A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the story behind Phil Collins' song "In the Air Tonight"?

November 8, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

What is the story behind the Phil Collins' song "In the Air Tonight"? I will not believe the malarkey that is being thrown at me by my co-workers regarding a failed relationship or his brother drowning or someone else seeing someone drown and not helping and then being pointed out at one of Phil's concerts. I heard it was about his wife being raped and then Phil seeing the rapist drown later in a hotel pool. You are the only one who can now sway my beliefs. Please provide any information regarding this issue.

Oh, Lord.

To tell the truth, Chris, we could feel this question coming.

The myth (or urban legend, if you will) surrounding Phil Collins' haunting "In The Air Tonight" has been circulating since the song was released on his Face Value album in 1981. Here's the part of the song that started the rumor mills:

Well, if you told me you were drowning,
I would not lend a hand.
I've seen your face before, my friend,
But I don't know if you know who I am.
Well, I was there and I saw what you did,
Saw it with my own two eyes.
So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you've been.
It's all been a pack of lies.

According to the myth, Collins watched a close friend drown from a nearby cliff, too far away to help, while a man standing nearer to the drowning man stood idly by. Collins then supposedly wrote the song, gave the man a front-row ticket to the show where the song was premiered, then sang the song as the spotlight illuminated the man.

The supposed results of Collins' musical revelation vary: the invited stranger is humiliated (sometimes leading to a divorce or job loss), commits suicide or is arrested by waiting policemen. In another telling, Collins never learns the man's identity and sings the song at every concert as an anonymous accusation. There are as many variations of the tale as there are people to spread it--including infamous rapper Eminem, who included the myth in the lyrics of "Stan" on his Marshal Mathers album released this year:

So this is my cassette I'm sending you. I hope you hear it.
I'm in the car right now. I'm doing 90 on the freeway.
Hey Slim, I drank a fifth of vodka, ya dare me to drive?
You know that song by Phil Collins from "In the Air Tonight"?
About that guy who could have saved that other guy from drowning?
But didn't? Then Phil saw it all, then at his show he found him?
That's kinda how this is. You could have rescued me from drowning.
Now it's too late. I'm on a thousand downers now, I'm drowsy.

Just like Eminem (who obviously did not drown, contrary to the above lyrics), Collins was using a metaphor. Collins has repeatedly explained the lyrics to "In The Air Tonight" are not based on any real-life event.

The truth, according to Collins, is that "In the Air Tonight"--like most of the songs on his "Face Value" album--deals with his bitterness and frustration over the end of his marriage to his first wife, Andrea.

The hurt doesn't show, but the pain still grows
It's no stranger to you or me.

So the mythical event you refer to is nothing more than another case of song lyrics being interpreted too literally.

You were wise to come to us, Chris. Keep asking questions and, together, we may yet see the day ignorance is completely wiped out.

We've been waiting for that moment for all our lives.

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