Coldplay v Radiohead: Who really finished on top?

Coldplay and Radiohead started as uneasy bedfellows. But as both bands leap back into action, which has weathered the years better, asks Ed Power

Friday 15 October 2021 06:32
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<p>‘Radiohead still sound like Radiohead and Coldplay like Coldplay'</p>

‘Radiohead still sound like Radiohead and Coldplay like Coldplay'

When it was announced that last summer’s Glastonbury Live At Worthy Farm virtual festival had booked a “special” guest act, the internet worked itself into quite a tizzy. Would it be Taylor Swift, treating the world to her first live deep dive into Folklore? Might Beyoncé return to the scene of her 2011 Pyramid Stage triumph? There were so many possibilities. And then came the big reveal that the mystery headliners were… a jazz/krautrock Radiohead side-project named (presumably with irony) The Smile. Even Kid A fanatics with the lyrics to “How to Disappear Completely” tattooed down their arm will have felt underwhelmed.

Contrast the lack of enthusiasm around yet another Radiohead’s spin-off – at this point it feels even their side-projects have side-projects – with the excitement surrounding the new single from Coldplay, Thom Yorke and company’s one-time anthemic rock peers and rivals. Released on 24 September, “My Universe” is a collaboration with Seoul boyband BTS. And if that feels every bit as outrageously over the top as a mash-up between two of the biggest acts on the planet should, with 95.4 million streams and counting, it’s certainly found its audience.

“My Universe” is cheesy but irresistible. The lyrics have a rip-roaringly maximalist charm, especially as Martin delivers the chorus of “You are my universe/And I just want to put you first”. The video features the 44-year-old University College London graduate dancing with aliens. BTS beam in to rap in Korean. Martin, who has no idea what they’re saying, is nonetheless thrilled. It’s a pop tonic, fizzy as anything and completely delightful.

Radiohead still sound like Radiohead and Coldplay like Coldplay. However, in a way the two bands, who started with a shared background in emotionally muddled bloke-pop, have swapped positions. Coldplay collaborating with BTS is a step into the unknown. As is having Britney Spears collaborator Max Martin produce a thumpingly entertaining new album, Music of the Spheres, out now.

As the cosmological title indicates, it captures Coldplay at their most expansive and ambitious. There are classic Coldplay ballads in the tradition of “Yellow”. Shiny pop workouts that suggest their alliance with hit-whisperer Martin was a match forged in chart heaven. And even points where they sound like a feel-good version of stadium noodlers Muse. It’s a glittering mishmash – a collection impossible not to be enchanted by.

Thom Yorke’s merry pranksters, by contrast, are prisoners to predictability. When did Radiohead last surprise anyone? The time Yorke did that funny dance in the “Lotus Flower” video? When they gave In Rainbows for away for free? Whatever the answer, it’s been a while.

Just like Coldplay, they’ve been keeping busy. Yet whereas Coldplay are charging into the future with Music of the Spheres, Radiohead are glancing over their shoulders. On 5 November, they put out a 21st anniversary special edition of their landmark Kid A and Amnesiac records, featuring the standard studio outtakes and hard-to-source B-sides. Radiohead are, in other words, raiding the vault for a statement-vinyl cash-in – even as Coldplay push on with their second LP in three years. If they aren’t there already, Yorke’s crew are surely in danger of becoming heritage rockers of choice for avant-garde dads.

The lesson is that, if pop is a marathon rather than a sprint, then it’s the uncool kids who often fare better over the distance. Be honest – which would you rather listen to? Coldplay working with the writer of “…Baby One More Time”? Or Thom Yorke and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood playing jazz-inflected krautrock in an outhouse (as they appeared to be doing during their Worthy Farm showcase)? Why even speak of these two bands in the same breath? The answer is that Coldplay, when breaking through in 2000 with the single “Yellow” and the album Parachutes, were compared unceasingly to Radiohead – the consensus being that Martin was a sort of Tesco Finest Thom Yorke, who’d listened to “High and Dry” several hundred times too many. Then there is the apocryphal story – never confirmed – that when Thom Yorke first heard “Yellow”, he shook his head and said aloud, “What have I done?” Another tale has it that Yorke stopped talking to Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich (a member of The Smile) after Godrich produced proto-Coldplay mewlers Travis.

‘A Tesco Finest Thom Yorke’ – Chris Martin performing during a Coldplay gig

Whatever the truth, Yorke will surely have taken note of the similarity between Radiohead anthems such as “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees”, and the songs with which Coldplay achieved fame a few years later. Everybody else did. In its review of Parachutes, the NME described Martin as a more relatable Thom Yorke. Spin, the American rock magazine, hailed Coldplay as Radiohead “but sincere”. Radiohead comparisons were, of course, only the start of it. When not being accused of pinching the sound and emotional jitteriness of Radiohead’s The Bends, Coldplay were on the receiving end of more bile than the rest of the top 40 combined. It wasn’t that people simply did not care for their music. They loathed it with a vengeance.

