The first show of their tour and (below) their new album. Rock columns, Mail on Sunday, September 7 and June 8 2008
BBC Radio Theatre, London
Union Chapel, London
The generation gap is history, at least in the rock world. You see
fathers and sons at gigs now, and sometimes they're even on stage
together, as in the Mystery Jets. Radio 2, once pipe-and-slippers
country, is now just as likely to play songs with attitude as Radio 1.
Either station could have had Coldplay doing a concert on air to kick
off their European tour, but it happened to be Radio 2. I took along a
teenager who might have been sniffy about Coldplay, but she wasn't at
all. As we waited for them to come on, a DJ appeared. 'Oh my God,' she
said, 'it's Dermot.'
She was impressed that they had the guy from The X Factor doing the
introductions. I was more impressed to see Neil Tennant from the Pet
Shop Boys sidling in at the back. She hadn't heard of them. So maybe
the generation gap does still exist, but it's more about names and
faces than music.
Which is a relief, because music is built to bring us together.
Coldplay write songs that reach out to a wide range of people. And
unlike some bands, they are capable of mocking themselves for it.
Introducing the early hit Trouble, Chris Martin tells the audience:
'We wrote this song so long ago, most of you weren't even in your
The line gets a big laugh. Martin used to be a gauche figure on stage,
but in this brief, hour-long show, he displays more people skills than
Madonna has managed on her last four tours. He doesn't have to do
complex dance routines, of course. But he does shoulder nearly all the
burden of putting on a show.
Coldplay are not a band with two focal points like many of their
predecessors from The Who to Queen. Martin's three bandmates just
stand, or sit, there and play. All the charisma, all the energy, all
the chat and nearly all the singing emanates from this one figure, who
is often trying to command the room while sitting at the piano, stage
left, facing the wall.
He manages it partly through being naturally hyperactive, and partly
because he has learnt to temper that tendency and be still when he
needs to. He is the star player who has become a successful captain.
Coldplay perform 15 songs, nine from the new album Viva La Vida,
co-produced by Brian Eno, who reminded them how to be quirky. But
there are tracks from all four albums and they all fit together –
soulful soft-rock, ambling, sometimes rambling, always engaging. This
is their secret: the songs feel real.
We critics probably overpraised Coldplay's second album, the forceful,
bombastic A Rush Of Blood To The Head, and then underpraised their
third, the simple but effective X&Y. The public have judged them more
evenly: each of the first three albums clocked up global sales of 8-12
million, and the fourth is halfway there already.
They have just had their first number one single, Viva La Vida, and
they led this week's shortlists for the Q awards with four
nominations. The only thing they lack is one great defining song. But
they put on a fine show – for 40-somethings and teenagers alike.
If you see a rising female star at the moment, chances are she is
called Camille. There's Camille (Dalmais), a voluptuous French
brunette with a cult following. And there's Camille (O'Sullivan), a
voluptuous Irish-French brunette with a cult following.
The first one is on tour next month; the second is on tour now, and
she is an extraordinary performer. Half the time, she is childlike,
and not in a good way. She makes animal noises, she flashes her
knickers, and she clambers on top of selected spectators, terrifying
them and unsettling everyone else.
The rest of the time she is riveting, singing well-chosen songs by
Jacques Brel, Tom Waits and David Bowie in a voice that swings from
creamy to serrated. Bowie is hard to cover, with his epic vocals and
sharp production, but Camille delivers Rock'n'Roll Suicide and Moonage
Daydream with brio. She has a subtle five-piece band with an excellent
pianist. When she decides who she wants to be, she will be terrific.
Viva La Vida, Or Death And All His Friends
Parlophone, out Thursday [June 12]
Four years ago, when their third album was overdue, Coldplay had a crisis. They had apparently recorded 60 songs, some of them quite experimental; it was rumoured that they had ditched their soft-rock anthems, gone electronic and started resembling Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. And then they shelved the lot. When EMI, which owns Parlophone, announced that the album was being delayed, its share price, already ailing, fell further.
Chris Martin and the other members of Coldplay went back into the studio and came up with a record that wasn’t experimental at all: X&Y, which contained one sample from Kraftwerk and no trace of Eno. Martin lashed out at shareholders, saying they were ‘the great evil of this modern world’, but he didn’t let them down. The album sold 10m copies.
Martin, who is one of rock’s great agonisers, still wasn’t happy. Three years on, Coldplay have finally found their way off the beaten track. On their fourth album, Eno isn’t merely present as an influence: he is the producer. And Martin has made the album he wanted to make last time.
The difference starts with the title, as the snappiness of X&Y gives way to Viva La Vida, Or Death And All His Friends: not one difficult title, but two. They might as well have called the album Stuff The Marketing Department.
When Eno works with U2, he tends to act as an editor rather than a soundscaper, and he seems to have played a similar role here. My guess is that he drummed a home truth into Coldplay’s heads: that they could afford to make the music a lot more difficult, because they nearly always deliver a big stadium chorus.
The arrangements on Viva Etc Etc are formidably disparate. There are pounding instrumentals, Irish-style folk songs, crooned lullabies, angsty blues-rockers, lavish strings, a few middle-Eastern touches, and a track that largely consists of a church organ and some handclaps.
The album title isn’t the only double-decker. You wait ages for a complicated Coldplay song, then ten come along at once. Three of the ten are actually two tracks each: Lovers In Japan/Reign Of Love, Yes/Chinese Sleep Chant, and Death And All His Friends/The Escapist. It’s not clear whether they are jammed together so as to maintain the theme of a dual personality, or to save the fans some money on iTunes.
All this may sound off-putting, but there is one big redeeming feature to prevent EMI’s new bosses from jumping off a ledge: the tunes, which are as sweet as ever. It’s like going for breakfast in your local cafe to find they are serving some exotic new foreign bread – but still with Gales’ honey on top.
Give Martin a pen and he will come up with a lyric that is quite obtuse. ‘God is in the houses,’ he confides at one point, ‘and God is in my head.’ Later he adds: ‘Soldiers you’ve got to soldier on / Sometimes even the right is wrong’. When he sings ‘Away get carried on a reign of love’, he begins like Yoda to sound, and for his sanity you fear.
Take the pen away, however, and he comes up with something catchy. He is particularly good at singing without words, and here he delivers a rousing lala-lala-lala-lalaiy, a resounding ohohohoh-ohohohoh-oh and a killer ah-ah-ah-ah-iiiiii. They’re all lovingly recorded on the lyric sheet, and they will all be echoing round the arenas when Coldplay tour in December.
Martin’s choruses remain strong and simple, and as on the last album they carry traces of the hymn book he would have had in his days at public school. Reign Of Love, a gorgeously gentle piano ballad, has the churchiest chords since the last days of Johnny Cash.
The music doesn’t always live up to its own ambitions. A track called 42 aspires to be the Beatles but ends up more like Wings, as it abruptly turns from a lullaby into a frenetically stolid rocker. But you have to hand it to Coldplay. They have pulled off the trick of changing their sound – several times over – while remaining recognisably themselves. This is a much bolder record than X&Y, and a slightly better one. It should keep EMI in business for a little longer.
If you like this, why not try…
Everything Sounds Like Coldplay Now by Mitch Benn (Laughing Stock, on iTunes). Sly parody that sounds more like Coldplay than they themselves do now