Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #32

Phil Collins – In the Air Tonight

If you set yourself the task of revisiting your past, musical or otherwise, you are soon going to find yourself writing about a lot of dead people. I don’t think that’s an inherently sad enterprise, as much as I still find myself surprised by all those who are gone who once shone brightly in my days.

It was Doug Maxwell who first played “In the Air Tonight” for me, and he did it in the worst way possible. Before the needle dropped, he told me I was going to be blown away. Never do that to someone. First, it’s a song – keep expectations realistic. It’s also a lot of pressure. What if I’m not blown away? Am I somehow lacking as a result?

I had really crappy music players when I was a kid. First, there was a record player with a tiny speaker in the front, then a proper stereo with detached speakers that was still about 95% cheap plastic. I don’t recall our home ever having an 8-track system, and our cassette player was also low tech. My high school graduation present from my parents was a higher end boombox-type cassette player/radio that gave me my first glimpse of personal hi-fidelity. Up until then, sound quality was something experienced only at friends’ homes.

Doug had a great system. I could not begin to tell you a single thing about it because I just wasn’t paying attention. For all my love of music, sound quality has never been a big priority for me, which might explain my love for jangly guitar rock, the low-effort instinct of punk, and bedroom pop: a great hook is a great hook and a clever lyric still resonates no matter how cruddy it sounds. It could be that because I fell in love with music in a cruddy sonic environment, I developed an ear for hearing what really mattered in a record, since that’s all I could get from it. Music is completely democratic: you just need will, creativity and something to make a sound with. You don’t even need money: your voice is enough of an instrument, and you can set a beat by tapping on, well, anything. What happens after that is mostly out of your control, but you’re still making music, and that DIY aesthetic has long found a home in my ears.

Thankfully, I was blown away by “In the Air Tonight”, though it was never a tune that made it into heavy rotation for me, likely because it really is one of those songs that benefits immensely from being played on a great sound system. It’s all gloomy atmospherics, and sounds like it’s being sung underwater, or at least in an empty swimming pool. No wonder the “Miami Vice” producers were attracted to it: it’s pure feeling distilled into sound (it was from Phil’s divorce album, after all, and divorce is very much about feeling powerless and incapable of expressing how you feel without devolving into histrionics). It’s an incredibly bitter song – “Well, if you told me you were drowning / I would not lend a hand” is an all-time Top 10 “fuck you” – and there is a tension, an edginess, that never relents.

But what makes this song legendary is the drum solo, and everything that comes after that. If you watch the official music video (Speaking of democratic, remember when pop stars could look like the guy who fixes your broken household items?), you can tell the director had no idea what a weapon he had at his disposal in that oh-so-brief drum solo. The song changes after Phil lets rip at 3:41 for a mere three seconds of “holy fuck, what was that?” bloodletting as all his anxiety and fear and anger are taken out on his kit. And though the tempo doesn’t really change, it somehow feels more urgent, with the drum a constant throbbing presence until the end. And that end takes forever to come: it has the longest fade-out in my experience, with a noticeable volume change 52 seconds before the song ends. And Phil is at full howl for all of it, a Janovian rant against the wilds.

Doug passed away less than a year ago, far too fucking early as usual. He had a big personality in a small form, and was one of many music-loving friends that I, coincidentally, surrounded myself with during those years of growth. He was also one of too many friends who I mostly lost touch with over the years. It happens: life’s journey is, hopefully, a long and varied one, and it’s foolish to think that the people who mattered most to you at 17 will still be on the ride with you when it comes to a stop. And yet, once again, I feel sad about it. It might be that drifting apart is the best way for a friendship to end: the happy memories aren’t tinged by the less happy stuff that came after. With Doug, I have a lot of musical memories: “Elvira”, “Jumping Jack Flash” and the still-to-be-told “Can’t You See” prom night tale. It’s nice that they aren’t befouled by an argument over something like Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie”. Wouldn’t that be awful?

One thought on “Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #32

  1. I’ll always remember the first time I heard this song. It was playing in a record store (remember those?) I walked into in 1980. I had no idea who Phil Collins was; I had heard of Genesis, but wasn’t familiar with their music and didn’t know who was in the band. This sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before in my life. I was instantly hooked. I immediately became a Phil Collins fan and, soon after, a Genesis fan. Phil is one of my all-time favorite drummers and singer-songwriters. And I still love “In the Air Tonight.”

    Liked by 1 person

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