In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins was released on January 9, 1981, with The Roof Is Leaking as the B side. It the lead single from Collins’ debut solo album Face Value.
The song was an international hit, reaching No. 1 on several charts, including the Dutch Top 40 and the Swiss Singles Chart. It was a No. 2 hit in the United Kingdom and Canada, and reached No. 19 in the United States on the Billboard Hot 100.
I clearly remember hearing the urban legend that grew around the meaning of this song after it was released. There are variations, but the version I recall is that Collins watched a man drown and either couldn’t or was too scared to help. Later it morphed into Collins watching another man not save a third man from drowning.
Regardless of which version you may have heard in the 80s, Collins claims none of them are true. In this interview with the BBC World Service, Collins talks about the meaning of the song:
“I don’t know what this song is about. When I was writing this I was going through a divorce. And the only thing I can say about it is that it’s obviously in anger. It’s the angry side, or the bitter side of a separation. So what makes it even more comical is when I hear these stories which started many years ago, particularly in America, of someone come up to me and say, ‘Did you really see someone drowning?’ I said, ‘No, wrong’.”