Collins co-produced the single with Hugh Padgham. The song reached #2 on the UK Singles chart, but was held off the top spot by the posthumous release of John Lennon‘s “Woman“. It reached #1 in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, and the top 10 in Australia, New Zealand and several other European countries. It peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, but reached #2 on the Rock Tracks Chart, later being certified Gold by the RIAA, representing 500,000 copies sold. The song’s music video, directed by Stuart Orme, received heavy play on MTV when the new cable music video channel launched in August 1981.
“In the Air Tonight” remains one of Collins’ best-known hits, often cited as his signature song, and is especially famous for its drum break towards the end, which has been described as “the sleekest, most melodramatic drum break in history” and one of the “101 Greatest Drumming Moments”. The song was ranked at number 35 on VH1‘s “100 Greatest Songs of the 80s” in 2006.
Collins wrote the song amid the grief he felt after divorcing his first wife Andrea Bertorelli in 1980. In a 2016 interview, Collins said of the song’s lyrics: “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 and a lot of frustration.” In a 1997 the singer revealed that the divorce contributed to his 1979 hiatus from the band Genesis, until they regrouped in October of that year to record the album, Duke. Originally, Collins was going to include the song on Duke, but it was rejected by the band. Tony Banks, however, says he never heard the composition.
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“. 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 song is known for its use of the gated reverb drum sound. Fellow musicians and journalists have commented on its use in the record. Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne called the drum fill “the best ever – it still sounds awesome”, while music critic and broadcaster Stuart Maconie was quoted:
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.
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 (labelled 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 the 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 minimises the differences between loud and soft sounds. While recording “Intruder” for his former bandmate Peter Gabriel’s third solo album, at some point Collins started playing the drums while the reverse talkback was activated. Engineer Hugh Padgham was 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.
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.
Speaking about the song’s rapid ascension in the music charts, Collins wrote the following in 2007:
It was a surprise. The single came in at #36, I did Top of the Pops with Dave Lee Travis, and in one of the down moments he said, “This record is going to be a top 3.” I didn’t believe him, because it had been made so haphazardly, but the next week, there it was at #3. And then Mark Chapman shot John Lennon and that was that.
In 1984, the song was memorably used in a scene from the first episode of the television series Miami Vice. “In the Air Tonight” received a new wave of attention thanks to its use in the series, enough for it to briefly re-chart in the US just outside the Billboard Hot 100 at #102.
The song was remixed in 1988 by Ben Liebrand hitting #4 in the UK charts.
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. Increasingly embellished 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?
The music video (directed by Stuart Orme) animates the photograph of Collins’s face from the cover of the Face Value album, slowly fading in through the introduction until it fills the screen, singing the first chorus. The video then cuts to Collins sitting in an empty room at night. Twice a spectral figure appears in the window, but only the second time does Collins get up to look at it, then is shown walking to the one door of the room.
Collins’s face returns for the second chorus. He is then shown leaving the room and entering a hallway full of doors. The first one is locked, then the second opens and Collins sees himself looking at the window again, only now the spectre has turned into his own reflection.
The third door is locked, but as the fourth one opens, the drum break sounds and the viewer is returned to Collins’s face again, this time in thermal coloring, which gradually reverts to black and white. Collins recedes into the darkness as the song repeats and fades.
As of January 2022, the music video has received over 239 million views on YouTube.