Anthony O’Connor travelled to London recently to see Coldplay perform live. We’re delighted to host his first guest post for us, a review of a band he’s proud to reel in the decades with and claim as his own.
On Friday evening, 12 August last, I saw Coldplay bring their Music of the Spheres tour to Wembley Stadium. I took a series of trains that meandered from leafy Kensington to the fabled soccer coliseum. They travelled mostly below ground but emerged periodically to gulp the febrile air of a scorching summer evening in London. As they breached the surface, my phone would ping furiously with WhatsApp messages on the important matter of player availability for a championship camogie game my club is involved with. South Kensington brought news of a hamstring strain to a key player, the mood lightened by news of a different player unexpectedly making herself available as I climbed the stairs at Edgware Road before crashing to earth again, exiting the tunnel at Marylebone following another withdrawal.
It was a far cry from the train journey I took from Cork with a group of college friends on a dirty, stormy day to see Coldplay perform at The Point Depot in Dublin on an October night twenty years ago. My concerns then would have had more to do with wondering if I’d packed a change of jocks or if I would look like so much of a rube that I wouldn’t gain admission to a trendy Dublin club. They would have nothing to do with children and frail parents, work and mortgages, commuting, the cost of living or even a major European war, let alone the ebb and flow of players in a suburban Dublin camogie team.
But here we stand, twenty years on, myself and Coldplay. Them on a grand global lap of honour cementing their status as the greatest stadium draw of their age, and me [with another echo of the heady early days of the 21st century] like a camogie version of George W Bush sitting in the clouds on 9/11 waiting for Air Force One to come into communication range to bring the next bit of bad news. If ever there was a band that those of us who came of age in those tumultuous years at the turn of the millennium have grown up with, Coldplay is it. And it was time to see how we’d aged together.
I was in Chicago on a J-1 visa when Coldplay took the world by storm with their first album, ‘Parachutes’. They hooked you in with the aid of a few FM-Radio friendly anthems and kept you dangling on the end of their line with deeper cuts like ‘Sparks’ and ‘Everything’s Not Lost’. In the student bars around Wrigleyville and Lakeview East, the iconic video for ‘Yellow’ – where a gauche-looking Chris Martin, with an I-hope-he-kept-his-receipt cropped haircut, baggy trousers and shergodhelpus anorak, walked down Studland Bay at dawn – was on heavy rotation. Given this was fully in costume for us as early 00s college student gobshites, we were moved to up our efforts to exploit the newfound status of this aesthetic with the girls of the University of Chicago, Northwestern and De Paul. Those efforts were singularly fruitless, while Martin himself married and divorced Gwyneth Paltrow and is now shacked up with Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith. Go figure, as the man says.
Coldplay emerged onto a post-Britpop scene dominated by Robbie Williams and Stereophonics, who mercifully turned out to be more ephemeral concerns than the London-formed fourpiece. They are the last of the great bands who would have had to ring one another’s landlines to arrange a rehearsal session, or to not have to worry about making an impact in a landscape dominated by Simon Cowell, reality TV and social media. As such they are probably the last great band to emerge who expected the purchase of an album to be the primary means by which their music would be consumed.
They therefore understand the power of the album as confessional and storyteller, a weapon never more adeptly wielded than on 2002’s magnificent ‘A Rush of Blood To The Head’, which became the fourth album after ‘Christy Moore: Live At The Point, Oasis’s ‘What’s the Story, Morning Glory’ and ‘White Ladder’ by David Gray that absolutely every house in Ireland owned.
It was after that triumph that the influential among us decided that we needed to talk about Coldplay. They soon became derided as symbols of an aspirational, beige suburban class and the butt of the jokes of every jobbing panel show comedian. The ever perspicacious [in their own minds, at least] Guardian shrieked: ‘How can something so banal be so powerful?’. Not to be outdone, the New York Times went further, branding Coldplay ‘the most insufferable band of the decade’. In a decade that boasted Limp Bizkit, Mumford and Sons and about twenty Pete Doherty-fronted outfits, this was quite the honour.
Following on from these august organs, our own Irish Times, never slow to run on and bayonet the cultural corpses, described Martin as a ‘smug, righteous and boring macrobiotic ruminant’, the blame for which a liberal-leaning newspaper in the year of our Lord, 2015, placed entirely on the shoulders of Chris Martin’s ex-wife.
