Are Coldplay boring? Their lead singer is married to a Hollywood actress; his children are named after a prophet and fruit; the band has four platinum selling albums, and their last tour played to three million people. So why aren’t Coldplay hailed as the great rock and roll salvation? What moved the New York Times to call the Camden Town four-piece ‘The most insufferable band of the decade’? Do Coldplay still have to win us over, or are we just spoiled?
The biggest insight into the normally hyper-cautious band came recently, during a 60 Minutes interview for U.S. television. It was less the program, which simply revealed singer Chris Martin to be restless, creative and intelligent, and the band to be a quiet, self-effacing bunch, but more a case of what the camera saw. ‘I feel like I’ve shown you my underpants,’ Martin told his interviewer, as the cameraman stumbled across a list of ‘Coldplay Band Rules’.
Martin is an obsessive list maker, it was revealed. The list was something close to the keys to the band, like an exam study guide, or a Coldplay For Dummies. ‘Always keep mystery. Not many interviews,’ one of the rules read; ‘Albums must be no longer than 42 minutes, or 9 tracks,’ explained another. You always sensed there was something methodical, fastidious, ‘un-rock & roll’ about Coldplay, like those kids who learn the knack of passing exams without ever really learning anything. But is that criticism fair?
Coldplay never made any claims to be The Who, or even their closest forbears, U2. They don’t trash hotel rooms, or drive cars into swimming pools; ecologically speaking they don’t even leave a footprint (thanks to carbon offsets). Martin certainly doesn’t think of himself as the hedonistic type: ‘I don’t wear the right pants. You gotta wear the right trousers if you’re gonna be a rock star,’ he told the interviewer. But as a frontman, he is a compelling presence live: a complex blend of energy and anxiety – not the swaggering bombast of, say, Bono, but a kinetic, gangly whirl of limbs, traversing the stage like a baby gazelle staggering to life.
The band didn’t rise to its heights on the back of their excess; they did so on finely crafted songs, at their best sweeping, tender and epic. Breakthrough hit ‘Yellow’ is surely the most tender and unlikely anthem ever created, and a festival favourite for one glorious summer, before second album A Rush of Blood to the Head confirmed their status as British indie darlings.
Their beginnings could scarcely have been less inconspicuous. All four band members were the sons of teachers. They were hardly privileged; just ordinary lads who met at college in London and signed a record deal upon graduation. It’s rock band 101. All the profits are split equally amongst the band and they are even reputed to give 15% of earnings to charity. Would we rather they blew it on girls and fast cars?
They generally don’t sell their songs to advertisers – always a rock-turnoff – the iTunes ad was solely to advertise an exclusive download. In fact, there is little to be offended by, which tends to be why they polarise opinion. We like to be offended, it seems.
With the exception of James Brown (formerly ‘the hardest working man in showbusiness’), diligence is a trait not normally admired in rock ‘n’ roll, and at times, it seems that Coldplay are punished for their efficiency. They have a formula, it’s true. You’ve only to read the band rules – ‘Once Jon has melody, twist it and weird it sonically’ – to see the science, and wonder if it’s that easy. Not for Coldplay the self-imposed artistic isolation of Radiohead, against whom they were initially, and wrongly, measured.
Recent years have seen them add a dash of flamboyance to the band, though, bringing in sonic gun-for-hire Brian Eno to produce recent album Viva La Vida (rumours are that he returns for the follow-up, possibly out at the end of 2009). The album even came with an alternative name, Death and All his Friends, as if it were some kind of Jacobean tragedy, and saw them taking to the stage dressed as wartime drummer boys (take that, Sgt Pepper!).
As a live act they also put on a good show, though not in the same way as, say, other recent Abu Dhabi performers, George Michael or Christina Aguilera. The Vegas glamour is replaced by humble, boyish enthusiasm, but this is what the capital needs to see: more live bands.
Seriously, what do we demand from our rock stars? Must they all be dead-eyed Dohertys? Coldplay have perhaps kept the mystery a bit too well, it seems; they’re so mysterious, it’s as if they’re completely ordinary, which they probably are (even if one is married to an Oscar-winning actress). Sure, Martin likes to throw his backing behind the odd Presidential elect (Obama, if you’re wondering) and rock music and charity are uneasy bedfellows at the best of times.
But boring? Not a chance. It might even be said that Coldplay drink from the well of true legends – they, too, are just four normal lads who happened to become one of the biggest selling bands in the world, and surely there’s nothing more exciting than that.
It’s more than just the trousers...
He’s already got a Hollywood wife and crazily-named children. How can Chris Martin become more rock ‘n’ roll?
1 Marry Courtney Love: It’s been done before, but rarely has it been known to ‘help’ a career.
2 Burn one million pounds: The K Foundation did just that in 1995, filming it, and touring the film to invite discussion, which usually went along the lines of people swearing at them. That would dash the charity image for good.
3 Bite the leg of a security guard: Axel Rose, please stand up.
4 Urinate on the Alamo: You’re Ozzy Osbourne, you’ve no idea where you are, and you’ve gotta go. It never hurt Ozzy’s career.
5 Buy a pet monkey: Michael Jackson may not have been the most rock ‘n’ roll of stars, but nothing says singer gone wild like a pet chimp (especially if it wears the same clothes as you).