Oh Lord, the Urban Legend of “In the Air Tonight” Is Way Off

“I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord”

Love him or hate him, Phil Collins is responsible for one of the most legendary songs of the ‘80s. Speaking of legends, how many artists do you know who drop the beat three minutes and forty seconds into the song? Exactly.

Phil Collins / Phil Collins / Phil Collins / Jill Tavelman, Lily Collins, Phil Collins.
Source: Getty Images

In the Air Tonight goes from a seemingly moody track to full-blown drum-solo powerful more than halfway through the song, taking it into epic territory. The song has prevailed for decades, making appearances in TV, movies, the radio and in your earphones. But beyond the incredible music is the story behind the song…

A Mystery, a Mistake, and an Urban Legend

You know a song is epic when it goes above and beyond the actual sound. Sure, the song’s impressive drum fill is one of the greatest pieces of pop percussion ever. But the story – or the legend – that comes with the song might be even more powerful than the beat of those drums.

A studio portrait of Phil Collins.
Photo by Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

Phil Collins’ smash hit involves mystery, a production mistake that changed the future of music, and an urban legend that never even happened. You might have already heard about the story that “inspired” Collins to write the song, but where did it begin?

The Most Hated Man in Rock

When it comes to Phil Collins, the jury is out. People either love or hate the guy. On the one hand, he’s contributed to music in ways most artists only wish they could. But on the other hand, he’s known as “the most hated man in rock.”

A still of Phil Collins in his music video In the Air Tonight.
Source: YouTube

Allegedly divorcing his second wife via fax didn’t exactly help his image (but we’ll get to that later). Regardless of what team you’re on (pro- or anti-Phil), you can’t argue with the fact that In the Air Tonight is a blockbuster hit. Okay, so what’s all the hullabaloo? Let’s get to it…

The Urban Legend: A Man in the Sea

In 1981, Collins released In the Air Tonight, which happened to be the first big single of his solo career (RIP Genesis). But as his fame was skyrocketing, a legend was being created. The short of it: Collins witnessed a man drowning in the sea.

A still of Phil Collins during an interview.
Source: YouTube

The long of it: the story has multiple versions (as urban legends generally do). In one version, a drunk Collins watches from the shore as a man drowns. In another account, someone else was the onlooker and Collins was in a boat with another person during a wild storm.

Who’s the Guilty Man?

The boat then sinks and Collins swims ashore, but a random onlooker watches the tragedy – without offering help — as Collins’ companion gets swallowed by the current. Okay, fine, but there’s yet another version. This version has Collins taking revenge on a man who raped his wife!

Phil Collins and her wife at the time attend an event.
Photo by Kypros/Getty Images

Let’s all agree that this last version sounds more like the result of a game of broken telephone. All versions of the story feature the same thing: a guilty man and (probably) a drowning victim. The story goes on, though…

He’s Been Waiting All His Life

“And I’ve been waiting for this moment, for all my life, oh lord
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord, oh lord”

Many versions of the urban legend involve the guilty man getting tickets to a Phil Collins concert.

Phil Collins performs on stage.
Photo by Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Supposedly Collins tracked down the man who watched his friend drown and invited him to his concert only to shine the spotlight on him in a dramatic, accusatory way. They were front-row tickets to the concert in which he was premiering the song In the Air Tonight.

No Boat, No Drowning, No Villain

“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.”

Phil Collins performs on stage.
Photo by Stephane Cardinale/Sygma/Getty Images

“Well, I was there, and I saw what you did
I saw it with my own two eyes”

The lyrics do seem to fit perfectly with the whole “I saw what you did” narrative. But here’s the thing: none of this really happened. There was no boat, no drowning, and no villain.

A Pack of Lies

“So, you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been
It’s all been a pack of lies”

There was just a dude (Collins) with some very real emotions, singing about his divorce from his first wife (Andrea Bertorelli).

A dated portrait of Collins, Bertorelli, and her four-year-old daughter.
Photo by Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Collins debunked the urban legend, and recently, too. In 2016, while promoting his new memoir and the upcoming release of a new singles compilation album, Collins sat on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show couch and cleared everything up. After discussing his return from retirement, Fallon asked what every fan of the song wanted to know.

With the Interior Designer, No Less

“Well, I remember, I remember don’t worry
How could I ever forget”

Collins is aware of the urban legend that his song spawned, and while he admitted that it was a great story, it simply isn’t true. He confirmed that the song’s lyrics are actually about his divorce and failed marriage.

