Sunday, February 15, 2015

I Can Smell It Coming In The Air Tonight AKA Phil Goes Solo, Holds Nothing Back (And I Mean Nothing)

It's lying there. In the darkness. Out beyond the shadows, unspoken and unknown. It comes creeping silently, seductively. That irrepressible dread, that demonic '80s spirit. It's been hiding in the cracks and crevices for too long. It's time for it to emerge.

First there is a drum machine. It is slow - unnervingly slow. Why isn't it faster? Why does it not rush? What is it waiting for?

Then the guitar. But not just any guitar. It's an eerie "only plays one note at a time" guitar. You don't want to mess with this guitar.

Now an organ. It's a low note. It's like a frightened orphan, curled up in a ball, alone in the alleyway while the monsters close in. It doesn't belong out here - out here in the valley of the forsaken. Then more organ. This one is playing higher notes. Who knows, it might even be the same organ. This one is at least capable of playing a melody. It's bringing a little comfort to the afflicted. Does anyone even live out in this place? Are there any humans who dare to make their presence known?

Yes, there is one. These are his words:
I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
I've been waiting for this moment, all my life, oh Lord
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord
In this post-apocalyptic wasteland, there is only one man left standing. And that man ... is Phil Collins.

"In the Air Tonight" isn't just a Phil Collins song. It is a silent vortex within the mind. It is an interstellar wavelength of doom and despair. It is an ocean of sound, filled with the blood of 70,000 virgins (as opposed to, I don't know, salt water?). "In the Air Tonight" is somehow Phil Collins' very first solo single, and yet it is also his last will and testament. He could have died in a car crash the day after completing it, and yet his name would have lived on far outside the realms of Genesis lore.

"In the Air Tonight" is Phil Collins' ultimate statement of purpose. Those who laugh at "Sussudio," those who spit in the face of "Another Day in Paradise," must nevertheless pause and kneel before the great stone god that is "In the Air Tonight." It has something that no other Phil Collins song has. It has ... como se dice? It has ... cojones. From Wikipedia:
Collins wrote the song in the wake of a failing relationship with his wife. Collins has described obtaining the drum machine specifically to deal with these personal issues through songwriting, telling Mix magazine: "I had to start writing some of this music that was inside me." He improvised the lyrics during a songwriting session in the studio: "I was just fooling around. I got these chords that I liked, so I turned the mic on and started singing. The lyrics you hear are what I wrote spontaneously. That frightens me a bit, but I'm quite proud of the fact that I sang 99.9 percent of those lyrics spontaneously."
Dude must have been going through some serious shit. If this is what divorce is like, I'd rather just settle for a separation or something. Whatever kind of pizza Phil ate that morning, I wouldn't want a slice of it.

Some lead singers of established groups go off and record a "solo album," but it basically sounds like their groups' usual albums. "In the Air Tonight" is truly the sound of Phil Collins sitting in an empty room with only his twisted psyche as companionship. This vocalist isn't just Phil Collins: it's RoboPhil Collins. This is Hal-9000 Collins. This is a sentient operating system isolated on the furthest satellite outpost in the galaxy. Or maybe it's just Phil Collins with a cool echo effect. Whatever. On the second chorus, his circuitry starts to melt and bleed into itself, as the main Phil is joined by an unnervingly higher-pitched Phil and a menacingly lower-pitched Phil in the left channel, and the words "night" and "lord" start to bounce down the great steel corridors of this mostly abandoned space ship, never to reach another's ears until the next alien race stumbles upon the sound waves in approximately 15 million years. At the start of the second verse, I'm pretty sure RoboPhil's eyes glow a hideous red as he turns to the camera and inhumanly shouts, "Well I re-MEM-BAH!"

All fine and dandy, but that's not the best part. You see, "In the Air Tonight" is one of those rare pop songs with an actual, official, federally sanctioned "Best Part (TM)." Usually, when someone says, "This is the best part!" they're full of shit. But when you're talking about "In the Air Tonight," there really is a universally agreed-upon "Best Part," from which no observer is allowed to deviate. The "Best Part" occurs precisely at the 3:40 mark. It is not up for debate. It is not a matter of opinion. It is true in the sense that 7 being the square root of 49 is true.

The Best Part ... is the entrance of the drums.

You know what moment he'd been waiting for all his life? The entrance of the fucking drums. That's what he'd been waiting for all his life. And it was worth it.

"In the Air Tonight" may the only pop song in which the entrance of the drums is genuinely the Best Part. Sometimes they can be a great part, or a memorable part, but rarely are they the Best Part. However, according to his suspiciously obscure memoir (that shares its name with this song), Collins reveals that the distinctive debut of his "gated drum sound" was, if you can believe it, something of an accident:
When we were originally recording the song, there wasn't supposed to be any drums. Any. What happened was this: I was laying down a vocal overdub, when I looked over at the drum kit. There was the nastiest cockroach you'd ever seen. He was an ugly little fucker. I thought I could get him with my drumsticks. So I sang, "It's no stranger to you and me," and I figured, "Well, the take will probably be ruined, we'll just do it over again," but I really wanted to smash this guy. He was a wily one, all right. I hit my snare, and the tom-tom, and then the snare again, but fucking hell, he crawled away! So then I figured, all right, might as well keep drumming. When we played the track back, it sounded good, so we left it in.
What is it about this drumming moment that is so great? Let me tell you. It's ... the tension. For the first three and a half minutes, you just know something is going to happen, but you don't know what. It's like being locked in that massive space station, and the oxygen is slowly, slowly leaking out of the cabin, and then BAM! A thousand air ducts all burst open at once. You can breathe again, but God damn, did it have to be so startling?

