Meaning of “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins

“In the Air Tonight” is a song by English singer-songwriter Phil Collins. Since its release in 1981, the song has gone on to become one of the most widely misinterpreted songs on Earth with many interesting stories surrounding it. The most popular misinterpretation of the song is that Collins wrote the song after he witnessed a man watch another man drown and did nothing to save the drowning man even though he was very close to the victim and could have saved him.

Having rubbished all the false stories surrounding the song in an interview with BBC, Collins said the song has nothing to do without someone drowning and that it is mainly based on the anger he felt when he was going through a bitter divorce with his first wife Andrea Bertorelli, whom he found out was cheating on him with their interior decorator. Collins and Andrea were married from 1975 to 1980.

According to Collins, he was so devastated by his wife’s unfaithfulness during the writing process of In the Air Tonight that he poured all the anger into the song. Collins therefore said of the song as the “angry side, or the bitter side” of the end of a relationship.

According to Collins, beyond the song being about the anger he felt about his separation from Andrea, he was not really sure what the song is all about since he wrote the song’s lyrics spontaneously.

The song’s macabre and very dark theme, is according to Collins, the result of the intense anger, despair and frustration that he felt while writing the song.

Lyrics of In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins
The music video of the song was directed by music video director Stuart Orme.

When was “In the Air Tonight” released?

“In the Air Tonight” was Collins’ debut single from his critically acclaimed debut solo album Face Value which came out in 1981 and sold millions of copies worldwide.

Writing Credits

Collins is the sole writer of both the lyrics and music of “In the Air Tonight”. According to him, he wrote the song’s lyrics spontaneously and therefore doesn’t have any idea what they mean. Collins produced the song along with renowned music producer Hugh Padgham.

Success on the Charts

This Phil Collins classic peaked at the number one spot in many countries including Germany and Sweden in 1981. It went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide, thereby making it one of Collins’ most successful songs.

Samples and Notable Use

The song is one of Collins’ most sampled songs. It has been sampled by various prominent music artists over the years. Some of the most notable songs that have sampled “In the Air Tonight” are listed below:

  • “Starin’ Through My Rear View “by Tupac Shakur,
  • “In the Air Tonite” by Lil Kim
  • “One Mic” by Nas

Rapper Eminem made reference to one of the numerous myths surrounding “In the Air Tonight” in his 2000 hit song “Stan” from his third album The Marshall Mathers LP. In Stan, Eminem raps briefly about this classic, mentioning the drowning incident in which Collins is said to have seen a man fail to save another man from drowning. It is worth noting that Eminem’s “Stan” went a long way in further promoting the false story of Collins writing “In the Air Tonight” based on a drowning incident he had witnessed.

Phil Collins and Andrea Bertorelli: The Real Inspiration behind “In the Air Tonight”

Legendary musician Phil Collins has had his share of tumultuous relationships, marrying and divorcing thrice over the span of his career. His first marriage with Andre Bertorelli was probably filled with the most drama and complications.

The two met during their childhood when they were both 11 and Phil was a child actor. They both attended the same school, worked at a theater and dated as teenagers but split at age 18 when Andrea relocated to Canada. After Collins rose to fame as the drummer for Genesis, he reunited and tied the knot with Andrea in 1970. Bertorelli recalls that although she was pregnant with Phil’s son, Simon, in 1976, the musician had no problem leaving her and her two-day-old newborn baby for a two-year world tour with his band.

Eventually, the two grew apart as Andrea cheated on him with a decorator named Michael Burberry, and Phil is said to have cheated on her with other women as well. By 1980, Collins and his first wife Andrea had finalized their divorce. “In the Air Tonight” was inspired by their split.

Did “In the Air Tonight” win a Grammy Award?

Up till now, the song hasn’t been nominated for a Grammy Award.

Film/TV Appearances

Over the years, “In the Air Tonight” has appeared in several television series, films and adverts. For instance, it appeared in the 1983 romantic comedy film Risky Business starring Tom Cruise. It also was used in the 2009 Todd Philips directed comedy film The Hangover and the American crime drama TV series Miami Vice. Another very famous film in which the song prominently appears is the 2016 American action comedy film “True Memoirs of an International Assassin” starring the likes of Kevin James, Andy Garcia and Zulay Henao. The version of the song that appears in said film is performed in Spanish by Esperando a Christine.

It was also featured on the hit animated sitcom “Family Guy”.

FYI: The legendary drum crash, which comes towards the end of the song, is widely regarded as one of the most famous drum breaks in the history of music.

Cease and Desist Order to President Donald Trump’s campaign Team for playing “In the Air Tonight”

In October 2020, Phil Collins and his team sent a cease and desist order to President Trump and his campaign team after they played “In the Air Tonight” at one of his political rallies. This made Phil one of the many prominent artists banning Donald Trump from using their songs at his rallies.