A picture of Bertorelli and Collins at their wedding.
Source: Pinterest

“No, you don’t fool me
The hurt doesn’t show, but the pain still grows
It’s no stranger to you and me”

The anger Collins felt over his ex-wife was understandable, too, considering he found out that she was cheating on him with their interior decorator, a man named Michael Burberry.

That Has Something to Do With It

Collins and Bertorelli were married from 1975 to 1980, after which he wrote the song. Collins admitted that the song was written “obviously in anger.” But how did it generate such a prominent urban legend? That’s the question that proves a lot harder to answer.

Phil Collins performs on stage.
Photo by Holger Hollemann/picture alliance/Getty Images

Well, there is the fact that people tend to take lyrics a little too literally sometimes. So, there’s that… And there’s the whole power of numbers thing. The single has been downloaded over three million times and has over 237 million views on YouTube. So, there’s that, too…

When Eminem Rapped About It

Collins has some famous fans, like Kanye West, Taylor Swift, and Lorde. His music is regularly sampled by hip-hop artists. Take Eminem, who made a reference to the myths surrounding In the Air Tonight in 2000’s Stan.

A portrait of Eminem.
Photo by Sal Idriss/Redferns/Getty Images

“You know the song by Phil Collins, “In the Air of the Night” [sic]
About that guy who coulda saved that other guy from drownin’
But didn’t, then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?”

Eminem’s song was one of the vehicles that drove the urban legend of In the Air Tonight.

Every Time He Comes to America

Collins told the BBC that the urban myth, which was wildly popular mostly in America, became increasingly annoying for the British musician. “Every time I go back to America, the story gets Chinese whispers; it gets more and more elaborate,” he said.

Phil Collins speaks during an interview.
Photo by Bernd Weissbrod/picture alliance/Getty Images

“It’s so frustrating,” he admitted, “cuz this is one song out of all the songs probably that I’ve ever written that I really don’t know what it’s about.” Well, he didn’t really mean that, considering he already admitted that it was about his divorce.

The Bitter Side

Collins revealed that he was so devastated by his wife’s infidelity while writing the song, so he naturally poured all his anger into it. He said the song was the “angry side, or the bitter side” of the end of a marriage. (We’ll get to hear Bertorelli’s side of the story soon).

A picture of Phil Collins during an interview at a radio station.
Photo by Impressions/Getty Images

As for that comment that he doesn’t really know what the song is about, he explained how he wrote the song’s lyrics spontaneously. In other words, he was basically in a state of flow and let his emotions get the better of him. (Is anyone else picturing him weeping alone at a candle-lit table with a bottle of wine?)

Rage, Despair, and Frustration

The song has a chilling feel which, according to Collins, is the result of the rage, despair and frustration that he felt at the time. Not long before, in 1979, he was the drummer and reluctant vocalist of Genesis (he stepped toward the mic after Peter Gabriel left the group).

An image of Collins during a concert.
Photo by Ross Marino/Getty Images

Genesis had just broken ground in America with their ninth studio album (And Then There Were Three) and hit single, Follow You Follow Me. They toured for nine months and did over 100 shows.

Triggered, With Time to Dwell

No wonder Bertorelli found herself in the arms (and bed) of another man. Collins needed time to himself. “I had a lot of time on my hands,” Collins told the BBC, referring to his album Face Value, which included In the Air Tonight.

A portrait of Bertorelli.
Photo by Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The album was “definitely autobiographical” and “triggered by” his divorce. But even before his self-therapy, Genesis regrouped for their 10th album, Duke. Collins presented several songs he had just written to his bandmates, one of them being the dark hymn he titled In the Air Tonight.

A Happy Accident

Genesis rejected the song, only to regret it later on. Collins kept it tucked away for a while, until Face Value came out, and he then made it the album’s opening track. Remember the part about the song including some kind of mistake that changed music forever?

A picture of the album cover.
Source: Pinterest

Well, it fits into this part of the story. Somewhere between Duke and Face Value, Collins found time to play the drums on his ex-bandmate, Gabriel’s, third solo album. In the studio was a microphone that the drummer used to communicate with the producer in the control room.

Capturing the Echo

The accident occurred at the moment the mic was accidentally left on, as Collins was drumming away on Gabriel’s song, Intruder. Producer Hugh Padgham loved what he was hearing – the talkback mic was capturing the echo — the reverb — of the drums in the control room.

