Not only is In The Air Tonight considered Phil Collins’ signature tracks, it also has one of the most famous drum breaks ever.
In 2014, the LA Weekly described it as “the sleekest, most melodramatic drum break in history.”
Thing is, unlike many masterpieces… that drum break wasn’t the result of careful crafting, but a sheer fluke.
For years, I had bought the myth behind behind the song, you know, the one about a young man who could have saved another young man from drowning but chose not to.
Or perhaps the one where Phil Collins was on a boat with a friend who fell overboard. Collins couldn’t swim, and desperately called out to another bloke on a nearby jetty to come help, but the guy just sat there and watched while the man drowned.
Whatever the version, the second part of the story is always the same.
Phil Collins invites the offending person to one of his concerts – a front row seat. During In The Air Tonight, the spotlight reveals to the crowd how the man stood by and let someone drown when he could’ve saved them.
According to Collins, it’s utter nonsense.
“I don’t know what it’s about,” Collins said in an undated clip uploaded only a few days ago which explained the actual story.
“I have plenty of people telling me what it’s about and, I can assure you, it’s not about whatever you think it is because I don’t know what it’s about.”
One thing is certain about the lyrics, like the drum break, they were also completely improvised.
At the time, Collins’ marriage was over.
Genesis has just wrapped up a long tour and his bandmates took off to get on with their own solo projects, and Collins, feeling angry, sad and depressed… suddenly had some serious time on his hands.
He took over the master bedroom of his newly-empty house, turning it into home studio… with no soundproofing.
“If the fridge clicked or the phone rang, you heard it,” Collins said.
So, as the lyrics came spontaneously, so did the drumming.
He said that when he got to the bit ‘it’s no stranger to you and me’, the drums just kind of ‘entered’ without much thought to it.
By the time he got around to actually recording it, the drum break for that bit of the song was different during each take.
“The one before that was different, if I had done another take it would’ve been something different,” he explained.
“We decided to keep that take and it just happened to have that drum filler.
“It was real luck.”