Iconic musical hooks can come in many forms: a shredding guitar solo, a wordless chant, a sultry sax riff, or even a crafty bit of whistling. But it’s safe to say that no other drum fill has ever wormed its way as deeply into the popular consciousness as Phil Collins’ descending 10-note tom-tom break on “In the Air Tonight.”
Collins himself doesn’t seem to place too much importance on the fill, which he happened to improvise during one take of the chilly, foreboding power ballad, the lead single from his 1981 solo debut Face Value. “Barking seals, that’s what it sounds like,” he said in 2019, reflecting on the approximately two-second passage that he’ll forever be best known for.
The fill’s persistent stickiness may have a lot to do with context: the fact that it arrives more than three and a half minutes into a five-and-a-half-minute song, after an almost unbearable build-up of tension. But even on its own, the figure is absurdly catchy and absolutely indelible. In the four decades since the song’s release, as “In the Air Tonight” has become a permanent fixture on adult-contemporary radio, the fill has turned up everywhere from Miami Vice to The Hangover, and lately it’s become a bona fide meme, soundtracking absurd viral videos and serving as the centerpiece of YouTubers’ Tim and Fred Williams’ internet-blanketing 2020 “In the Air Tonight” reaction clip. (“I ain’t gonna lie, Phil, you got me on that,” said a stunned Tim after the beat dropped.)
Here, in honor of the song’s 40th birthday this month, are nine of our favorite iterations of the immortal drum lick that deserves to be known henceforth simply as “The Fill.”
Mike Tyson Air-Drums the Fill to the Amazement of the Hangover Gang
The Hangover marked the moment where the Fill broke through to another level of pop-cultural immortality. The drum break turns up during one of the film’s most surreal scenes, when Phil, Stu, and Alan return to their Vegas hotel room after attempting to piece together their night of blackout partying, only to find “In the Air Tonight” blasting and none other than Mike Tyson sitting at a piano in the living room. “Shhh, this is my favorite part coming up right now,” the self-portraying boxer says, before furiously air-drumming the Fill — just before he decks Alan and knocks him out cold.
Questlove Nails It One-Handed on The Tonight Show
If anyone has ever seemed to derive more joy out of the Fill than Tyson, it just might be Questlove. The Roots member became the envy of every drummer on the planet when he got to perform “In the Air Tonight” with Collins himself on a 2016 episode of The Tonight Show. He sat more or less still behind his kit for more than three long minutes, only raising his sticks for a quick cymbal swell. When it came time for the Fill, he spiced it up with that inimitable Questlove cool, cascading down his toms with only one hand. The crowd let out a massive cheer, and the drummer flashed a quick, well-deserved grin.
An Unwitting Deer Takes an “In the Air the Tonight”–Scored Trip
Not every instance of the Fill is so graceful. One of the many viral videos that’s riffed on it uses “In the Air Tonight” to soundtrack footage of a deer roaming around a suburban backyard. The animal walks toward a tiny children’s slide and — right at the moment when we’d normally hear the Fill — completely wipes out as it tries to step through. The audio track mutes so that instead of Collins’ perfectly in-time figure, we only hear the random clacking of hooves on plastic. Like many viral animal videos, the clip is nonsensical yet somehow mesmerizing. (For more animal-related “In the Air Tonight” fun, check out this Cadbury ad that featured a very determined gorilla bashing out the Fill.)
A Bored TikTok User Re-orchestrates the Fill for Kitchen Cabinets
A more graceful take on the Fill came courtesy of TikTok user Frank (of the account @frankandtracy), who stands in his kitchen with the track blasting and, in a series of fierce, almost karate-like movements, shuts cabinets and drawers in perfect sync with the Fill.
One Musician Extends It Across 99 Drums …
Jared Falk, founder of the drum-instruction site Drumeo, pulled off a more extensive bit of “In the Air Tonight” choreography when he lined up no fewer than 99 expertly tuned tom-toms in a long and winding path that led from his drum studio, up and down several flights of stairs, and outside the building before ending up back in front of his kit. Falk played the first half of the song, then looped the Fill, extending it across every single drum in the course, and finally sitting back down to play out the remainder of the tune. Not a bad way to prolong the awesomeness of the original.
While Another Stretches It Out Across 70 Minutes
Another hyperextended version of the Fill came courtesy of Texas musician Joseph Prein, who looped the passage for a whopping 70 minutes, gradually distorting and overlapping it to create all sorts of mind-bending variations. We can’t imagine that Collins ever had anything in mind like this, but Prein’s collage turns the Fill into a weirdly hypnotic bit of sound art.
A Whole Drumline Tackles the Fill at Once
An even larger-scale “In the Air Tonight” happening occurred when Iowa cover band the Pork Tornadoes teamed up with the Minnesota Vikings Skol Line drum ensemble at a tailgate. “How ’bout we get the Skol drum line to play this fill with us?” the Tornadoes’ drummer asks. “Not yet, boys, I’ll tell you when.” As the cue finally arrives and the beat comes pounding in, a palpable feeling of joy washes over the musicians and crowd alike — almost as though they were celebrating a heavy rainfall after a long drought.
Nic Collins Keeps the Fill in the Family
Go on YouTube and you can watch dozens of drummers tackle the Fill, from hotshots with huge kits to more humble entrants armed only with a virtual drum app. But aside from the triumphant Questlove rendition, one other take stands apart from the rest: the version played by Collins’ own son Nic, who’s drummed for his dad on tour since Phil’s various injuries forced him to give up playing. Nic Collins’ vigorous, suitably bombastic spin on the Fill shows that its legacy is secure.
Phil Shows Us All How It’s Done
But in the end, there’s only one true version: Phil’s own Fill. At his shows over the years, he turned the part into a brilliant bit of theater. He’d start out “In the Air Tonight” wearing a headset mic, singing while casually strolling around like a relaxed motivational speaker, or sometimes even sitting down on the front of the stage. Then, almost as though pulled by gravity, he’d slowly make his way toward the drum kit, arriving just in time to plop down and pound out those 10 immortal tom-tom notes. As seen above, the whole thing is a tad hammy; it’s also among the most subtly badass rock & roll power moves we’ve ever witnessed.