A picture of Phil Collins at the recording studio.
Photo by Comic Relief/Getty Images

The noise was then suddenly cut off before the echo had the chance to fade away naturally. Padgham knew he had caught something magical. So, he and his engineers worked through the night to rewire the panel in order for them to reproduce the sound the following day.

A New Technique Was Born

That’s exactly what they did. The next day, they replicated Collins’ drums and managed to create a new technique. And thus, a new method, known as “gated reverb,” was born. Technically, Peter Gabriel’s Intruder was the first track to ever use gated reverb, but let’s be honest…

An image of Phil Collins’ concert.
Photo by Fryderyk Gabowicz/picture alliance/Getty Images

It was In the Air Tonight that made the technique famous. The gated reverb on the dramatic, loud drum fill of the song became the sound of drums in the ‘80s. You can hear it on the records of Whitney Houston, Madonna, Prince, David Bowie, and more.

Everyone Wanted That Sound

After In the Air Tonight was released, other producers and musicians were saying, “I want that sound.” Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne declared decades later that the song’s “drum fill is the best ever. It still sounds awesome.”

A picture of Phil Collins performing on stage.
Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But the ‘80s were the ‘80s, and the sound eventually fell out of fashion once the ‘90s came around. But sound (like fashion) has a tendency to be cyclical. Remember Gotye’s mega-hit Somebody That I Used to Know? Well, Australian producer Francois Tetaz, who won a Grammy for his work on the track, was inspired by Collins’ drums.

That Song From the Fish Joint

Tetaz was in a fish and chips joint when he heard In the Air Tonight for the first time on a jukebox during a family holiday when he was 11 years old. The song stayed in his mind ever since. “It’s a very primal song,” Tetaz remarked.

A picture of Francois Tetaz.
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

“Here’s a guy who sounds angry, maybe letting someone drown. He’s kind of yelling. And then it busts into this very physical moment when the drums come in.” For him, the drum fill symbolises the moment when Collins snaps. Good thing he had drums…

When the Record Execs Added Their Two Cents

The funny thing is the original version of the song didn’t have the soft percussion that you can hear in the background throughout the first three and half minutes of the song. Rather, it featured extra drums that played underneath the song.

A portrait of Ahmet Ertegun.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

They were added afterward when Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun suggested it. “Ahmet came down to the final mix in the cutting room in New York,” Collins explained. “The drums don’t come in until the end, but Ahmet didn’t know that at this point.”

Where’s the Backbeat? We Gotta Have More Backbeat!

On the demo, the drums didn’t come in at all – it was “only drum machine all the way,” Collins said. Ahmet was asking him in the studio, “Where’s the down beat, where’s the backbeat?” Collins told Ertegun to wait a minute – the drums were coming.

A picture of Collins during an interview.
Photo by Philip Dethlefs/picture alliance/Getty Images

“Yeah, you know that, and I know that, but the kids don’t know that; you’ve got to put the drums on earlier,” Ertegun snapped. And so, they “added some drums to the mix and put it out as a single.” The rest, folks, is history.

When Reaction Videos Are Actually Good

Over the years, the song has been used in movies (the Hangover) and on TV (Miami Vice, Family Guy). It’s also popped up on Risky Business, Ashes to Ashes, and in 2007, in a Dairy Milk commercial featuring a certain gorilla playing the drums.

A screengrab of TwinsthenewTrend’s video listening to the song.
Source: YouTube

Thanks to these appearances, the song re-entered the mainstream. Then, in 2020, thanks to the whole reaction video phenomenon, the song hit the stratosphere again. The video went viral when two twins, YouTubers Fred and Tim Williams (TwinsthenewTrend) recorded themselves listening to the song for the first time. With over 9.5 million views, the video is hilariously authentic.

The Top of the Pops Version

One of Collins’ performances made it pretty clear that the true inspiration for the song was his ex-wife and her affair with the interior decorator. When he performed on Top of the Pops, he sang the song with a pot of paint and a brush sitting on a workbench next to his keyboard.

A video still from the performance
Source: YouTube

Collins claimed that the bench was there because he used it as a keyboard stand. And when he saw a paint and brush backstage, he wanted to incorporate it into the stage art. Coincidence? His wife thinks not.

