Chris Martin – circa 2005
“No one ever said it would be so hard / Oh, take me back to the start” – ‘The Scientist’ (Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion, Chris Martin)
What is the first thing that people think about when the name of British rock band Coldplay is mentioned? Usually, it is something like, “Wasn’t he married to that actress?” or “Haven’t their kids got unusual names?” So let’s get that out of the way first: On 5 December 2003, Coldplay’s frontman, Chris Martin, wed Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow. They had two children: a girl named Apple (born 14 May 2004) and a boy named Moses (born 8 April 2006) before separating in March 2014. Okay? Now, let’s move on…
The four members of Coldplay are: Chris Martin (vocals, piano, guitar) (born 2 March 1977), Jonny Buckland (guitar) (born 11 September 1977), Guy Berryman (bass) (born 12 April 1978) and Will Champion (drums) (born 31 July 1978).
Chris Martin grows up in a rural village in Devon, in the southwest of England. He is the eldest of five children. Chris Martin’s father is an accountant. His mother, a devout Christian, raises him in a corresponding environment. “I climbed trees, built dens and rode my bike. But I always had something to do with music,” he says. “When you live in the country, you can sing a lot because there is no one to disturb. I always used to go on walks with my uncle and sing with him.” With the encouragement of his parents, Chris Martin learns both guitar and piano. He starts playing in bands when he is around 15.
After completing high school, Chris Martin goes to London to study history at university. He meets his three confederates in the first week of the first term at London University in 1996. Like Martin, they all come from ‘solid households of working class parents that encouraged music to be played’. Jonny Buckland began playing guitar at age 11 and idolised Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Guy Berryman hails from Scotland and favours funk. Will Champion plays guitar, bass and tin whistle. He begins playing drums just because that’s what the foursome requires to be a functional group. The name ‘Coldplay’ is nicked from another friend before he can use it himself.
“I needed an excuse to go to London and start a band there,” Chris Martin confesses. “I found it great, occupying myself with Roman and Greek history. But, above all, I had so much time to play with the band. We practised every night, from six till nine. We met at home after uni and played and played and played. We put a blanket over the drums so they weren’t too loud.”
Chris Martin’s parents are surprisingly accepting of their son’s extra-curricular activities, asking only that he complete his studies. With the exception of Guy Berryman, every member of the band goes on to see their courses through to completion.
Coldplay perform their first show at a festival in Manchester for unsigned bands in 1998. Soon after, they release their first EP, ‘Safety’ in 1998, on Fierce Panda Records. In 1999, another EP follows for the same company, ‘Brothers And Sisters’ (UK no. 107). Both are limited to five hundred pressings each. Signing with the Parlophone label for EMI Records in April 1999 (the contract offer comes on the day of Chris Martin’s last university exam), a third EP, ‘The Blue Room’, is released in 1999 before Coldplay set about recording their first album. The group also acquires a manager, Phil Harvey.
What do Coldplay sound like? At first, they are characterised as ‘post-Radiohead’, ‘indie rock’, ‘britpop’ or ‘dream rock’ – all descriptions that prove ill-fitting. More accurately, they are ‘offering simple sentimental songs that touch everyone’s heart’. Jonny Buckland apes some of the echo-saturated sounds of U2’s guitarist, The Edge. Unlike that band, Coldplay do not really ‘rock’; they ‘swell’ in a manner more familiar from classical music than rock ‘n’ roll.
Officially, all Coldplay’s songs are composed jointly by the four members of the band. Unofficially, the bulk of the songwriting seems to rest with Chris Martin. After their first couple of albums, rumours spread that he will go solo, that ‘Coldplay’ is just a label for whatever Chris Martin wants to do anyway. However, Martin remains fiercely loyal to his bandmates and those rumours largely die away.
