“I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life, oh Lord.” These are the famous opening lines from Phil Collins’ landmark hit, In The Air Tonight, the first single off his 1981 solo release Face Value. The album, known for its ambiance, sharply defined percussive performance (Collins is a drummer), and vocal adroitness became definitive for their genre, helping shape the sound of the remaining decade.
This is not all the song became known for, however. The song’s opening lyrical statement gives us little in the way of details, so far as what the substance or story behind it may have been. It had been the four lines which followed that managed to steer the song’s popularity into the realm of controversy:
Well if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand
I’ve seen your face before my friend, but I don’t know if you know who I am
Well I was there and I saw what you did, I saw it with my own two eyes
So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been
The accusatory shift in the ensuing lyrics caught the ear–and the imaginations–of many of Collins’ fans, who began to suggest that there was a deeper meaning to be had. Specifically, many fans began to speculate that the song was actually a thinly-veiled admission by Collins that he had observed a drowning incident, and had written a song where he called out the guilty observer who could have saved the drowning party.
“Well if you told me you were drowning” is really the only reference made to drowning in the passage above; for all we know, Collins might have been referring to almost any sort of transgression on part of the individual he seems to be referencing. Soon, the budding urban legend about the song began to incorporate even more ridiculous elements, which included claims that Collins subsequently spotted the guilty individual in the crowd at one of his concerts while singing his now-famous account of what happened on that fateful night.
The entire story was a rather silly one, although it did manage to gain some traction; enough so that he was even referenced the conspiracy theory in a BBC World Service interview years later:
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’. And then every time I go back to America the story gets Chinese whispers, it gets more and more elaborate. It’s so frustrating, ‘cos this is one song out of all the songs probably that I’ve ever written that I really don’t know what it’s about, you know.
This wasn’t the first time, of course, that an elaborate backstory with conspiratorial overtones was woven around a popular song. Bizarre theories about popular music have taken on many forms over the decades, ranging from secret backstories like the one above to “secret messages” said to have been revealed by spinning vinyl records backward. Arguably, the most famous instance of this involves allegedly Satanic messages that manifest when Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is reversed, although similar claims have been made about the music of artists like Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, and many others.
There is one other famous urban legend associated with a popular song which might rival that of the Phil Collins “witness” story, however. For four decades, a particularly grisly story circulated about The Ohio Player’s hit Love Rollercoaster, which involved a high-pitched scream that can be heard around a minute and a half into the song. Various theories ranged from the more benign inclusion of a sound effect (like that of an actual woman’s scream) to the sound of a screaming victim that was actually killed in the studio at the time the recording was made. In 1976, this bizarre rumor was taken to even greater heights after it received mention by DJ Casey Casem on his live American Top 40 radio show.
Arguably, the strangest theory about the mysterious “scream” featured in the song incorporated the album’s cover, which features a nude model eating honey from a large jar. Other images featured on the album’s packaging depict the model leaning backward, arms outstretched, with the honey having been drizzled over her. According to one variation of this urban legend, the photos of the model were actually taken as the band was cutting tracks for “Love Rollercoaster” (since recording booths during an actual recording session are obviously the best time to take photos of people covered in honey). The honey, which was heated for use in the photo shoot, tragically burned the model according to one story; an even more absurd version suggested that the honey reacted chemically with the container the woman was holding, causing her skin to become attached to it. In any case, the story is a silly one, and yet it has been told and retold for more than forty years.
The truth to all of this, of course, is that people just love to hear the stories behind their favorite songs. We’re naturally curious, which is part of what makes us human. And when there isn’t an actual story to be had (as with Phil Collins, who maintained in light of the urban legends that he actually didn’t know what, if anything, “In The Air Tonight” was really about), people are always happy to speculate… often taking things to illogical extremes.