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No. 66: Phil Collins, ‘In The Air Tonight’ – Top 100 Classic Rock Songs

Phil Collins Face Value
Atlantic Records

When you think of Phil Collins, the climactic, dam-bursting drum beat of his 1981 hit ‘In The Air Tonight’ is very likely one of the first things that comes to mind. As famous and familiar as this Top 100 Classic Rock Song is today, it came out of one of the darkest periods of Collins’ life.

For Collins, the divorce from his first wife Andrea would provide the framework for his solo debut ‘Face Value,’ a dark portrait of the emotional despair and anger that the Genesis frontman was feeling over the loss.

‘In The Air Tonight’ brings Collins’ anger fully to the surface, in a more than somewhat menacing tone, delivered over the backing of a simplistically programmed drum machine.

His vocal seeths with a new-found confidence, knowing that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel.

The feeling which Collins sings is “coming in the air tonight,” is one of redemption, having gained a greater understanding and clarity. Later, he calls out the elephant in the room directly to say “So you can wipe off that grin/ I know where you’ve been/ it’s all been a pack of lies.”

Still, the centerpiece of the song, without a doubt, is the unforgettable drum breakdown from Collins mid-song that brings the energy levels of ‘Air’ to full throttle.

The sight of Collins thrashing around his drum kit in the moment is a now famous visual which was later replicated in one of the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ games where the bad guys were out to kill Collins, who was on stage performing ‘Air.’

Collins, an avid gamer in the ‘80s and ‘90s, was happy to participate in the GTA series, working with the video game makers directly on the ‘Kill Phil’ portions of the game, playing himself.

A much less dramatic version with no bad guys can be found on the recently released ‘Live at Montreux’ DVD, recorded in 2004. It now seems somewhat unlikely that we’ll ever see Collins himself repeat the moment, as he was forced to retire from drumming due to spine and back problems that make it too painful for him to play the drums.

Maybe Mike Tyson can take his place. At the very least, if Collins never steps behind a drum kit again, ‘In The Air Tonight’ will survive in recorded form as one of his greatest accomplishments.

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Watch Phil Collins Perform ‘In The Air Tonight’

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