“I was trying to move away from the complicated Genesis stuff, go in a simpler direction.”
In The Air Tonight – Phil Collins
Virgin VS 102 (UK) / Atlantic 3824 (USA)
Recorded at The Town House, London
Released January 1981
Writer Phil Collins
Producer Phil Collins assisted by Hugh Padgham
UK #2 2/81 USA #19 8/81
One of the biggest musical surprises of 1981 was the arrival of Phil Collins as a solo artist. Even though Collins had taken over from Peter Gabriel as Genesis’ vocalist in 1976, he’d never been noted as a songwriter, and was still essentially seen as a drummer, a position he’d held with the group since 1970. Though the other two members of Genesis, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, had both recorded out of band albums, and workaholic Collins played with jazz-rock outfit Brand X (and anyone else who needed a drummer!) who on earth would be interested in a solo album from an aging, balding drummer? In fact, Collins hadn’t actually intended to record a solo album, he’d just made a bunch of song demos at home that he didn’t quite know what to do with, and most of the material had originally been written nearly two years previously.
In 1978, Genesis spent the best part of the year on a never-ending tour, mostly in America. This was part of an intensive effort to break the band in the US which paid off when ‘Follow You Follow Me’ became their first hit single Stateside, and its’ mother album, And Then There Were Three, reached the album Top 20. Unfortunately, this lengthy absence from home pretty much destroyed Collins’ marriage. In fact, it nearly destroyed Genesis as well. In early 1979, and in a final effort to save his ailing marriage, Collins decided to move with his wife and two children to Vancouver in Canada, home of his wife’s mother. Before leaving he told the band, “If you don’t mind coming to Vancouver to record, then we’ve still got a group. But if you can’t, then this is the end”. As it turned out, he soon discovered that the marriage couldn’t be saved and returned to Britain, but by this time both Banks and Rutherford had begun working on solo albums, and Collins was left with nothing to do, alone in his big, empty English home.
Deeply depressed, heartbroken and bitter at the loss of his wife and family, he turned to his other great love, music, and began pouring his heart out on a number of his own compositions in his home studio. Collins hadn’t really written many songs before – he simply hadn’t had the time. Now he had all the time in the world and recalls the irony of the situation; “I suppose this might sound funny, but I think I almost enjoyed being miserable. Many songs just seem to come out when you’re depressed and wallowing in self-pity”. Among those songs were ‘In The Air Tonight’, ‘If Leaving Me Is Easy’, ‘Misunderstanding’ and a song that began life as ‘How Can You Sit There?’ but was later re-written in 1984 and became ‘Against All Odds’.
Following the release of Rutherford and Banks’ solo albums, Genesis re-grouped to plan their next, and for the first time Collins had a bunch of his own songs to present to the band. However, the intense personal nature of many of his compositions didn’t really appeal to Banks and Rutherford, and they rejected both ‘In The Air Tonight’ and ‘If Leaving Me Is Easy’ for the up-coming album Duke. There is some disagreement in the Genesis camp as to whether Phil actually played this material to the band – Mike Rutherford says ‘yes’ – Tony Banks says no. In his 2013 autobiography The Living Years, Rutherford speculates that ‘In The Air’ was somewhat different from the final drum-heavy finished product in its demo form and, consequently, while they probably heard it, it passed unnoticed.
‘Misunderstanding’ was, however, accepted and became a large US hit for the band in 1980, Collins’ first hit composition for Genesis. Following the release of Duke and the requisite US tour that followed, Phil Collins returned home and listened again to his song tapes. Mainly to pass the time he decided to record the songs that were completed and recalls, “I’d written the songs and then I was just stuck with this bunch of depressing songs that I needed to record. So I put them on eight-track and they were demos”. He still had no plans to release them, and had really only made them for his own satisfaction. However, all that changed when he played them to the head of Atlantic, Genesis’ American label, the legendary Ahmet Ertegun. Over the years Collins and Ertegun had become good friends and on hearing Phil’s home-demo’s, Ertegun was entranced – particularly with the song that would become his debut solo hit – and immediately announced, “You’ve got an album there”.
With Ertegun’s encouragement and a few production tips, Collins decided to use his original demos as the building bricks for his debut solo album with guest appearances by his many friends including Eric Clapton, Stephen Bishop and the Earth, Wind & Fire brass-section. The massive and so-called ‘gated’ drum sound on ‘In The Air Tonight’ was created with the assistance of co-producer Hugh Padgham, inspired by previous work he and Collins had done with Peter Gabriel. Regarding the lyrical content of the song, Collins has since recalled, “I was trying to move away from the complicated Genesis stuff, go in a simpler direction. I didn’t have any lyrics prepared, but I started singing, and what came out is what you hear on ‘In The Air’…”.
The album, Face Value, released in February 1981, became a surprise chart-topper, a million-seller, and immediately established Phil Collins as a major solo artist. He later became one of the biggest selling acts of the decade, while maintaining his “day” job as vocalist and drummer with Genesis. It’s interesting to speculate whether or not Collins would have embarked upon a solo career at all, had Genesis accepted ‘In The Air Tonight’ at the Duke sessions. Recalling that rejection Collins says, “I’m glad the others didn’t want to include ‘In The Air Tonight’, as I’m sure it wouldn’t have ended up sounding the way I wanted it to.”
Copyright © 2015 SongStories/Tony Burton