FFWDing to the Best Part: “In the Air Tonight,” Phil Collins (1981)

All right, let’s get this shit out of the way.

Best part? 3:16-3:20. Everyone knows this song has an 11-beat drum solo, the likes of which will never be duplicated. Everyone plays the air drums/beats the steering wheel/vocalizes the rhythm every damn time this song gets played on 80s on 8 (or your terrestrial radio station of choice).  But the thing is … (shhh!) … it’s kind of the only good part of the song.


What?  Think about it. The whole thing is about 15 beats-per-minute too slow, the melody is boring, and the lyrics lost all mystique once the whole true story of a guilt-ravaged SOB who spiraled off the mortal coil after being literally spotlighted by Phil Collins himself urban legend was proven to be just that — the stuff of legend (Eminem’s efforts to perpetuate said myth notwithstanding).

Wikipedia says this about the drum solo:

The mood is one of restrained anger until the final chorus when an explosive burst of drums releases the musical tension, and the instrumentation builds to a thundering final chorus.

I beg to differ. After the”explosive burst,” Phil kinda just returns to the same-old same-old of the chorus. No key change, no crescendo, no real change in mood, despite what the almighty Wikipedia thinks it hears.

But the drum solo remains unequivocally iconic. Even though it’s performed on a drum machine, for God’s sake.  Just when we all thought Phil Collins was cool.


5 thoughts on “FFWDing to the Best Part: “In the Air Tonight,” Phil Collins (1981)

  1. Music is essentially a puzzle of suspense and release. This is why Michael Bolton is not a musician; he starts off full tilt and has nowhere to go. Phil Collins, by contrast, is a great musician who knows to start off sedately and build a web of tension through spiteful lyrics (he wrote a lot of songs about his divorce), sighing guitar licks, and mysterious keyboard and drum patches. By the time the bass, drums, and bloopy octaved keyboard come in at the 3:40 mark, we’re begging for the release. Collins’ vocals do get more impassioned from that point on; he’s basically shouting on the fadeout chorus.

    The song’s early percussion is indeed electronic, but surely the drums that come in at 3:40 are acoustic. They do sound weird, though. Collins discovered how to run them through an oddly configured volume gate on the mixing board that causes each drum strike to cut off abruptly rather than decaying naturally. Nature has curves, not lines, so linear music strikes our ear as odd and synthetic, just like Cher’s autotuned vocals on “Believe.” Collins’ “gated drum” sound would, like synth bass, become one of the defining characteristics of “80s music.” Collins of course used his creation quite a bit subsequently, as on the opening bars of “Don’t Lose Me Number.”

    Many songs with a “best moment” are really just a single riff that makes the rest of the song unnecessary, just noodling around until it’s time to play the riff again. The singing in Van Halen’s “Jump” is totally unnecessary; that fat synth track is all that matters, which is why it appears in not only the verse but also the chorus, over and over. Many, many pop songs (Can You Take Me Higher appears on this blog, for instance) are really just a chorus with a verse that doesn’t matter at all.

    But “In The Air Tonight” is not one of those songs. Yes, there’s one indisputable moment of awesomeness in the song. But it’s not awesome in isolation. If you started the song right there, it would just be a decent drum fill. What makes those few seconds awesome is the 3:40 of claustrophobic setup coming beforehand.

    This is precisely why the version with more drums in the first half of the song is inferior to the album version with no drums, just a little clicky percussion (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Mt0ee9FraQ). But Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun didn’t trust fickle radio listeners to stick around long enough to get to the DUNDUN-DUNDUN-DUNDUN-DUNDUN-Dun-Dun, so the radio single version has that added drum in the first half of the song. Thankfully, whenever I hear “In the Air Tonight” on the radio now, it’s the album version. Everybody now knows the release is worth the suspense.

  2. Pingback: FFWDing to the Best Part: “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” Band Aid (1984) | Neurotic City

  3. Pingback: FFWDing to the Best Part: “Invisible Touch,” Genesis (1986) | Neurotic City

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