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 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 series Miami Vice, which used a groundbreaking, MTV-friendly editing style and featured cameos by many famous musicians, including Collins, who played the bad guy in the season 2 episode "Phil The Shill." Its theme song, by Jan Hammer, was a #1 hit in the US.
The song was just a modest hit in America when it was released in 1981, but its use in Miami Vice gave it a big kick and made it unequivocally cool, as it was now associated with the trendsetting show.
When the Miami Vice Soundtrack album was released after season 1, "In The Air Tonight" was a key track along with "Smuggler's Blues" and "You Belong To The City" by Glenn Frey and "Better Be Good To Me" by Tina Turner. Four million people bought the album, and the song has been going strong ever since, continuously appearing in movies, TV shows and commercials and becoming a common pop culture reference.
This strangely menacing song was rather disturbing to the woman who inspired it. Collins' first wife Andrea told her side of the story in a 2015 interview with the Daily Mail, explaining that she was sick of her ex-husband saying that she left him for someone else, leaving him to write the song in his misery.
When the couple had their second child, Simon, in 1976, Collins left to rehearse with Genesis for their Wind & Wuthering tour soon after, leaving her on her own to care for Simon, their 4-year-old daughter Joely, and two dogs. She did have an affair while he was gone, but felt Collins checked out of the marriage when he left for the tour.
She says that Collins came unhinged in 1979 when she left for Vancouver to get away from him. "He'd call constantly and when I'd answer, instantly start raging, calling me names, telling me to come home," she said. "He turned up unexpectedly a couple of times. He didn't realize he was driving me further away."
Downtempo songs like this one rarely feature huge drum breaks, but the one in this song is massive, invigorating the track at the 3:40 mark. Collins told Uncut: "I didn't think about the drum fill, I just did it that particular take and that's the one we used. We didn't sit there thinking, 'Oh boy, their mouths are going to be dropping when they hear this!' It was nothing like that."
A year later, another downtempo hit with a conspicuous drum break appeared: "Jack & Diane" by John Mellencamp (drums by Kenny Aronoff).
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 Collins found out that his former wife had run off with a man who did painting and interior decorating work, he dryly performed this song on the UK pop music show Top of the Pops with a pot of paint and a brush on a workbench next to his keyboard. Collins claimed that the bench is what he used for a keyboard stand, and when he saw the paint and brush backstage, he thought it would make a nice look. Incredulously, he claimed the association with the paramour was strictly coincidence.
His ex-wife wasn't buying it. "I felt sick and betrayed," she told the Daily Mail. "I knew straight away it was a message to me."
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."
Speaking with Rolling Stone in 2016, Collins said, "This song has become a stone around my neck, though I do love it." He added that most people have no idea what the song is about, but that's OK. "I kind of like the mystery," he said. "NFL players use it to work out. I saw a video recently of Steph Curry singing it in his car, and it was just in an ad for milk chocolate. Where will it end? But I'm not complaining. It paid for this house we're in right now!"