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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


When I set about writing one of these posts I normally write about a month ahead and then the week before I publish, I go back and look at it again to see if I still agree. I normally accompany that check with playing the relevant records again to see if I feel the same way when I'm not scrutinising them so intensely.

This latest post has really vexed me.

I am fairly certain where I want the conclusion to land but I am really not entirely sure how I am going to get there so who knows what kind of continuity errors I am going to be making for myself and for that I apologise in advance.

The truth is I cannot name another act that is ostensibly so popular (and in all honesty so harmless) as Coldplay who can attract such ire and contempt from music fans. Sometime in their career the wind changed and suddenly they became everybody's whipping boys for all of modern music's ills.

I have one friend, about whose music taste I would seldom find cause to complain, who used to be such a devoted fan that they affixed the band's name to theirs on their email address but at the release of their third album was so appalled with them that all electronic communication was hurriedly re-routed elsewhere. If this was so isolated, I could let it ride but they seem to engender such bile that I wanted to dig into this further. Andy Gill wrote a particularly scathing article a few years ago in the Guardian and YouTube even has potted five minute documentaries about what went wrong with Coldplay. Recently, they opened the Brit Awards show and were berated for appearing on video and not in the arena - even though it was a nice segment of them playing on the Thames - they can't seem to do anything right.

Did something go awry?

They still sell millions of each album. Their tours are amongst the biggest of all time. Somebody likes them it would seem.

And twenty years ago, everybody seemed to like them. I remember fans raving about the intimacy of "Parachutes" and what a difference it made after the bombastic bluster of late-period Britpop. And that seemed to carry over into the second album too as tracks like "Clocks" and "The Scientist" became massive breakthrough hits in the US. I remember "Clocks" being used on a particularly moving episode of "ER" and feeling quite proud to hear a fairly underground British record that I owned, featuring on such an iconic American show.

It went on to be "Record Of The Year" at the Grammys.

So am I writing a defence of Coldplay?

I think I am but they are not a band I feel enormously attached to, it has to be said.

I loved the first four albums and "Live In Norway" from very early on in their career but like many had kind of just gave up with them by "Mylo Xyloto" in 2010. I didn't really like the idea of teaming up with Rihanna and it just really didn't move on for me much after that.

But do I reject them so violently?

Not at all.

Firstly, they are a proper band - probably the last proper global rock band - and one that know their history and their influences. They think long and hard about their albums, crafting them diligently. "X and Y" was scrapped by the band twice because they were still not happy with it . Correspondingly, EMI's share price dropped because they had projected their sales in their forecasts and these sales were delayed several quarters. In fact, it is some time around that third album that their seemed to be the first signs of ennui with the band. They themselves have always admitted that it did not move them forward and sounded too much like its illustrious predecessor "A Rush Of Blood To The Head". It may well be true but they are certainly not the first million seller to suffer from that fate.

"Speed Of Sound" seemed to follow the template too closely and as the precursor to the eagerly awaited release seems to have started the sinking feeling. I still like it though. Whilst the intimacy and personal nature that had seemed the bedrock of their initial impact seemed to be worthy of lampooning by the time everyone heard "Fix You". And yet at the time some people found it one of the most deeply personal songs ever committed to shiny CD.

In this imperial period of the band, I think you would be hard-pressed to find three such powerful album openers as "Politik" "Square One" and the glorious instrumental "Life In Technicolour" (later turned into a vocal for the accompanying EP). They apparently really agonised over details such as running order, wanting to make their most complete album, other than a series of tracks.

Were they just a bit too nice? Were they too self-aware?

This is the R.E.M. theory, I suppose. A group of guys who have known each other a long time and whose friendship seems to overcome most internal difficulties. And Coldplay have had them - drug abuse proved damaging and of course, the media hype around Chris Martin's high-profile marriage and then divorce certainly caused tremors in their relationships. Much of the "Ghost Stories" album bears testimony to that. However, they don't wear these rifts or mis-steps as badges - like say, Black Sabbath. They just go away and work them out.

They are very strict on themselves with drummer, Will Champion, apparently one of the sternest critics of the band's work as they develop it.