The Video Was So ‘80s

The official music video was directed by Stuart Orme, and it animates the photograph of Collins’ face from the Face Value album cover. The image slowly fades in until it fills the screen. Then we see Collins sitting in an empty room at night.

A still from the music video.
Source: YouTube

There’s a whole series of rooms, doors, mirrors, and windows. It’s all very ‘80s and nothing that we would see these days. Nonetheless, it received a Grammy nomination for Best Video, Short Form. And as of July 2021, the video has over 237 million views on YouTube.

They Were Once High School Sweethearts

“I felt sick and betrayed,” Andrea Bertorelli told The Daily Mail at the time. “I knew straight away it was a message to me.” Collins has had three wives; Bertorelli was his first and seems to have been the one who generated the most drama.

Phil Collins as a young man in a posed portrait.
Photo by Ron Howard/Redferns/Getty Images

The two first met as kids, when they were both 11. Collins was acting at that point. They both went to the same school, they worked at a theater together, and dated as teenagers. When they turned 18, they split because Andrea and her family moved to Canada.

Collins Is No Saint

It was after his rise to fame as the drummer for Genesis that Collins and Bertorelli reunited and tied the knot (in 1970). In 1976, Bertorelli was pregnant with their son, Simon, when Collins was about to hit the road with Genesis.

An image of Genesis performing on stage.
Photo by Mondadori/Getty Images

As Bertorelli recalls, the drummer had no problem leaving her and their two-day-old newborn baby for a two-year world tour with his band. The couple eventually grew apart and she cheated on him with the decorator. But Collins is no saint – he apparently cheated on her with other women, too.

The Cease-and-Desist Order

Here’s a fun fact: in October 2020 there was a cease-and-desist order issued to Trump’s campaign team when they played In the Air Tonight. Collins and his team sent the order to the former president when he played the song at one of his political rallies.

Collins attends an event.
Photo by Desiree Navarro/Getty Images

Collins was one of many artists who banned Trump from using their songs at his rallies. If you’re curious, other artists who did so include Neil Young, The Rolling Stones and the Village People who, only a few days before Collins’ order, objected to their song Y.M.C.A. being used at the rallies.

Only Half of the Story

Giving Collins’ version of events regarding In the Air Tonight would only be telling half the story. Sure, his heartbreak sent him down a path that would lead to a fortune, but what about the woman who inspired that heartbreak? How did she end up?

A picture of Bertorelli.
Source: Pinterest

Andrea Bertorelli had to sit back and listen to her name being tainted in the media as the cheating ex-wife. In 2015, 35 years after the song aired her and Collins’ dirty laundry, Bertorelli decided to speak up.

A Raging Bully

She’s tired of hearing that damn song, tired of hearing him talk about their divorce in interviews and tired of everyone only knowing his side of the story, which she says is not the true story. “Our marriage broke down for many different reasons,” she revealed.

Collins performs on stage.
Photo by Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images

We know that Collins was away from home a lot with the touring and all, but she made a point to mention his “short fuse and preference for arguing instead of discussing anything we disagreed on.” Bertorelli said he “would rage a lot, and I felt like I was being bullied.”

Preach, Bertorelli, Preach

Turning the tables, Bertorelli claims that she was the one to initiate the divorce because of HIS adultery. Indeed, contrary to the popular myth, she says that she was the one who divorced the singer on the grounds of his adultery.

Collins attends an event.
Photo by Kypros/Getty Images

“I divorced him – not him me – on the grounds of his adultery and he agreed.” She said that she heard of his affairs “long before” she had one. “When we got divorced, he named another woman that I had never heard of, so I don’t know where and when it happened.”

Playing the Victim

With all the fame and fortune, he made from their failed marriage, he “never stopped to consider” her feelings or those of their children. For decades, he’s been playing the victim, “and I think it’s time he stopped.”

A portrait of Collins at home.
Photo by Dick Loek/Toronto Star/Getty Images

In 2011, Collins announced his retirement, only to return to the industry a few years later. And when he returned, it opened some wounds for then 63-year-old Bertorelli, who splits her time between Canada and England. Even after all these years, Collins – as she sees it – is still poking at those old wounds of hers in interviews…

His Return From Retirement Opened Some Wounds

Phil’s return to music hasn’t been such a smooth ride. He’s not only battled alcoholism and depression, but he can also no longer play the drums after suffering a spinal injury in 2010. He had to be pulled out of a concert in Miami in 2014, due to a neurological affliction.