Coldplay’s debut album is ‘Parachutes’ (2000) (UK no. 1, US no. 51, AUS no. 2). The album is perversely titled after the disc’s shortest piece, a forty-six second snippet that makes no reference to the title. The best known song from ‘Parachutes’ is ‘Yellow’ (UK no. 4, US no. 48, AUS no. 5). “Look at the stars / Look how they shine for you / And everything you do / Yeah, they were all yellow,” counsels the lyrics, as Johnny Buckland leans into a nagging guitar riff. Elsewhere, there is a skittishness about tracks like ‘Don’t Panic’ (UK no. 30, AUS no. 57), ‘Shiver’ (UK no. 35, AUS no. 57), ‘Trouble’ (UK no. 10) and ‘Everything’s Not Lost’ that may be appropriate to first album nerves. On the other hand, ‘High Speed’ suggest that “Confidence in you / Is confidence in me”. Mostly, the album fulfils Chris Martin’s stated goal to be “a reaction against soulless rubbish.”
The group struggle with the concept of carrying on. After their European tour in 2001, Chris Martin claims he is ‘dry’ and hasn’t written a song in months. They have only one song on hand, ‘In My Place’, when they return to the recording studio. Despite the drama, ‘A Rush Of Blood To The Head’ (2002) (UK no. 1, US no. 5, AUS no. 1) turns out to be their finest album. The naked emotion on display is breathtaking. Musically, the band display more poise and present more thoughtful and inventive arrangements. ‘In My Place’ (UK no. 2, US no. 117, AUS no. 23) is graced with a lovely bell-like guitar figure that soothes the worried admission that the singer has “crossed lines I shouldn’t have crossed”. A churchy organ offers further succour. ‘God Put A Smile Upon Your Face’ ((UK no. 100, AUS no. 43) is a vaguely off-kilter guitar strum along. ‘Clocks’ (UK no. 9, US no. 29, AUS no. 28) features a fantastic descending piano, the aural equivalent of a spiral staircase. The wordless chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” (or “you are”?) disguises the title which is buried in a verse: “Confusion never stops / Closing walls and ticking clocks.” (The B-side of the ‘Clocks’ single is ‘Moses’, the name Chris Martin subsequently gives to his son.) The best track on the album – and the best in Coldplay’s career – is ‘The Scientist’ (UK no. 10, AUS no. 40). Again, the title is obliquely derived from a line in a verse: “I was just guessing / At numbers and figures / Pulling the puzzles apart / Questions of science / Science and progress / Don’t speak as loud as my heart”. The sad, slow lament of Chris Martin’s piano is joined in the second verse by Jonny Buckland’s acoustic guitar, like a good friend propping up a troubled man. It’s heart-breaking stuff. And speaking of breaking hearts, it doesn’t get much more affecting than the chorus of ‘Warning Sign’, where Chris Martin’s plaintive voice eerily repeats, “The truth is / I miss you.” The title track, ‘A Rush Of Blood To The Head’, is a dark, largely acoustic, modern folk song: “I’m gonna buy this place is what I said / Blame it on a rush of blood to the head”. The repetition of exposed emotion and honest vulnerability lends great weight to the album.
Commercially, the success of ‘A Rush Of Blood To The Head’ lifts Coldplay to a new level. “I think we are the best band in the world,” Chris Martin now states. He goes on to qualify the claim, “But I know we could also be the worst band in the world. Therefore we are really strict with ourselves, to only give our best. In the beginning, we already thought that we could do it, but we weren’t sure.” In performing, there is a new confidence in Chris Martin: ‘Previously self-conscious onstage [he] has developed into something of an extrovert dancer, turning himself in circles with arms thrown wide, even when he is loaded down with a guitar’. Still, the enduring image is of Martin hunched over his piano.
A serious-minded bunch, Coldplay also use their new-found influence to publicise worthy causes such as Oxfam, ‘Make Trade Fair’, Greenpeace and Amnesty International.
Between Coldplay’s second and third albums comes Chris Martin’s marriage and fatherhood, so he embarks on the band’s next work with a somewhat different worldview.
