Politics, soft drinks and rock'n'roll: How Coldplay became the coolest band in America

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The British rock star tradition is a hazy mixture of trashed hotel rooms, motorbikes ridden up staircases and Rollers driven into swimming pools.

It is a lifestyle of reckless abandon encapsulated by the former Rolling Stone Brian Jones, found drowned at his Sussex mansion at the height of his fame, and Keith Moon, the drummer for the Who who fulfilled his My Generation pledge to die before he got old.

What it is not is earnest, well-spoken, public-school educated young men with a distrust of alcohol graciously collecting awards and dedicating them to politicians.

But Chris Martin managed to fulfil just that role as he stepped up to collect a Grammy award ­ using the occasion to honour Senator John Kerry who is campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Martin is regarded in Britain as a dullard, a "neo-nerd" pop star who likes wearing woolly hats and who forms half of the most boring of celebrity couples with his pregnant wife, the actress Gwyneth Paltrow. One newspaper recently carped that the couple consisted of "anti-starlet Paltrow (no wheat, no dairy, no fun)" hooked up with "anti-rock star Martin (no sex, no drugs, even less fun)".

Having reached a crucial stage in his quest to become president of the United States, Mr Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, may not have been too keen on an endorsement from a man who once famously boasted "Geeks can succeed". And while the Coldplay singer's dedication of his Grammy to "John Kerry, who hopefully will be your president some day" will not convince many British observers that the Democrat is anything other than the grey patrician he has been portrayed as, in America it has been seen as a spectacular PR coup.

CNN.com yesterday wrote: "Kerry couldn't have drawn better publicity if he had staged a wardrobe malfunction with Justin Timberlake."

Not bad for a geek.

Phil Alexander, editor of Mojo magazine, said: "I think Coldplay offer something different to the American record-buying public. Coldplay are seen as an extension of Radiohead, as part of an alternative rock lineage."

Mr Alexander added that it was typical of a "British syndrome" to describe Coldplay as "a bit boring" rather than acknowledge their achievement in winning a major American award. He pointed out that Americans have a longer-term approach to artists, admiring those who can stick around, while Britain likes its stars to shine brightly and then quickly disappear.

"Most of the artists that come out of the UK are pilloried after a certain time and regarded as dinosaurs," said Mr Alexander. "In America they induct them into a hall of fame."

In a recent piece, entitled "The Very Genteel Mr Paltrow", the Daily Mail gleefully gave Martin's street credibility another knock by labelling him "possibly the poshest rock star in the world", and claiming that he is related by marriage to Winston Churchill.

Martin, who made his "geeks" speech at a sell-out gig at Earl's Court last summer after repeated sniping at his less than rock 'n' roll life-style, has led Coldplay to heights in America other British bands can only dream of. Coldplay are seen in the US as cutting edge alternative rock and their single "Clocks" defeated all opposition at the Grammys, including Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love".

According to Gareth Grundy of Q magazine, Coldplay have been victims of their own success. He believes the fashionable buzz that surrounded the band after their 2000 debut album Parachutes evaporated as they were embraced by the suburbs.

"People probably say they are boring because they are not cool and everybody likes to like things that are cool," he said. "But whether they are cool or not they are a really great band, both on record and live."

He added: "Those people who say they are boring mean they are uncool. It's not as cool to admit you like them as when Parachutes came out, but I think they've got better."

Mr Grundy said that some music commentators were reluctant to embrace a band whose singer had become a staple of the celebrity magazine market since the start of his relationship with Paltrow.

Alex Needham, deputy editor of New Musical Express, said: "I think that because their music appeals to lots of people there's a distrust of people in Volvos listening to it. Because everyone here has lived with that album for so long we have got a bit fed up with it."

Coldplay's second album A Rush of Blood to the Head was chosen as best album of the year by NME's writers and its readers, and also cleaned up at the Brits. And according to Mr Alexander, the sniping that has been directed at Martin is nothing new. He pointed out that the guitarist Jeff Beck had also landed a Grammy award in the rock instrumental category but that no one seemed interested in Britain, where he is best-known for the office party staple "Hi-Ho Silver Lining".

"It's quite indicative that people in this country don't know who Jeff Beck is, but somebody like the White Stripes played with him when he did his Royal Festival Hall shows. They were his backing band," said Mr Alexander.