Why the hate? I’m not sure. Coldplay have a fantastic set of songs and consist of three people who keep themselves to themselves and Martin, an ostensibly nice fella who generally uses his huge fame and influence for good in the world. Maybe Coldplay are victims of their time as four white, middle-class, short-haired, straight blokes in an era where that particular demographic is belatedly being asked to answer for itself. And in an era where we’re all expected to have fully worked-out, correct positions on every issue, Coldplay were certainly never going to be out manning the barricades for Jeremy Corbyn, although they’ve always been active on questions like global development and the environment.
Leading on from this, perhaps more of the Coldplay-skepticism is to do with their audience. This would be borne out in part, at least, by many of those on the trains with me to Wembley, some of whom wouldn’t have looked out of place standing behind Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss in a dusty Westminster room lamenting the general state of the place they’ve created in the last twelve years.
I saw one red-faced and well-watered man who looked like the bastard child of Michael Gove and Theresa May try – and fail – three times to lock the electronic door on the toilet. This greatly amused my wife and I but our mirth was tempered by the fact that whoever he is, he is probably only about three Tory PMs away from being Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
It is greatly unfair to blame any artist for their fans and adherents, however. For instance, I started this piece by referencing the warrior game of hurling/camogie, the majesty of which is in no way diminished by the fact that many of it’s best and most fervent practitioners and supporters are what can only be described as Tipperary people.
Great bands take different paths. U2 and The Police moved towards their audience. REM and Radiohead moved away from theirs and saw who followed. Oasis and The Stone Roses imploded under the weight of their own contradictions. Coldplay, on the evidence of tonight’s show, followed Queen’s lead and just did what seemed logical at the time, consciously uncoupling and coupling with its audience as needed to restore our energies and theirs.
The outcome was a blistering two-and-a-half hour show here by a band totally at ease with itself, it’s music and it’s place in the world. Coldplay’s live shows – helmed effortlessly by Phil Harvey, the group’s long-time manager and ‘fifth member’ – allow the foursome to become more than the already considerable musical sum of their studio parts. Sustainability and climate change are writ large in the overall experience with the concert being powered by renewable energies including gimmicky stationary bikes and kinetic dancefloors in the crowd.
An unkind wag might be moved to wonder if a concert could be powered by a sense of self-satisfaction, as that particular characteristic hasn’t been in such abundant supply on the sacred Wembley turf since the last time Liverpool played a match there, but the sentiment does seem authentic. Familiar anthems and new album tracks bump along seamlessly, with ‘Mylo Xyloto’’s ‘Charlie Brown’ the zenith of the evening’s fare.
This was no box-ticking exercise for a full Wembley. Martin’s vocals and energy at the age of 45 are remarkable, Jonny Buckland CD-perfect on guitar and Will Champion and Guy Berryman driving hard from behind. It wasn’t flawless either. For the life of me, I can’t understand why, if you were 25 years on the go as a band and still capable of writing something as good as ‘Music of the Spheres’-closer, ‘Coloratura’, and you had 90,000 punters in front of you, that you wouldn’t play it for them ? But never mind, the lad on the train probably thought ‘Coloratura’ and his brother, Yaya, used to play for Manchester City.
The new album has drawn criticism from some in the music press for its collaborations with teen pop icons like Selena Gomez and BTS. And so with beautiful insouciance, for their encore tonight the band wheeled out Craig David to duet on two of the latter’s songs from the ‘Born to Do It’ album, a very different contemporary of ‘Parachutes’. Somehow it worked and it felt like everyone, Craig David included, was in on the craic.
I am part of a generation for whom Coldplay are unashamedly our band. We emerged into adulthood at a time of peace, stability and prosperity, into a Britain and Ireland where old enmities were crumbling, rather than being determinedly rebuilt, where pro-European liberal social democracy was hegemonic and where your every choice, purchase, utterance and preference was not judged to the rules of engagement of a culture war you never signed up for and haven’t the kit for.
The hours spent recently with Coldplay told you it was okay not to understand all this completely and that how you’ve been processing universal truths like love, loss and uncertainty is just fine. You can cycle to work, bring your kids to training in your SUV bought a few years back and think you’ll get an EV next. It’s fine. You can still get away with a cool t-shirt and trainers for the pub. Nobody cares. You can be happy she’s doing well but not quite get the fuss about Sally Rooney. Grand, to each their own. I fully expect to see Coldplay live again in another twenty years’ time and at that stage to be fully in the throes of the backlash to the backlash.
Viva la Coldplay.
“I am part of a generation for whom Coldplay are unashamedly our band.”
I am part of a generation (probably any other generation) that insists “you can have ’em” and also “god help us all”.
And isn’t that the great thing about music, though ? No one size fits all ? Colm