The main difference in ‘X & Y’ (2005) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) is that it is a colder, more hi-tech recording. ‘Twisted Logic’ refers to “Hundreds of years in the future / There could be computers / Looking for life on Earth”, but the machines already seem to pervade the album. The cover is a blotch of Lego-like computer graphics. ‘Talk’ samples ‘Computer Love’ by German techno-boffins Kraftwerk. Art-rock pioneer Brian Eno supplies synthesisers on ‘Low’, beginning his relationship with Coldplay. Tracks like ‘Square One’, ‘White Shadows’ (a song about childhood,, seeing offspring as little white shadows of their parents) and ‘X & Y’ all show traces of this chill. Quite why the song – or album – is titled ‘X & Y’ is a mystery, unless it is about men and women, genetically represented by the X and Y chromosomes. Still, there is humanity within this machine. The nominal first single, ‘Speed Of Sound’ (UK no. 2, US no. 8, AUS no. 9), owes some debt to ‘Clocks’, and no less than 1960s-1970s songsmith Carole King endorses the quality of this composition. Chris Martin’s new mother-in-law, actress Blythe Danner, claims that the piano ballad ‘Fix You’ (UK no. 4, US no. 59, AUS no. 25) was written for her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, after the death of Gwyneth’s father (and Danner’s husband) Bruce Paltrow. ‘The Hardest Part’ (AUS no. 40) also shows flashes of warmth with “The sweetest taste in my mouth / Silver lining of clouds”.
By the time of Coldplay’s next album, Dave Holmes takes over management of the band from Phil Harvey, though the latter remains affiliated with the group.
‘Viva La Vida Or Death And All Of His Friends’ (2008) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) is an artier album, offering richer musical tapestries. Interlinked songs create the feel of a larger, more cohesive canvas. On the subject of canvas, the cover of the album is the painting ‘La Liberte Guidant Le People’ [Liberty Leading The People] (1830) by Eugene Delacroix. Brian Eno returns, providing ‘sonic landscapes’. The title track, ‘Viva La Vida’ (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 2), is shorn of virtually all the traditional instruments of a rock band, offering synthesisers and a string section. The lyric is equally strange and defiant: “I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing / Roman cavalry choirs are singing / Be my mirror, my sword and shield / My missionaries in a foreign field / For some reason I can’t explain / Once you’d gone it was never, never an honest word / And that was when I ruled the world”. It’s not exactly traditional rock and roll, but it works. The album’s closer and alternate title track, ‘Death And All Of His Friends’, grows from hushed piano intimacy to florid, widescreen waves of sound: “No, I don’t want a battle from beginning to end / I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge / I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends.” It also samples Jon Hopkins’ ‘Light Through The Veins’. The dark ‘Violet Hill’ (UK no. 8, US no. 40, AUS no. 9) is a jagged tale of hard times that still holds on to compassion with the sentiment “If you love me / Won’t you let me know.” By contrast, the romantic ‘Strawberry Swing’ (UK no. 158) is almost a country music pseudo-hoedown. ‘Lovers of Japan’ (UK no. 131, US no. 110) offers a vaguely oriental melody while ‘Yes’ visits India for inspiration. “Life In Technicolor II’ is an instrumental version of ‘Life in Technicolor’ (UK no. 28, AUS no. 63), a track the band rejects as being too commercial. Fans get the chance to judge for themselves when ‘Life In Technicolor’ (with vocals) is part of ‘Prospekt’s March’, an additional EP of music added to a reissue of ‘Viva La Vida Or Death And All Of His Friends’.
‘Mylo Xyloto’ (2011) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) shows an increasingly colourful Coldplay. Their stage shows are now enlivened with fluoro wristbands, semi-graffiti art, and Chris Martin’s yoga moves. ‘Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall’ (UK no. 6, US no. 14, AUS no. 14) stresses the joy of music: “I turn the music up/ I’ve got my records on” begins Chris Martin, adding “I feel my heart start beating to my favourite song.” He seems to see a place for Coldplay in the ongoing history of music, “I’d rather be a comma, than a full stop.” ‘Paradise’ (UK no. 1, US no. 15, AUS no. 3) is perhaps the catchiest piece present. When things are bad there is always a ‘happy place’ in the imagination: “When she was just a girl / She expected the world / But it flew away from her reach / So she ran away in her sleep / And dreamed of para, para, paradise….Every time she closed her eyes”. ‘Princess Of China’ (UK no. 4, US no. 20, AUS no. 16) samples Sigur Ros’ ‘Takk’ and features additional vocals from Barbadian pop songstress, Rihanna, who sings: “Once upon a time / We were burning bright / Now all we ever seem to do is fight / On and on.” Brian Eno provides ‘enoxification’ to the album.
Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow separate in March 2014.
‘Ghost Stories’ (2014) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1), released in May, is Chris Martin’s rather public way of dealing with the end of his marriage. The album’s highlight is ‘Magic’ (UK no. 10, US no. 14, AUS no. 5), a song that sports a more experimental sound with deliberate beats. However, perhaps more representative is the hushed and spectral ‘Midnight’ (UK no. 48, US no. 29, AUS no. 25), featuring hi-tech keyboard support. The heartache runs through such tracks as ‘True Love’, ‘Another’s Arms’ and ‘Ink’ (UK no. 156). Offering some relief is the more traditional, piano folk sound of ‘A Sky Full Of Stars’ (UK no. 9, US no. 10, AUS no. 2). However, ‘Ghost Stories’ is basically Martin’s ‘love letter to his former wife’ and Coldplay’s ‘least rock and most electronic album.’
‘Ghost Stories Live’ (2014) (US no. 93) in November is a concert recording centred on Coldplay’s previous studio release.
In 2014-2015 Chris Martin is romantically linked with actress Jennifer Lawrence, but this relationship seems very brief.
In 2015 Chris Martin begins a romantic relationship with Annabelle Wallis.
‘A Head Full Of Dreams’ (2015) (UK no. 2, US no. 2, AUS no. 2), released in December, is hailed as ‘Coldplay’s poppiest album yet.’ Production credits for the album are split amongst Digital Divide, Daniel Green, Rik Simpson and Stargate – the last-named best known for working with Rihanna. Guest vocalists include Brian Eno, Chris Martin’s ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow (on the ballad ‘Everglow’) and rhythm and blues/pop queen Beyoncé (on ‘Hymn For The Weekend’). ‘Adventure Of A Lifetime’ (UK no. 7, US no. 39, AUS no. 20) is a tropical groove.
Coldplay enjoyed massive commercial success but were not complacent. “We want to experiment with new sounds. We want the record to be great, not just good,” asserted Chris Martin. Coldplay wanted ‘to write quality songs and to make music with honesty and passion. To be catchy without being slick, poppy without being pop, uplifting without being pompous’. They aspired to both ‘emotion that can make you feel sad while you’re moving your legs’ and ‘celestial epic soundscapes’.
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 13 December 2012
- ‘Cold Ambition’ by Joachim Hentschel (‘Rolling Stone’ magazine yearbook 2003 – 2004) p. 52, 54, 56
- allmusic.com, ‘Coldplay’ by Mackenzie Wilson as at 15 March 2004 and reviews of ‘Parachutes’ and ‘A Rush Of Blood To The Head’
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 214, 222
- ‘The History Of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 308
- ‘Hit’ liftout, ‘Herald Sun’ [Melbourne, Australia newspaper] (27 September 2009) p. 43
- wikipedia.org as at 10 December 2012, 27 March 2014, 1 January 2015, 2 January 2016
- ‘Viva La Vida Or Death And All Of His Friends’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (EMI Records Ltd, 2008) p. 3
- ‘Mylo Xyloto’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (EMI Records Ltd, 2011) p. 11
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 73
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia newspaper) – ‘The Sound of a Broken Heart’ – review of ‘Ghost Stories’ by Cameron Adams (15 May 2014) p. 40
- whosdatedwho.com as at 1 January 2015, 2 January 2016
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia newspaper) Review of ‘A Head Full Of Dreams’ by Cameron Adams (3 December 2015) p. 42
Song lyrics copyright BMG Music Publishing Ltd (2000-2005), Universal Music Publishing MGB Ltd. (2008)
Last revised 3 January 2016