Apparently, what was hiding in those sealed air ducts was an army of flesh-eating spiders, because that might explain the ever-increasing intensity of Phil's singing as the song fades. He lets out a fairly nasty "awwwl mah lyyyfe!!" around 4:37, followed by a particularly harrowing "oh laww-huh-oh-oh-awwd!!" around 4:50. I think the space arachnids are finally chewing his eyeballs out at the 5:10 mark.

According to Wikipedia, the sound of "In the Air Tonight" was so unprecedented that when Phil played the track for legendary Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun, the label boss listened to the first minute or so and said, "Where's the drums? I can't hear the drums!" Phil said, "Just wait, they're coming." Ahmet said, "Well the kids don't know that! You gotta put some drums on earlier!" So on the original single mix, Phil added some quiet drums to go along with the drum machine. I didn't know what the hell Wikipedia was talking about until I saw the video, which features this mix. I actually don't think it alters the feel of the song in a particularly detrimental way, but if this was the single mix of the song, I certainly never heard it on the radio in the '80s, nor have I heard it on the radio since. The kids could wait for the drums after all, Ahmet.

Although the video doesn't take place on an abandoned space station, it's creepy enough, I suppose. It's a gigantic close-up ... of Phil Collins' face! In black & white! Then he's sitting in an empty room, apparently re-enacting the children's book Goodnight Moon. Then he ends up in some abandoned laboratory with more doors than anyone could possibly need. Then his face turns into a blotchy infra-red blob. Check, and mate.

Oh, there's one more piece of business I've neglected to mention: the "urban legend." You know which one. Let's take a look at the verse in question:
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 the grin, I know where you've been
It's all been a pack of lies
From Wikipedia:
An urban legend has arisen around "In the Air Tonight," according to which the lyrics are based on a drowning incident in which someone who was close enough to save the victim did not help them, while Collins, who was too far away to help, looked on. Increasingly embroidered variations on the legend emerged over time, with the stories often culminating in Collins singling out the guilty party while singing the song at a concert. Collins has denied all such stories; he commented on the legends about the song in a BBC World Service interview:

“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."
Yes! As it should! (Also, I'm assuming Chinese whispers is the British version of Telephone?). I will never fail to get a kick out of this legend, which has taken on such prominence, even Eminem referenced it in "Stan." But honestly, how is this supposed to work? Phil sings "if you told me you were drowning," meaning if. He's suggesting a hypothetical, not saying he's actually watching someone drowning. Plus, he sings those lines in the first person, and he also sings the "I was there and I saw what you did" lines in the first person. So how could he have been the guy who let someone drown, and also be the guy who watched that guy?? It doesn't add up. It just doesn't add up.

But hey, I never thought the whole Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz thing worked either. The truth is, the song isn't actually about a guy drowning, or Phil Collins getting a divorce, or any one of the number of things you might have heard in the school yard. All those interview quotes are just a red herring. Rather, in a shocking passage from In The Air Tonight, Collins finally sets the record straight:
A month after my fifteenth birthday, I began to experience a terrible abdominal pain. Imagine feeling as though you dreadfully needed to pass gas, but could not. For whatever reason, I simply could not leak the necessary air. This went on for weeks. I finally visited the hospital, and was diagnosed with a rare intestinal condition named gastronitious pluggedupitious: the inability to fully pass gas. They told me there was no known cure as of yet, but with medication, they would be able to mollify the symptoms. There was one more bit of hope: many sufferers, at a certain point in adulthood, would suddenly experience a natural cure, but there was no way to know when that moment would come. In the meantime, I needed to simply tolerated the discomfort.

Oh, I could let out a tiny toot here and there, but for the life of me, I couldn't quite get that one solitary oomph I was ultimately longing for. It was that way all throughout the early years with Genesis, the grueling tours, the endless cans of beans, the long nights in the airport, trying to twist this way and that, hoping that precious bubble would finally squirm its way out into the open. I never told my wife, I never told Peter or Tony or Mike. I bore my burden with silent dignity.

It was August, 1979. We were staying in our country estate. I was relaxing the in den, while Mrs. Collins was in the bedroom. Suddenly, I felt a tremendous gurgle. I knew it was no ordinary rumbling of molecules. It slowly traveled downward, pushing up against my rear passageway. I shifted awkwardly in my chair. Was this the moment my gastronitious pluggedupitious would finally subside? I didn't know what the consequences of my rude gesture would be, but I felt I was prepared for the fallout.

With a sonic crack reminiscent of thunder, the fart to end all farts escaped my body. Mrs. Collins, caught unawares, was so appalled by the lifetime of rancid odor filling her abode, she immediately demanded a divorce. And so I lost a spouse, but gained an intestinal tract. Not to mention, my greatest solo recording.

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