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Phil Collins: In The Air Tonight

Phil Collins
Photo Credit: Raph_PH

British singer Phil Collins is a man of many talents: as well as being an international best-selling solo artist, the 67-year-old is also a renowned songwriter, record-producer, multi-instrumentalist and actor.

The Chiswick-born star has been in the entertainment industry for an amazing 55 years, starting out as an actor in theatrical productions and going on to become one of the world’s best-selling recording stars. He had more top 40 singles in the US chart than any other artist in the 1980s, achieving seven number ones.

He has also won a multitude of awards, including eight Grammys and six Brit Awards — winning Best British Male three times. Since 1999, he’s even had his own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and he became an inductee of the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2003.


Collins’ first theatrical success was when he played a leading role as the Artful Dodger in the Barbara Speake Stage School’s Oliver, the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, in 1963.

In 1964, he played a teenage fan in the Beatles’ film, Hard Day’s Night. He then took on the role as youngster, Mike Lucas, who nursed a cow back to health, so he could appear in the show ring in the Children’s Film Foundation’s, Calamity the Cow, in 1967.

In his later career, in addition to his success as the drummer and vocalist with legendary rock band Genesis from 1970 to 1996, he also established himself as a serious actor.

Taking the lead role, he starred in the crime drama, Buster, in 1988. He co-wrote four songs for the movie’s soundtrack, including Loco in Acapulco. He also supplied vocals for Disney’s Jungle Book 2 in 2003.


Despite his acting talents, Collins pursued his music career, enjoying success as a solo artist, as well as his many years with Genesis. Probably his best known solo single, In the Air Tonight, was released in January 1981.

Often called his signature song, it’s famous for his exciting drum break, described by critics as “the most melodramatic drum break” of all time.

The song was ranked number 35 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of the 1980s and was an international top ten hit across Europe, in Australia and New Zealand. In the United States, it reached number 19 in the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The video was played extensively on the then-new TV music channel, MTV, which had just been launched in 1981.

In the Air Tonight origins

Described as a classic “rock oddity”, In the Air Tonight became known for its atmospheric production and rather eerie ambience. Collins said he had written it following the breakdown of his marriage in 1980 to his first wife, Andrea Bertorelli.

He said the lyrics were written spontaneously and admitted he “wasn’t quite sure” exactly what the song was about, although it was filled with “anger, despair and frustration”. The divorce hit Collins hard and contributed to his hiatus from Genesis.

The narrator of the song relates a dark monologue to another person, saying lines such as, “If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand,” and adding, “Wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been, it’s all been a pack of lies.”

It consisted of ominous chords played by an analog synthesiser (the Circuits Prophet-5) over a drum machine pattern played on the Roland CR-78.

Collins, who sang on the track, admitted the majority of the drum pattern was already on the drum machine. However, he programmed a new bass drum part into the machine. He then experimented with the recording studio’s technology to perfect the sound that made it unique.

He used a function on the mixing desk called “reverse talk-back” to create the special effects throughout the track and in particular on the crashing drum crescendo near the end. The original single didn’t have any additional drum beat, but Atlantic Records’ head Ahmet Ertegun felt it didn’t sound great.

During the final mix, he repeatedly asked Collins what had happened to the drum beat. Collins explained the drums came in at the end, but Ertegun said drums must go in earlier, because the fans wouldn’t understand the fact there was no backbeat. So Collins put drums into the mix and the single was released.

Gorilla advert

In the Air Tonight became Collins’ biggest ever hit. It entered the UK chart at number 36, but after appearing on Top of the Pops, DJ Dave Lee Travis predicted it would be top three. Collins admitted he had his doubts, but sure enough, the song shot up to number three.

However, it never reached the top spot, peaking at number two, because following the tragic death of John Lennon, his single, Woman, was released posthumously and went straight to number one.

In the Air Tonight found its way into popular culture, becoming the theme song of a TV advert voted the nation’s all-time favourite by Marketing magazine. The 2007 Cadbury’s gorilla advert was initially disliked by marketing executives, but when it was released, it went viral.

The idea was dreamed up by Juan Cabral, creative director of advertising agency Fallon London. It wasn’t created as an advert for Cadbury’s initially – Cabral was shooting another advert and chatting with the crew as they waited for it to stop raining, so they could continue filming outdoors.

While they were talking about the world’s greatest drum solos, Cabral thought of the Phil Collins’ solo – and suddenly, the idea of a lone gorilla, sitting drumming for relaxation in an empty room, came to mind. Cabral thought of releasing it as a short film.

“Random” idea

Then, Cadbury’s approached Fallon London and said they wanted to make an advert that was fun and different. The brief was to create an advert that shouted, “Eating chocolate makes you feel good.”

Cadbury’s executives felt that the business had become too serious and earnest. Cabral had an instinctive feeling that the drumming gorilla fitted the brief, feeling good as he played the drum solo from In the Air Tonight.

However, the management at Fallon London thought that Cabral had “gone mad”, to use his own words. They criticised the “random” idea behind the 90-minute advert that was three times as long as normal, contained no Cadbury’s chocolate and no clear message.

Phil Rumbol, Cadbury’s director of marketing at the time, liked the idea, but it also took him some time to persuade his superiors that it hit the mark.


Once the advert was commissioned, Fallon London obtained an animatronic gorilla costume from Stan Winston Studio in Hollywood. It had been used in the 1995 film, Congo.

Actor Garon Michael was hired to wear the costume and he spent endless hours practicing the drum solo, so he could create the feeling that the creature had been “waiting for this moment all his life”.

Filming took just one day and editing took two more days. Computer-generated imagery was still in its early stages and there was little margin for error, so they had to get it right, including details such as the close-up scene, where the gorilla shows his gold tooth.

It took Rumbol four months to persuade Cadbury’s executives that it was a great advert. Finally, the drumming gorilla was aired during the grand-final of Big Brother, on 31st August 2007. It went viral straight away and created a massive buzz, because no one had seen anything like it before.

Sales of Cadbury’s chocolate increased by 10% and it was agreed the marketing campaign had been a huge success. Today, the advert showing the gorilla playing the drum solo to In the Air Tonight is almost as well-known as Collins’ original version of the iconic song!

Something in the air

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Phil Collins: In The Air Tonight

by GREE UK time to read: 5 min