“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?”
— Phil Collins, on In The Air Tonight
I was thinking about Phil Collins last week.
I was visiting some members of my family in London and, on Thursday night, I was watching as the results of the general election came in. After spending the past few days worrying that Jeremy Corbyn might actually somehow weasel his way into power, I was very happy to see the results of the exit poll, which indicated that Corbyn’s Labour Party was going to lose in a landslide. As I watched the results come in and as Labour lost seat after seat, I found myself thinking about Phil Collins.
Phil Collins has a reputation for being a supporter of the Tories, though he’s often said that he’s not. This is because he let the UK after Tony Blair was initially elected. Collins said that he was living in Switzerland because that’s where his girlfriend lived but many others accused him of being a tax exile. During the 2005 election, Oasis’s Liam Gallagher famously quipped that everyone should vote Labour because, otherwise, Phil Collins might return home. Everyone had a good laugh, except for Phil who is notoriously thin-skinned about such things. Last Thursday, as I watched Boris Johnson give his victory speech with Elmo, Count Binface, and Lord Buckethead standing behind him, I asked myself, “Can Phil Collins come home now?”
(Which was a stupid think to ask since it’s been nearly ten years since the UK last had a Labour government and I’m fairly certain that Phil Collins has already come home. Chalk it up to the emotion of the moment. After spending a week being yelled at by angry Corbynites, watching them go down in defeat was a moment of such personal gratification that I was perhaps allowed to ask myself one silly question.)
Phil Collins may be thin-skinned but perhaps he’s earned the right to be. For all the ridicule that has been directed his way over the years, Phil Collins’s songs have, for better or worse, defined an era and many of them hold up far better than is usually acknowledged. Take, for instance, In The Air Tonight. Today’s music video of the day is not only one of the ultimate songs of the 80s but it’s also a song that has been sampled by a countless number of other artists.
It’s also a song that’s been the subject of many rumors. The most popular one is that Phil Collins wrote it after witnessing a man drowning. The legend goes that Collins was too far away to save the man but that someone else was close by but declined to help. Collins wrote the song to call out the callousness of the person who declined to help and, so the story goes, used to reveal the person’s name during his concerts. Much like the idea of Phil Collins hiding out in Switzerland because he didn’t want to pay his taxes, it’s a good story but it’s also not true. Collins has said that he has no idea what the song is about, beyond that he was in a dark place emotionally when he wrote it.
The song’s rapid progress up the charts was undoubtedly helped by the music video above. During the early days of MTV, this video was part of the regular rotation. Director Stuart Orme went on to direct several other videos for both Collins and Genesis, though In The Air Tonight remains his best work.