They seem quite happy to acknowledge their debt to their forebears and peers ("Clocks" was inspired by Muse) and for those of us who saw them supported by Girls Aloud at Wembley, they have always understood their place in pop as well. By and large, although they are articulate and seemingly well-mannered, they do have a sense of humour as shown in their Comic Relief "Game Of Thrones" spoof. Their music may be serious for them but they really don't seem to take themselves too seriously and are prepared to give value to their audience.

So like R.E.M. have they just largely behaved themselves too well and kept their tensions so internal that they have no power to shock you. Basically you release albums that become less relevant beyond the core but still are interesting enough to cause comment and power tours. And like them, we always look back to "Out Of Time", "Stand" and "Automatic For The People" as a golden era. It might prompt you to pick up the new release but it's not essential. It's more likely to cause you to pull out the old classics.

R.E.M. eventually split quietly after 31 years without acrimony or fanfare. It was polite and in keeping really with their behaviour all along.

Yet nobody mouths off about R.E.M.

So let's try the U2 theory.

Coldplay are a band that have never shied away from trying to use their fame for activism supporting causes such as Fair Trade and Amnesty International and initially giving 10% of their earnings to charity. Admittedly, Chris Martin has never been as strident as Bono but their beliefs are no less heartfelt. Do bands like Coldplay make us look more askance at ourselves for their altruism or do we simply not believe it?

Like U2, they are a tight band of friends from their youth and have never really courted scandal and both bands have demonstrated a clear sense of purpose.

But in the making of music there are similarities too.

When "X and Y" seemed to not generate the heat of its two predecessors, Coldplay went off and looked for a different direction and like U2 with "The Unforgettable Fire" turned to Brian Eno to take their sound in a different direction for "Viva La Vida" which is all together a much less bombastic record but still retains an epic quality throughout - not least on the title track.

They have consistently looked to experiment throughout their career and were you to take a meander through their latest album "Everyday Life" you would hear that they had looked to experiment with more native sounds - especially on fascinating tracks like "Arabesque".

U2 have made some heinous errors such as the automatic iPod download of a really uninspiring album and furthermore, I would hazard that they have not really recorded an important album since, at best, "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb" in 2005. Yet whilst they are not everyone's cup of tea they do not repel anything like as strongly.

However, like so many acts and I include even my beloved Stones, there are only shimmering specks of classic content in their later work. It's unsurprising and surely forgivable. At least in even their most recent work, they are still trying something new.

Compare this to Oasis, who had two astonishingly good albums which have managed to define them and largely render all the rest of their catalogue (with an exception I shall return to in a later post) largely redundant. It certainly conjures no evocative memories or, whisper it, that many hummable tunes.

Yet Oasis managed to bang on for another twelve years without incurring such approbation.

There is of course, the thorny issue of the lead singer. Mr Chris Martin.

I have never found him objectionable and comes across as knowledgeable and self-deprecating. Is he just too well-behaved for a frontman? Recently, he came and said he was worried that stardom was not having a great effect on him and he wanted to address it. Oh how they heaped abuse on him for that. Is it simply that actually he isn't starry enough? You cannot fault his or the band's work ethic as they have put out an album on average every two years - with an increasingly epic world tour in the middle.

I also think more credit should be given to his vocal quality. The great singers are immediately recognisable and the addition of their voice - even if only small - can truly elevate a record. Think of Bono on the Live Aid single or Jagger in Carly Simon's "You're So Vain". At the point of their involvement, the songs take on a whole new expressive dimension.

For Chris Martin, I offer up the cover of the Buzzcocks "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" by Britpop B-listers the usually dependable Ash. This cover, which ordinarily I would have advised be left alone, appeared on the soundtrack of the magnificent "Shaun Of The Dead". The version. is fairly workmanlike until Martin lends his vocal to the chorus and a much more satisfying musical experience ensues.

So they have a distinctive singer; they release material consistently; they are not frightened to experiment with new techniques; they are fierce critics of themselves.

And still some people think them a joke.

So here's the Status Quo theory.

In Dylan Jones's excellent book "The Eighties" about Live Aid he uses the various acts as trigger to discuss different trends and developments across the decade - from political awareness to the growth of the designer aesthetic. This means at the start of the book, he talks about Status Quo, who had famously opened the show.

Like many of us, he too had had a Quo phase and so was not without admiration for their art. They did what they did and they did it well though few fans will have stretched they admiration over for an entire album since probably "Piledriver" unless you were an unreconstructed Quo devotee.

