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Chris Martin of Coldplay performs during the 51st Annual Grammy Awards last Sunday.
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs during the 51st Annual Grammy Awards last Sunday.
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs during the 51st Annual Grammy Awards last Sunday.

Speed of sound

Music From earnest students to the musicians behind one of the UK's fastest-selling albums, Coldplay show no signs of slowing down.

Coldplay are unlikely rock stars. Nicely spoken and well educated, they don't fit the profile. As Alan McGee, the former head of Creation Records, once put it: "If Coldplay have an attitude about anything, it's passing their A-levels." Ouch. Still, it's hard to imagine Arctic Monkeys (for example) performing with "Make Trade Fair" magic-markered on to their hands. But this quartet of earnest London graduates have overtaken their cooler rivals to become the UK's biggest band and contenders for the world title. In 2005, EMI blamed its diving share price on the fact that the release of their third album, X&Y, had been delayed. Their fourth long-player, Viva la Vida, is the most-paid-for album download of all time. Despite their considerable power, this, too, would seem to be beyond Arctic Monkeys, so how did Coldplay pull it off?

The story begins at University College, London, where the band's future frontman, a young Dorseter named Chris Martin, was studying the impeccably stuffy combination of Greek and Latin. He met Jonny Buckland, a young maths student, and impressed him by "running up and down the corridor with this really long curly mop". As Buckland recalled: "I thought he was a bit mad, a bit wacky" - but not so far beyond the pale that he wouldn't make a good band-mate. The pair strummed guitars and demoed songs written by Martin. These soon caught the attention of a Scottish architecture student and bass player named Guy Berryman, who demanded to join the band. With the addition of the anthropologist, multi-instrumentalist and unwilling drummer Will Champion, the line-up was complete: Starfish was born.

In fact, the name Coldplay was dreamt up by another UCL band, The Lotus Eaters, who rejected it on the grounds that it was too depressing. Chris Martin snapped it up. As a side-note - and a measure of what a golden generation London University's Class of '99 may seem to future historians - The Lotus Eaters went on to achieve their own modicum of success under the name Keane. At the time, however, Chris Martin wanted their pianist and composer, Tim Rice-Oxley, to defect to Coldplay. Rice-Oxley refused out of loyalty to his band-mates, and has presumably been kicking himself ever since.

From the start, Coldplay were organised. They hit the Camden gigging circuit to build a profile, at the same time self-funding a debut EP, Safety, which they handed out to friends and record companies. The indie label Fierce Panda liked it and signed the band for a debut single, Brothers and Sisters, a Radiohead-influenced ballad that scored the band their first commercial release in 1999. At this point, the EMI subsidiary Parlophone got interested. The stage was set for the band to start work on their first album and to deliver their first hit, the massive, inescapable Yellow. For that, though, they needed inspiration.

The band were working late in a recording studio in Wales one evening when their producer, Ken Nelson, suggested they take a break to take a look at the sky. It was a clear night, and Guy Berryman said, "Look at the stars". A chugging, shoe-gazerish melody floated into Martin's head. He sang to his band mates in a hokey Neil Young voice. It was a joke at the time, but he stowed it away all the same. Eventually a song emerged: an ugly duckling that didn't seem to work at any of the tempos the band tried. In the end they had to record it digitally and mess about with the pacing on a computer so that it didn't seem to speed up and slow down between verse and chorus.

It paid off: Yellow was "a hypnotic slo-mo otherworld where spirit rules supreme", according to Rolling Stone. It got picked up by BBC Radio and went to No 4 in the UK singles charts; the US television network ABC picked the song up as its signature tune. Coldplay were on the map. Capitalising on their breakthrough, the band released their debut album, Parachutes, in July, 2000. A critical as well as a commercial success, it opened at No 1 in the UK chart, on the back of extremely heavy airplay for Yellow and its follow-up single, the circling, piano-led Trouble. A Mercury prize nomination followed. By Christmas, Parachutes had sold 1.6 million copies in the UK alone.

Business was slower in the US, despite a club tour and high-profile appearances on Letterman and Conan O'Brien. But even there, it scraped double-platinum status within two years, and won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album. Coldplay returned to the studio as stars. But it was a strange situation they found themselves in. The week before they started work, the World Trade Center in New York was attacked; in much of the media coverage that followed, songs from the band's poignant first album were used to focus the international sense of grief. They were men of the moment, then, in rather a horrifying sense. They scrapped a distracted attempt to record in London and holed up in Liverpool to escape outside pressures. Yet external events filtered into their work.

"The new songs are reflective of new attitudes," Chris Martin told MTV. "[They tell listeners] not to be frightened." And in retrospect, it's remarkable how undaunted the band themselves sound on the record that emerged. A Rush of Blood to the Head was a bolder, more confident and accomplished record than its predecessor. Its singles - Clocks, The Scientist, In My Place - were as catchy, crystalline and tender as anything the band had achieved to date. Clocks picked up a Grammy for Record of the Year in 2002, and its parent album won the same prize as Parachutes. And it sold: octuple platinum according to the British Phonographic Industry.

At about this time, the other Chris Martin came to the fore: the Gwyneth Paltrow-marrying, Apple-fathering macrobiotic jessie of tabloid legend. "Nobody said it was easy" he sang on The Scientist - yet to all appearances, it was. He became more outspoken, too, endorsing fair trade campaigns and appearing in the finger-clicking promotional video for Make Poverty History. In his advocacy, as in his music, he appeared to be positioning himself as a successor to U2's Bono. The outcome? A backlash of Bono-like proportions.

"The most insufferable band of the decade", The New York Times called Coldplay, a representative move in a general media retrenchment. It was, Martin said, "devastating for us". Bono, interestingly, has his own theory about why Martin has attracted such scorn: overfamiliarity. He told The Daily Telegraph: "Critics see Chris Martin from Coldplay and he looks like a guy you were in school with. And you think, 'I'm not being moved by that!'"

In their millions, listeners begged to differ. The two albums that followed, X&Y and Viva la Vida, expanded on the U2-meets-Radiohead template of their predecessors while retaining their powerful hooks and heartfelt, soaring choruses. The production wizard Brian Eno was brought in on the latter, lending their sound an arty electronic sheen and introducing unexpected Spanish influences. The album became one of the fastest-ever sellers in the UK, as well as the biggest seller in downloading history. This week it won a Grammy for Best Rock Album, while its title single took Song of the Year. Their Abu Dhabi gig next month looks guaranteed to sell out. Detractors be confounded: the rise of Coldplay shows no sign of slowing down. Who says nice guys finish last.

elake@thenational.ae

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