The TRUE Story Behind This Favorite ’80s Song

Phil Collins blows a kiss toward fans during his Not Dead Yet Tour at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix on Oct. 15, 2019.Phil Collins

It’s Phil Collins’ birthday! The singer, songwriter, drummer, record producer, and actor is 73 today!

When you really stop to think about it, he brought us so many favorite songs, first with Genesis and then during his solo career.

Songs like “Follow You Follow Me,” “Invisible Touch,” “Throwing It All Away,” “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now),” “Sussudio,” and “In The Air Tonight.”

It’s that song, “In The Air Tonight,” that was his first single as a solo artist. It’s the song that has us air drumming every time it comes on. It’s also the song that has sparked so many urban legends.

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

The lyrics are dark and haunting. You’ve probably heard a variation of the story that goes something like this: Phil Collins was a young man and was swimming with a friend. That friend started to drown and a man nearby could have saved him, but didn’t. Somehow Collins knew that man was going to be at one of his concerts later in life, and he wrote the song just for him. When the drum part kicked in, police swarmed and arrested the man.

The story took on a life of its own. The rapper Eminem even included it in his song “Stan!”

You know the song by Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight”
About that guy who could’ve saved that other guy from drowning
But didn’t, then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?

Collins always denied the myths, and said he kind of liked the mystery of it all.

But in 2016, he told Rolling Stone the true story behind the song. He wrote it after he divorced his first wife Andrea Bertorelli.

“I wrote it after my wife left me,” Collins said. “Genesis had done a tour that was far too long. She said to me, ‘We won’t be together if you do the next tour.’ I said, ‘I’m a musician. I have to go away and play. Just hold your breath when I’m over there.’ Then Genesis toured Japan. When I got back, she said she was leaving and taking the kids.”

Collins said he was distraught and heartbroken. “One day I was working on a piece in D-minor, the saddest [key] of all. I just wrote a sequence, and it sounded nice. I wrote the lyrics spontaneously. I’m not quite sure what the song is about, but there’s a lot of anger, a lot of despair, and a lot of frustration.”

Collins turned his despair over divorce into a debut solo song that still resonates today. Happy birthday to Phil Collins!

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