oh Lord
I’ve been waiting for this moment, all my life, Oh Lord
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, Oh Lord, Oh LordWell, 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 the 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
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
And I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life, Oh Lord, Oh Lord
Well I remember, I remember don’t worry
How could I ever forget, its 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 or me
Lighting effects used when Collins performed the song on subsequent tours may have fed versions of the legend that end with the perpetrator being identified and singled out via spotlight:
“In the Air Tonight” gives me chills too. I saw Phil perform it live on his “Into the Light” tour and it was really cool! The stadium was completely dark except for these lights encircling the stage that streched out and started looking through the crowd. The lights looked like those things that a submarine uses to see the surface. The overall effect was really simple but effective. It was really neat.
As Phil Collins has explained numerous times over the years, “In the Air Tonight” (as well as most of the Face Value album) deals with his bitterness and frustration over the end of his marriage to his first wife, and the lyrics do not reference any specific real-life event.
Variations: The various forms of legend about the origins of Phil Collins’ song “In the Air Tonight” encompass many differences in detail:
- The song is usually said to be abount an incident Collins himself observed, but it is sometimes reported that Collins based the lyrics on an incident he heard about (but did not witness).
- The time lapse between Collins’ witnessing the incident and his writing the song varies: he wrote the song right away, he waited several years, or he wrote the song many years later (because he was a child when the incident took place).
- The nature of the tragic incident also varies: it is most often a man standing idly by while someone else drowns (or nearly drowns), but other forms mention a deliberate drowning (i.e., murder), a rape (of Collins’ wife), or Collins’ catching his wife in an adulterous act.
- The victim takes on one of several identities: Collins’ brother, Collins’ wife (but only when the incident involves a rape), a close friend of Collins’, a stranger in distress (whom Collins recognizes as his wife’s attacker and refuses to help), and Phil Collins himself (who supposedly nearly drowned when a boat he was sailing in capsized).
- In versions featuring an anonymous, innocent drowning victim, Collins himself does not provide aid himself because he is either too drunk (or stoned), too far away, or too busy soliciting help.
- In versions where Collins learns the identity of the killer/rapist (sometimes by hiring a private detective), he invites the man to an upcoming concert (sometimes specifically arranged to take place in the man’s home town) or sends him tickets anonymously.
- At the subsequent concert, Collins premieres “In the Air Tonight,” which he sings while a spotlight shines on the invited guest (or while he stares at the man, without the spotlight). In some variations Collins never learns the man’s identity and sings the song at every concert as an anonymous accusation.
- The results of Collins’ musical revelation vary: the invited stranger is humiliated (sometimes leading to a divorce or job loss), he commits suicide, or he is arrested by waiting policemen.
Sightings: Hip-hop artist Eminem referenced the legend on The Marshall Mathers LP‘s song “Stan” in 2000:
You know the song by Phil Collins “In the Air of the Night,” about that guy who could’ve saved that other guy from drownin’
But didn’t, then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?
A Genius annotation surmised the titular Stan “jumps to the conclusion that this myth is true, since he isn’t very rational right now.”
Gallagher, Tony. “The Family Phil Collins Left Behind.”
Daily Mail. 21 September 1996 (pp. 40-43).
Joseph, Joe. “Rock Steadies.”
The [London] Times. 19 October 1996.
Scott, Walter. “Personality Parade.”
Parade. 27 September 1992.
The [London] Times. “Invisible Touch of Darkness.”
24 July 1994.
Genius. “Eminem: ‘Stan.'”
Accessed 21 February 2017.