And his point is that whilst there were great memories, their heads down guitar boogie had become associated with the bar-room - a staple of the pub jukebox. Not only did they appeal to a clear demographic but their location as well.

And in the 80s, this was not an especially fashionable location in which you would have wanted to be seen necessarily.

Which led me to think about Coldplay - the soundtrack for the world's baristas. In all honesty, I think Coldplay can be heard in one in three coffee shops at any time of day. Do we therefore think of them as frothy as their liquid accompaniment? Are they guilty by association with their environment?

I think this might start to get closer to the problem.

Which brings me finally to the Dire Straits theory?

Dire Straits were a premier album outfit of the late 70s and early 80s. Though they were not tremendously prolific, their albums were well loved by critics and buyers alike. When their second album, "Communique" stalled, largely for its similarity to their self titled first album, they went away and produced the immense "Making Movies" and then the wonderful sonic panorama of "Love Over Gold". This was also accompanied by some hugely successful tours and a tremendous live album "Alchemy".

When "Brothers In Arms" was released in 1986, it was one of the first albums made for CD and so became hugely successful as everyone wanted to hear their new audio equipment in full effect. Doubtless it was in the stereos of Golf Convertibles the length and breadth of the land. Whilst I am less of a fan of this album then the previous ones, it still has some tremendous highlights.

The problem?

Whilst I might have thought it was great, Dire Straits were now being listened to by people whose musical taste, if they had any at all, was, to me, limited, and largely revolved around what they should have. Dire Straits, despite having one of the finest and most distinctive guitarists alive (and vocalist for that matter) in Mark Knopfler could only keep it together for another album five years later and then disbanded. The relentless schedules and weight of expectation seemed just too much.

I think this is where the disdain for Coldplay comes. They became too popular and so became beloved by those whose musical opinion seemed ill-formed or largely uninformed. Ultimately, they are popular with people you don't rate, in places you don't rate.

They are inoffensive, it's true but that's not a crime. It also doesn't mean they are untalented when clearly they are - you know a Coldplay record when you hear one.

Perhaps they have shirked more spiky territory and therefore paved the way for a whole heap of inner-directed solo bedwetters (Alan McGee's description) but they have also tried to keep themselves current and interesting.

Basically, I think we should be kinder about Coldplay.

I have mentioned it before but in David Hepworth's excellent "Uncommon People" he talks of us now living in an Age of Hip Hop rather than Rock and as such, we should cherish these acts because we shall not see their like again. Coldplay are the last great global rock band producing albums not tracks. Their fame was achieved through playing and releasing records, not through MySpace as was, or social media's word of mouth.

If you doubt this assertion then look at the list of the highest grossing world tours of all time and you will find that the only group who did not have hits in the previous century was Coldplay, somebody likes them and they still do something right for a lot of people - and dare I say it in the old fashioned way.

This might be an issue too because we can compare them so easily to their predecessors. They have followed so many of the tropes and templates of their rock and roll forebears. Theirs will never be the backstage excesses of Led Zeppelin or the visibly fractious relationship amongst The Police. But they are a proper rock group who cherish the values of the past.

There will come a time when we will wish we had been nicer.

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May 31, 2021

A brilliant analysis of the ‘got too big to be cool‘ issue. I do tend to go off bands when they get popular. As a musician and self-considered early adopter I have a problem with bands after album 3 or thereabouts. But it’s probably just jealousy.

There is a thing though. I went to see the Police in Toulouse just before they announced their end/split. The songs were basically all ‘de doo doo doo, de da da da’ etc. Notwithstanding the early hits, they’d kinda run out of ideas and filled the void with mindless stadium fillling chants. And not to good effect. I think I’d thought, with casual listening, that Coldplay had arrived at the same point and…


May 30, 2021

100% agree. If you haven't yet, watch the documentary about them, Head Full Of Dreams. It's brutally honest (they fired their drummer for not being good enough and then later realised that the more important thing was that he was him, which nobody else could be, so he was reinstated). Also, the book Rock Bottom is illuminating on the generalities, ie rock journalists want to be bad boy/outsider rock stars and so can only relate to that particular role model. Nice boys won't do! (did you hear that, Keane?)

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