Phil Collins was at the peak of his commercial powers in the summer of 1986. Genesis had just released Invisible Touch and were gearing up for a enormous stadium tour to support the LP, while songs like “Take Me Home” and “Don’t Lose My Number” from his recent solo disc, No Jacket Required, were still all over radio and MTV. He was recording and touring at an insane pace, but he still managed to find time to produce tracks for everyone from Eric Clapton and Robert Plant to Howard Jones, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Adam Ant.
One of the most successful records he produced in this era was Eric Clapton’s August, featuring the hits “It’s in the Way That You Use It,” “Tearing Us Apart,” “Miss You” and “Run.” On July 15th, 1986, shortly after the sessions wrapped, Clapton booked a special gig at the Birmingham NEC, featuring the entire August band, that he filmed for professional release. The show centered around hits from his long career such as “Layla,” “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love,” but near the end, he brought out Phil Collins to play “In the Air Tonight.” You can see video of the performance above.
The song launched Collins’ solo career five years earlier, and it also launched more urban legends than just about any other song in music history. The stories vary, but most center around Collins supposedly witnessing a man refuse to save another man from drowning. Collins then gives the guy a front row ticket to his concert and sings it right to his face, letting him know he saw everything. The story is so widespread that Eminem even repeats it in the lyrics to “Stan.”
The tale, of course, is wildly untrue. The lyrics were really just a stream-of-conscious rant that poured out of Collins as he was dealing with an extremely painful divorce. “I’m not quite sure what the song is about, but there’s a lot of anger, a lot of despair and a lot of frustration,” he told Rolling Stone last year. “Nobody knows what the song is about, and I kind of like the mystery. And now NFL players use it to work out. I saw a video recently of Steph Curry singing it in his car, and it was just in an ad for milk chocolate. Where will it end? But I’m not complaining. It paid for this house we’re in right now!”