The coolification of Phil Collins is among pop’s most curious turnrounds. The former Genesis drummer and frontman scored seven US No 1 singles, and more than 100m album sales worldwide, after launching his career as a solo singer in 1981 with “In the Air Tonight”. By the mid-1990s, though, his name was mud with critics, and as popular tastes changed, his earnest balladry came to be seen as corny as one of his flat caps.
That today he is lauded by Lorde, the influential New Zealand singer-songwriter, covered by Kanye West and remotely fist-bumped by Brooklyn hipsters such as Yeasayer is largely down to gangsta rap, a Cadbury’s chocolate-promoting gorilla and the “gated reverb” drum sound of “In the Air Tonight”.
Hip-hop never got the memo about Collins being uncool. “Don’t mess with my Phil,” Ice-T (of “Cop Killer” fame) reportedly once told a disparaging hack. DMX sampled the eerie synth line and core lyric of “In the Air Tonight” on “I Can Feel It” in 1998. What he, and others including Nas and 2 Pac, heard in that song is probably the same emotional directness and atmospheric production that make it an obvious template for the current wave of murky, downtempo R&B, exemplified by acts from James Blake to The Weeknd.
Built around the ominous chant, “I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord”, you might well call Collins’s track, the opener of his 1981 debut solo album Face Value, ambient blues.
Having played with Brian Eno in the 1970s, Collins understood ambient music. He wrote the song at the lowest of ebbs and in the saddest of keys, D minor. His first wife had left him, so he set up a studio in his bedroom and poured out his pain over a Prophet-5 synthesiser and a Roland CR-78 drum machine.
The words were mostly improvised. Collins continues to maintain he doesn’t know what the song means beyond it being a litany of “anger, bitterness and hurt”. It took Ahmet Ertegun, the boss of Atlantic, to encourage him to turn the demo into a proper record, and the rest is Collins’s solo career.
The characteristic drum sound — which became a blueprint for much 1980s rock and funk — was a happy accident. It had been discovered by Collins and the engineer Hugh Padgham when the pair were working on Peter Gabriel’s third album. By chance, Padgham heard Collins’s drums in the studio through the “talkback” microphone on a new console; with the room echo, they sounded huge and wonderfully distorted.
Padgham added a “noise gate” effect to increase the punchiness of the signal by cutting it off quickly: the sonic equivalent of not knowing what has hit you. With Padgham then producing the album Face Value, they recreated the technique to produce one of the most celebrated drum breaks on “In the Air Tonight”.
The way the drums batter out of the album version is like a defiant snarl of rage, all the more powerful and surprising for the minimal build-up. For the single, Ertegun insisted an initial backbeat be overdubbed for easier listening. The song was only pipped as a UK No 1 by John Lennon’s posthumous chart-topper “Woman”.
But the advertising agency behind the famous British 2007 chocolate-bar television commercial shrewdly used the original. The drumming “gorilla” seems to have been waiting all his life before launching into his big fill (pun intended).
Aged 65, Collins is now capitalising on his newfound credibility by reissuing his catalogue under the rubric Take a Look at Me Now. Not everyone is pleased that he is “no longer in retirement”. Since last November, almost 5,000 people have signed a jocular petition to “stop” him returning to music. It would be churlish of even the most pernickety troll to deny that “In the Air Tonight” still raises the nape hairs, 35 years on.
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photograph: Gabor Scott/Redferns