"Jeff Beck is viewed in America and around the world as a legendary guitar player except in his own backyard where people say 'yeah...right'.

"That says a lot about our own ignorance of our musical heritage."

At the Grammys, America showed how musical elders should be treated, bestowing special wards on country couple Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash who both died in 2003. George Harrison, the late Beatle who died in 2002, was a cause of fuss and celebration. His song Marwa Blues won best pop instrumental performance. The Beatles were also honoured with a special award from the recording academy president to mark the 40th anniversary of their ground-breaking appearance on US television's Ed Sullivan Show. George's widow Olivia Harrison and John Lennon's widow Yoko Ono accepted the award at the ceremony.

The veteran soul singer Luther Vandross, meanwhile, took four top awards and sent a videotaped message of gratitude from his sickbed where he is still recovering from the stroke he suffered last April.

Among the key award winners on the night were Atlanta rappers Outkast, who won album of the year for SpeakerBoxxx/The Love Below and the rock outfit Evanescence, who were named best new band.

British interests aside, the night belonged to R&B and Beyoncé whose haul of five awards equalled the record for most Grammys won by a female artist in a single night.

While their credibility in the fickle UK might be on the wane, the Grammy triumph signals that Coldplay's stock is still rising in the US. Mr Needham said: "What it shows is that they're in that international rock super league now like U2. Everybody in America seems to like them, from Justin Timberlake to Johnny Cash when he was alive."

As a consequence, Martin has the kind of platform that he used at last year's Brit awards to speak out against military action in Iraq. Some even saw in his intervention into American political debate the stirrings of an attempt to emulate the rock icon Bono, who has famously campaigned on issues such as Third World debt and Aids.

Mr Grundy said: "He is trying to fill Bono's shoes while he's away. He's possibly an apprentice Bono."

And despite his geeky image, Martin has shown he has a bit of the rock 'n' roll wildman about him, getting arrested last year for allegedly attacking a photographer in Australia. Then again, the charges were dropped.


Album of the Year: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, OutKast

Record of the Year: "Clocks", Coldplay

Song of the Year: "Dance with my Father", Richard Marx and Luther Vandross

New Artist: Evanescence.

Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal: "Disorder in the House", Warren Zevon and Bruce Springsteen

Female Country Vocal Performance: "Keep on the Sunny Side", June Carter Cash

Female Pop Vocal Performance: "Beautiful", Christina Aguilera

Male Pop Vocal Performance: "Cry Me a River", Justin Timberlake

Rap Album: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, OutKast.

Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal: "Underneath it All," No Doubt

Contemporary R&B Album: Dangerously in Love, Beyoncé


NOEL GALLAGHER Probably one of the only rockers ever to have been left by his wife for being too boring. In his early days of fame, Gallagher once boasted that he sprinkled cocaine on his Cornflakes, but his longing for the quiet country life caused his wife, Meg Matthews, to call it a day.

SIR MICK JAGGER He may still have a soft spot for the ladies but Sir Mick is now entrenched in the establishment and a paragon of respectability. Last year he made his band mate Keith Richards rage after accepting a knighthood. However, his teenage daughter Elizabeth is dating a 44-year-old man.

ALICE COOPER Known for his props - electric chairs and guillotines - and songs such as No More Mr Nice Guy, Cooper reportedly once killed a chicken on stage in Toronto. He also pledged to "drive a stake through the heart of the love generation". He is now a golf enthusiast and committed Christian.


BEYONCE KNOWLES Even her rider is tame; earl grey tea, fried chicken and an ironing board - Beyoncé is the best behaved pop princess since Britney was still a virgin. She may wear tiny outfits but her spiritual bases are covered; Beyoncé is a God-fearing Southern girl engaged to her rapper beau and looking forward to her white wedding.

CLIFF RICHARD No sex, no drugs, no drinking. Heart-warming Christmas songs and cheery sing-alongs at rainy Wimbledons are more Cliff's style. The oldest virgin in pop is a confirmed Bachelor Boy and intends to remain that way. Cliff has been around longer than The Beatles and his Christian credentials are intact.

EVANESCENCE Christian rock group Evanescence have taken America by storm with their dark lyricism and clean-cut ways. They pipped 50 Cent to the post when they won a best new artist Grammy in Los Angeles yesterday, proving that gun shot scars aren't always the last word in cool.