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POP MUSIC

Sincerely yours

Coldplay's mission: to bring heartfelt music back to mainstream rock. And the band is poised to pull it off.

June 29, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

It's the day after Coldplay's sold-out concert at the Hollywood Bowl, and the British rock band's tour bus is gliding along the normally clogged 5 Freeway toward San Diego with the same ease the group has moved to the forefront of pop.

Coldplay's first two albums have sold more than 13 million copies worldwide, thanks to sensitive, reflective songs that offer a calming break from the relentless pessimism and aggression of '90s rock.

That positions Coldplay as one of the few bands in years to make music smart and embracing enough to connect with part of the edgy young alt-rock crowd and accessible enough for mainstream pop fans.

At the concert in San Diego this night, most of the 12,000 fans will sing along with "Yellow," the enchanting ballad that lead singer Chris Martin wrote three years ago in a moment of bliss, and many will likely wonder if a new love song, "Moses," was inspired by Martin's girlfriend, Gwyneth Paltrow. (It was.)

"I couldn't be happier," says Martin, 26, and that's good. He'd have a hard time these days convincing anybody his life isn't sweet.

This is the way stardom is supposed to feel but rarely does in rock.

Where quality musicians, all the way back to Elvis Presley and the Beatles, once routinely sought the biggest possible audience, most of the great bands of the last 15 years -- from Nirvana to Radiohead -- have either been suspicious of too much success or torn apart by internal strife while reaching for it.

Coldplay's potential for reviving that grand rock tradition of quality coupled with mass appeal was underscored in Q magazine's review of the group's last, Grammy-winning album, "A Rush of Blood to the Head."

"By now, we are accustomed to seeing great bands falter at the edge of the big time as we are watching the England football team crumble in the quarterfinal," wrote critic Dorian Lyneskey. "It doesn't make them any less inspiring, but wouldn't it be nice, every now and then, to see one go all the way?"

Coldplay hardly seemed ripe for this role just two years ago.

In England, the group's rapid rise led to a backlash. Alan McGee, the maverick record executive who signed such rebellious bands as Oasis and Jesus and Mary Chain, wisecracked that Coldplay's tender strains appealed only to "bedwetters."

At the same time, Martin felt hopelessly out of place in the U.S., sandwiched between testosterone-heavy bands on a series of East Coast rock radio concerts. As he sang his thoughtful tunes about relationships and life, audiences pelted him with coins and bottles. In one show, a CD struck him squarely on the head.

"We were confused about what we were trying to do and who we were trying to please," Martin says now. "Instead of focusing on all that bad stuff, I [decided] to focus on the four people in the audience who ... paid their money and want us to show how much we are into it. I stopped being shy about showing how much I cared about what I'm doing."

When Coldplay played for its own audience on the next tour stop in Atlanta, Martin displayed that pent-up energy and passion, and the word began spreading.

By the time the foursome returned to Los Angeles last year, Martin was reaching out to the audience with the warm, openhearted spirit that audiences have come to expect from U2.

Whether sitting at the piano or moving about the stage with a guitar, he throws himself into the music with his whole body so forcefully that he becomes a real-life tambourine man, inviting the audience to join him.

This is a band on a mission, and it's brave enough to admit it.

"Mainstream pop culture is so awful and so bland and so packaged," Martin says on the way to San Diego. "Our goal is to change the mainstream. We don't want to just keep ourselves a secret. We want to fight to have sincere music be the main thing again."

MUSICAL OPTIMISM

There are moments of pure pop magic in Coldplay's concerts, especially near the end of the show, when Martin sits at the piano and sings a song he learned from a 1967 Louis Armstrong recording.

Written by George Weiss and Bob Thiele, "What a Wonderful World" a lovely, utopian vision that can seem almost sarcastic when played against the backdrop of Vietnam in the '60s or the post-Sept. 11 anxiety of today. Yet Martin, as did Armstrong, sings it with a purity and faith that make you want to suspend disbelief and dream along.

There's a similar sweetness and optimism in "Yellow," the tune that brought the band to stardom. Against bright, joyful guitar chords, Martin sings,

Look at the stars

Look how they shine for you

And all the things that you do.

"The best songs seem to just appear from nowhere," says Martin, who graduated with honors in ancient-world studies from University College London. "We were recording this song called 'Shiver' in Wales, and the sessions were not going well. We had been in London, where the sky always seems very foggy. Someone said come out and you can see all the stars."

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