Collins performs on stage.
Photo by Larry Marano/Getty Images

Still, he makes his TV appearances. In one interview, he admitted to feeling guilty for not spending enough time with his eldest children, Simon, now in his 40s, and Joely, Bertorelli’s daughter whom he adopted during their marriage.

Everything Changed in 1975

Collins added, though, that it’s about the “chemistry of the people involved.” He said, “Simon’s mother, my other half, has got her part to play in all that as well.” For Bertorelli, those words were her final straw. Blaming her for him not seeing his children is “typical of him,” she said.

A portrait of Collins during an interview.
Photo by Lionel Derimais/Corbis/Getty Images

That’s when she realized she needed to speak out. Bertorelli has known Collins longer than most people have, and she says his newfound fame back in 1975 – when he took over for Gabriel in Genesis – changed him.

From Drummer to Center Stage

“Drummers don’t get much attention, so when he was just doing that, he could be a low-key guy,” she explained. But once he became the frontman, it all got to his head. “His drive and ambition became his No. 1 priority, and his ego started to grow.”

An image of Collins on stage playing the drums.
Photo by Ronald van Caem/Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images

When she discovered she was pregnant, and he announced his world tour, she knew their marriage wouldn’t survive. In interviews, Collins would say that Bertorelli threatened him that if he went, she wouldn’t be there when he got back.

Collins Hits the Road

We can see the patterns by now; obviously, Bertorelli remembers it differently. In the end, Simon was born two weeks after her due date, and since she felt pressured to give birth before the tour started, they had her induced.

A dated portrait of the band Genesis.
Photo by Mondadori/Getty Images

Within a day or two of being released from the hospital, Collins hit the road. It was just her, the baby, and her four-year-old daughter at home in their London house. According to Bertorelli, Collins had “no empathy at all” for his wife’s situation. He would tell her to get over it – to stop complaining.

On the Road = Free Man

One time, Bertorelli was looking forward to joining her husband in Japan during his tour, but they got into a fight instead. He canceled her ticket and called the tour manager in front of her. Being on the road meant he was a free man.

A closeup on Collins during a Genesis concert.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

By this stage in their relationship, his temper was causing major problems. “It was out of control,” she stated. He would snap, rage, scream and shout – all in front of the kids. Needless to say, she found it unacceptable.

An (Understandably) Brief Affair

Around this time, Bertorelli befriended a man who was helping a friend renovate their house. He wasn’t a decorator by trade, Bertorelli clarified. “We had a brief affair and I told Phil as soon as he came home.”

An image of Collins during a concert.
Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images

According to her, they did their best to put it behind them, but the issues remained. Things only got worse as Collins was always fighting with her over everything. “For me it was already over before the affair happened.” As she contemplated leaving her husband, she went to Canada with the kids to think…

“Phil Went Nuts”

Collins came to visit her and tried to convince her to come back home. But Bertorelli’s mind was already made up. Six months later, she came back to the UK and met a new man. Her subsequent two-year relationship with this guy made Collins jealous.

A current picture of Collins during a concert.
Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns/Getty Images

“Phil went nuts,” she shared. He found the man’s number and kept calling his house, demanding to speak with Bertorelli. Eventually, she and the kids relocated to Vancouver, Canada, and she suddenly found herself in the center of media attention, thanks to his new album and hit song.

Blinded by Fame and Fortune

Then there was the infamous Top of The Pops performance with the paint can and all. Now, Collins was being portrayed as the good guy and she as the villain. And there was nothing she could do about it. She did, however, ask him to stop talking and writing songs about their relationship.

A portrait of Collins during a photoshoot.
Photo by Johnny Louis/WireImage/Getty Images

His response? He had “the artistic license to write about whatever he wanted.” Typical. To Bertorelli, he was just trying to make money out of an ugly divorce, which eclipsed any sort of guilt he might have been feeling.

The So-Called Divorce Fax

As promised, let’s take a look at that rumor that Phil Collins divorced his second wife, Jill Tavelman, by fax. Collins has been accused of many things, and this was no less embarrassing than the others. But the musician rejected the rumor.

A picture of Jill, Lily, and Phil attending an event.
Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

He did admit that he and Tavelman tended to communicate through fax, but he never divorced her that way. The fax in question was one Collins sent to their daughter (actress Lily Collins from Emily in Paris), which was then reproduced on the front cover of The Sun in 1993. Still, the British media repeated the fax claim multiple times.