Phil Collins Did Not Write “In the Air Tonight” About a Guy Who Watched Another Guy Drown

Daven Hiskey 1
Myth: Phil Collins wrote “in the air tonight” after a friend of his drowned and a person on shore could have saved him, but didn’t.

Phil Collins did not write the song In the Air Tonight about a guy who could have saved another guy from drowning, but chose not to do so. Twists on this urban legend include stories such as: “Phil Collins was on a boat with a friend when his buddy fell overboard. Phil Collins couldn’t swim, so called out for a guy on a nearby dock to come save his friend, but the guy just sat there and watched while the man drowned.” (One wonders why, in that scenario, he wouldn’t just toss his friend a life jacket or other flotation device from the boat.) Alternatively, “Phil Collins saw a man drowning as he was walking along a beach. He tried to save the man, but was too far away and couldn’t get to the man in time. However, there was a man that was very close to the drowning victim who just stood there and watched.”

Most of these stories include an ending where Phil Collins eventually invites the offending guy to one of Collins’ concerts, giving him a front row seat, then sings In the Air Tonight and reveals to the crowd how this man stood by and let someone die when he could have saved him.

While this makes an interesting story, none of these variations ever happened. In fact, Phil Collins himself notes that he isn’t really sure what In the Air Tonight is about. He didn’t write it in the traditional way most musicians write songs. Rather, he set the basic chords and music and then just started singing whatever came to mind at that given moment.

At the time, Collins was going through a pretty devastating divorce with his wife, Andrea Bertorelli, whom he had been married to for about four years and whom he had a son with. After returning home from tour, he found out she was having an affair with their painter/interior decorator. The song itself came out of the anger he was feeling about that situation, though he states it wasn’t specifically about anything. It was just a song about being angry. As Collins stated in a BBC interview:

“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 sing 99.9 percent of those lyrics spontaneously.” “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, ‘cos 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.”

Bonus Facts:

  • Interestingly, this isn’t the only song Phil Collins wrote somewhat spontaneously. Unlike most artists who take lyrics, whether they wrote them or someone else did, and then put them to music, Collins typically does the opposite. “I gotta explain really the way I write lyrics. Because 70-80% of the lyrics I write, I sing. I don’t write them. And after I’ve got a verse and a chorus or after I’ve got something that I like, I will then sing into a microphone anything that I think.”
  • Before devoting himself more or less exclusively to music, Phil Collins was a child actor, appearing in various rolls, including: playing The Artful Dodger in the London production of Oliver!; an extra in the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night; one of the extras in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; and various other minor roles.
  • While Collins says it’s just coincidence, he once appeared in BBC‘s Top of the Pops where he sang In the Air Tonight with a paint bucket and brush near the piano (in reference to his wife having an affair with someone who was doing paint work for him).
  • Collins has been married three times and divorced three times since 1975. While I couldn’t find any figures on how much he paid out for the first divorce, in the latter two, he’s had to pay out and estimated $84 million in divorce settlements resulting from a grand total of 19 married years, between those latter two wives. This makes a divorce settlement average of just shy of $4.5 million per year married, not including whatever they spent while he was married to them. Those were some expensive wives. ;-)
  • Despite having had to pay out around $84 million in divorces, today Phil Collins’ net worth is still estimated to be well over $300 million and he states he still is open to marrying again.
  • Collins has had a variety of health problems in the last decade including losing his hearing in his right ear and dislocating vertebrae in his neck, which ultimately made it so he could no longer play the drums or piano.
  • Another popular misconception surrounding Phil Collins is that he divorced his second wife by sending her a fax. In fact, he states this is “complete nonsense”. While there were faxes exchanged concerning a divorce settlement, the actually initiation of the divorce was not done by fax and wasn’t a surprise, given the state of their relationship at the time.
  • Another common misconception, mainly in England, is that he once threatened to leave the country if the Labor party was elected to power in 1997. He states he’s neither a Tory nor a Labor and only voted once in his life, preferring to stay out of politics. He moved to Switzerland around that time simply because the woman who he had fallen in love with lived there.
  • The $46.68 million that Phil Collins had to pay his third wife in a divorce settlement broke the British law record previously held by Paul McCartney at $45.37 million when he divorced Heather Mills.

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One Comment »

  1. chasfh June 22, 2013 at 6:30 am - Reply

    It’s obvious from the lyric itself that this is not about an actual drowning, but a metaphorical drowning.

    The lyric is:

    “Well if you told me you were drowning,
    I would not lend a hand … ”

    If you were literally drowning, as in a big body of water, why would you have to *tell* Phil you’re drowning? He could *see* that you’re drowning.

    There’s our clue that this lyric represents a metaphor, as in:

    “Oh my god, Phil, I’m so in over my head on this I’m, like, drowning, man. I need your help.”
    “Sorry, man, no can do.”

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