Rock Star - Rebel with a cause

Filed on May 5, 2008

THE UNVEILING last week of Coldplay's new single had all the hallmarks of a punchy declaration of intent, aimed to silence all those 'namby-pamby' jibes the band habitually attract.

This time, however, the musical hand-wringing is forced to make room for some surprisingly muscular guitar and bluesy vocals. It might not be an entirely new direction, but the attitude has certainly shifted a degree or two, and there's also the promise in the forthcoming album Viva La Vida of African and South American influences.

It's two years since Chris Martin bade his public a rather cryptic goodbye - 'You won't see us at one of these for many, many years,' he said at the Brit Awards. The man who provides Coldplay with its face, voice, words and conscience is not only the driving force behind the band's enormous success (30 million album sales and counting), he's also the reason they're often derided.

Ever since Coldplay emerged in 2000, Martin has been the poster boy for gluten-free, woe-is-me rock. In the video for their first single, 'Yellow', he wore a cagoule in the rain and a persona was born that has proved hard to kill.

Their maligned status has swelled out of proportion. It's conveniently forgotten that Coldplay's debut, Parachutes, was greeted with critical hosannas, while the follow up, A Rush of Blood to the Head, was named album of the year by the New Musical Express.

Born in Devon, south-west England, to a chartered accountant father and a music teacher mother, Martin belongs to a generation of comfortably off middle-class children raised in the belief that with rock stardom comes great responsibility. 'It's not about dressing up in leather and trashing hotel rooms and snorting coke off the back of a hooker,' he once said. 'It's about independence of mind and spirit.'

The disdain sometimes reserved for Martin can be hard to fathom. Is it born of cynicism at his campaigning zeal, his aloofness from the racier end of rock'n'roll or, indeed, his marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow.

The couple got together in 2002 and married in December 2003. Their daughter, Apple, was born in 2004. A son, Moses, arrived two years later. The media perceive the couple as earnest - partly on account of their refusal to appear together in public. And their odd social arrangements - fuelled by competing professional demands - have led to inevitable rumours that the marriage is floundering and although there's no evidence to support these claims, they are often portrayed as a couple who manage to squeeze less joy from being rich and famous than many others who enjoy their lifestyle.

It is a function of the power of the media that this has now become received wisdom, though few if any journalists have any insight into what life is actually behind the closed doors of Martin/Paltrow Towers.

It's logical that the music Martin makes also stands accused of having all the fizz, danger, spice and fun drained from it. But Coldplay didn't get where they are by being a bad band. Martin has a fine, unusual voice, knows how to work a stage and has written some rather lovely songs, 'Yellow' and 'The Scientist' among them.

However, drafting in Brian Eno, the man instrumental in divorcing U2 from their earnestness and introducing them to concepts such as fun, irony and humour, to produce their new album Viva La Vida, released next month, signals a clear wish to revitalise their modus operandi a decade into their career.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, guitarist Jonny Buckland revealed: 'We felt like the first three albums were a trilogy and we finished that. So we wanted to do something different.'

After hearing most of the tracks on the new album, a journalist from the US magazine claimed that they are 'refreshingly, bracingly different from Coldplay hits like 'Clocks' and 'Speed of Sound'... the lyrics are darker, dealing with recurring themes of death and loneliness'. Even more intriguingly, Rolling Stone suggested: 'Martin extends his vocal palette considerably beyond the falsetto that has largely defined him.' Martin admits as much when he says: 'Whether or not it's good, we certainly started to use more colours.'

Coldplay were formed in 1998 and the seeds of Martin's success lie in Brit-pop's decline.