In December 2017, Phil Collins posted a Tweet suggesting that if you start playing his 1981 hit, “In the Air Tonight” at 11:56:40 on New Year’s Eve, the iconic drum break will commence right as midnight strikes and the new year starts.
Ever since then, this bit of trivia has circulated on social media, keeping the song front and center.
Written in the wake of his first marriage disintegrating, the song has been a source of urban legends due to the line, “If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand.” (Yes, failures in humanities education stretch well back into the 1980s.) As Collins has explained, this is a figurative drowning, and meant to be analogous to “I wouldn’t give you the time of day if you asked” or a similar rebuke. Yet, from the 1980s and accelerating through the online chat and social media eras, there has been a persistent set of conspiracy theories that the song was inspired by a drowning Collins witnessed or participated in. In 2000, Eminem mentioned this in his song “Stan,” with the protagonist saying:
You know that song by Phil Collins, “In The Air Tonight,” about that guy who could have saved that other guy from drowning but he didn’t? Then Phil saw it all then at his show he found him? That’s kind of how this is. You could have rescued me from drowning.
The song was Collins’ first as a solo artist, and he would go on to become one of the most prolific and dominant singers and songwriters of the 1980s. A powerful and versatile singer, many forgot that Collins was an amazing drummer, having served the role for Genesis, one of the most ambitious and accomplished bands of the 1970s and for decades after.
The album featuring the song — Face Value — outsold every other Genesis album, which caused the group to shift from a prog rock style to a more pop style, releasing Abacab later the same year. From that point on, Genesis and Collins became dominant forces in 1980s pop music. In 1986, former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel moved in a more pop music direction himself, scoring major hits with “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time.” In fact, “Sledgehammer” was the song to displace Genesis’ “Invisible Touch” from its #1 spot on the charts at the time.
“In the Air Tonight” was a modest hit when it was first released, but when it was featured in the first episode of Miami Vice, a groundbreaking television show of the mid-1980s, the show’s use of the song propelled it up the charts to #19, its peak.
Since then, it has become a regular in dozens of television shows and movies. One of the most memorable features Mike Tyson singing the song as he enters the trashed hotel room in the 2009 movie The Hangover, and then demanding everyone remain quiet as the drum break lands and Tyson plays air drums to it.
The performance here is from 2004. Since then, a series of health issues have plagued Collins, leaving him struggling to walk and preventing him from performing. But this shows the man’s greatness in full — imagine holding thousands spellbound with a song you wrote, and then singing with such power and control while flawlessly playing one of the most raw and iconic drum breaks ever recorded?