Other notable artists that objected to President Trump’s use of their songs at his rallies, include Neil Young, The Rolling Stones and Village People. For example, few days earlier, Village People also objected to their hit song “Y.M.C.A.” being used at Trump rallies..

9 Responses

  1. Michael Ivan Doerfler says:

    I’ve been through THREE Divorces and I can certainly relate and, understand just precisely where Mr. Collins is coming from. To me this is one of those things you don’t/won’t understand unless you went through one yourself, or you are involved with someone who has gone through these unbelievable mind and physical jarrings, as they are…because I felt it and, saw it, and I felt Like I was the one Drowning! Thank you Mr. Phil. Oh, and I’m also a Drummer/Percussionist and I Let those skins cry for me God Bless you Mr. Phil, and take it easy. ~ Michael Ivan

    • Anonymous says:

      Damn three divorces(unbelievable). I’ve been married and it took one time for me. You confessed your love to three people. I say people cuz I don’t want to offend anyone it’s 2021, people has changed don’t know if it’s the same sex or not these days.

  2. Kelly Keenan says:

    the song by Phil Collins is really true to the meaning of betrayal. My ex-husband left me and my daughter for another woman. It broke my daughter’s heart so bad that she committed suicide. When he sings I have seen what to did is when I found her dead. When Phil sings I know why you keep your silence is because her father knew what he had done. Please get in touch with me so I can explain more. God Bless

    • Melissa says:

      Wohld love to hear more about your daughters story. My nmae is melissa Richards and Suicide wil be my demise too. Just dont know when. But I know the heartache. Its misery. Contact me. Freemimi311@gmail.com

      • Barb says:

        It sounds like you think you may commit suicide. I don’t k ow anything about why or how you got to that place. I know pain as well and have had those thoughts. Please try to find someone to talk to. If you don’t have anyone – I’m here and want to hear your story. Let me know. My name is Barb

    • Anonymous says:

      I know as a mother you want to make sense of the action your daughter took. You said she took her own life cuz your husband left to be with another woman? I’m not sure how old she was, I believe it was something more to it. I think you are looking at the surface and not getting to the root.

  3. Kelly Keenan says:

    Please contact me

    • R.M. Phillips says:

      Kelly Keenan, I am so dreadfully sorry this heartbreaking thing has happened in your life. I raised 2 daughters until school age, a rather unusual thing for a man to do. During the time my youngest daughter entered school, the girl’s mother began an affair with a co-worker, a physician. I had caught her in another affair years earlier and thought she’d gotten whatever causes someone to cheat out of her system. Clearly, I was wrong. Losing my marriage was bad enough but to lose my girls was devastating to me. To be honest I quite nearly committed suicide myself. Fortunately, before I acted I reached out for help and found it. The thought of seeing my daughters grown and happy is what kept me from becoming another statistic. You hear about the 22 Veterans that commit suicide every day? Well, I was nearly one of them.
      All I can tell you is this. Please stick around because miracles can happen and they even happen to people like you and me. At age 50, I ran into a woman I had gone to high school with on social media. She invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with her. Things between us just clicked and we fell in love. She had been my high school girlfriend’s best friend. She and I were only friends though, there was no romance between us back then, as we were and are very loyal people. In 2016 we married with 2 of our shared grandchildren as witnesses! She is my hero too. When we met again she was just finishing up a Master’s Degree in mental health counseling and her practice specializes in treating children who have experienced trauma in their young lives. How she manages that is beyond me. Hearing the stories of what they have come through is so far away from what I could tolerate hearing.
      Reading what you have been through caught my heart and made me think that my wife could have helped save your daughter. I wish that might have happened because my wife treats suicidal kids all the time and has never lost a client.
      I wish you all the best and hope that my story might inspire you to keep your heart open to all the possibilities in the world. Neither my wife nor I thought falling in love again to be even the remotest of ideas, yet, it happened and if it can happen to us, it can happen to you or anyone.
      Oddly, while reading this I had just been writing a song about heartbreak and thought to stop on to this website for a fresh inspiration. Yes, I’m a singer and songwriter and have been playing and singing since I was about 8 years old. I played and sang in a rock band in California just before I joined the military. Since then I have played and sang solo, until the traumatic brain injury I suffered in the military took over my life with an intractable migraine for the last decade of my life. In spite of that, I would not change a thing about the way I have lived my life. I simply deal with the pain and most shocking to me is that despite my limitations, my wife still loves me. You see, it can work out, no matter what.
      Hold your head up, you are a strong woman and I can tell that by your question: Please contact me. Knowing when to ask for help is one of the most difficult things to do, but those of us who ask are most often rewarded. I truly hope this bit I have typed can be inspirational to you and wish you nothing but the best for the rest of your life.
      Life is a banquet, we all just need to know when to feed from its bounty.

  4. Lili says:

    dear kelly,

    I am SO sorry to hear of this. My heart goes out to you. I love my girls and as a mom I cannot even fathom what you must feel.
    My you feel peace again in your life. Lili

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