Coldplay's second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, was nearing completion when an excited Chris Martin arrived at the studio late one night. At the keyboard, he played the tune running through his head. Lead guitarist Jonny Buckland was impressed. "He picked up his guitar [a sure sign that he likes a song] and played these brilliant chords," Martin recalls. "It was like a chemical reaction process."
The pulsing, cyclical riff – inspired, according to Martin, by the band Muse – was edgy, hectic and suggested an uneasy passage of time. The band all agreed: this was the sound to herald the next phase in Coldplay's musical development.
But, for now, they had enough songs on the second album and, under pressure to get them out and running low on studio time, they quickly cut a demo of the new composition and filed it under "Songs for #3" – ideas for a projected third album.
By June 2002, they were ready to hand over A Rush of Blood to the Head to Parlophone. "But it was sounding rubbish," Martin recalls. The new track, soon to be titled "Clocks", was the grit in the oyster. Still unfinished, it had thrown the whole album into perspective. Unhappy at putting out something they were not completely satisfied with, the band reached agreement with their label to delay release. After headlining that year's Glastonbury, the band returned to the studio and dusted down "Songs for #3". Phil Harvey, the band's close confidant, urged them to revisit "Clocks" immediately. "He heard it and said, 'No, you must do that song now,'" Martin says.
Lyrics were written to fit the mood of urgent agitation, with Martin switching between major and minor chords: "Lights go out and I can't be saved/ Tides that I tried to swim against/ You've put me down upon my knees." The rest of the band trotted out a tense, staccato soundtrack that wound around a shifting time signature, perfectly fitting Martin's ode to lost opportunities. It was fleshed out by synthesisers and strings.
A Rush of Blood to the Head eventually appeared two months late, with the newly mastered "Clocks" taking pride of place. The Grammy award-winning track was hailed as a victory, and became their biggest hit to date.