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“Coldplay [are] absolutely the s*******t f***ing band I’ve ever heard in my entire f***ing life,” wrote Chuck Klosterman in his 2003 essay anthology Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. “Coldplay [manufacture] fake love as frenetically as the Ford f**king Motor Company manufactures Mustangs.”

Some of that mud was flung by Radiohead themselves. Asked by Mojo magazine in 2006 if he had “any time” for Coldplay and Travis, Thom Yorke replied that it was “the choice between, you know, machine gun or pistol by, you know, execution, isn’t it?” This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment reaction. Yorke had reportedly grown so fed up of Radiohead “soundalikes” – with Coldplay presumably top of the pile – he’d pull a face whenever encountering a sincerely strummed guitar in the wild. “Something would come on the radio and he’d look at me funny and I’d be like, ‘What are you so upset about?’ He’d be huffing and puffing like someone copied him,” Nigel Godrich told Rolling Stone in a 2017 piece about the making of OK Computer. “I’d say, ‘You’re just imagining it. Look, it’s a guitar with some drums behind it. You didn’t invent that… It’s a guy singing in falsetto with an acoustic guitar.’”

All these years later, is it time to accept that, far from the monsters under the bed Yorke seemingly perceived them to be, Coldplay were actually the good guys all along? Radiohead have never released a bad album – though, with 2003’s Hail to the Thief, they have certainly released a generically “Radiohead” one. However, it’s been five years since their last record, the (admittedly stunning ) A Moon Shaped Pool. And yet, since 2014 and up to Music of the Spheres, Coldplay have put out four records, including 2019’s double LP, Everyday Life. In terms of prolificness – and even if you account for Radiohead’s many side-projects – Coldplay are clearly out front. As to the charges that Radiohead are constant innovators, while Coldplay are purveyors of meat and veg rock to the masses: well, it all depends on how you define “innovate”.

Thom Yorke

Coldplay were arguably the ones who saw the future when they went in a pop direction, starting with 2008’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends and 2011’s Mylo Xyloto. In anticipating the degree to which pop would supplant rock as music’s lingua franca, they were ahead of the curve. It ultimately comes down to whether you think “innovate” means stepping outside your perceived safety zone, as Coldplay have by going pop. Or if it means sounding vaguely like Autechre, as is Radiohead’s wont.

Coldplay’s musical credibility is certainly more substantial than is often assumed to be the case. In addition to Max Martin, Coldplay collaborators have in the past seven years included critically adored electronic producer Jon Hopkins, Horrors / London Grammar/ Florence and the Machine regular Paul Epworth, and Rihanna/Beyoncé duo Stargate. Radiohead, by contrast, have worked with Nigel Godrich since the early 1990s. There’s nothing wrong with staying loyal to a producer. Still, it does knock on the head the widely held view that Radiohead are restless pioneers where Coldplay are stuck on repeat.

Chris Martin and his comrades have, it is true, never approached the artistic peaks scaled by Radiohead. Nothing in their catalogue can, for instance, rival the synapse-frying majesty of Kid A. Two decades (and a bit) on, this hybrid of arena guitars and experiential electronica stands tall as one of the most import rock albums of the 21st century. But that isn’t to say Coldplay haven’t made some classics of their own. Ghost Stories, the 2014 stripped-down collection of ballads informed by Chris Martin’s divorce from Gwyneth Paltrow, was a beautiful gut-punch. And it debunked the idea that Coldplay were unwilling to take risks.

“Midnight” samples Jon Hopkins as it wends its way to a melancholic electronica fade-out. “Another’s Arms” repurposes a vocal from unimpeachable indie singer Jane Weaver. And “A Sky Full Of Stars”, the record’s emotional crescendo, surfs on twinkling EDM beats. Recently, when I was feeling down about something, I put on Ghost Stories and went for walk. Its straightforward emotional honesty lifted me up in a way no Radiohead album ever could.

Cover art for Coldplay’s ‘Ghost Stories’

“Does it hurt us when critics use ‘Coldplay’ to mean something derogatory?” Coldplay guitarist Guy Berryman wondered aloud when I interviewed him in 2008, just before Viva La Vida. “Of course it does. I think the reason it happened was that we became so successful so quickly. That’s what made people want to have a go. In this game you’ve just got to be thick-skinned because if you do well, you’ll have those who want to bring you down. But it also motivates you. Whenever someone sticks you in a pigeonhole – well, your first instinct is to surprise them and come back with something completely different.”

“Something completely different” certainly sums up “My Universe”. It’s Coldplay embracing a global pop sound and giving us a feel-good anthem for post-pandemic times. Radiohead, meanwhile, are bogged down in box-sets and side projects. Isn’t it time we revised our idea as to which of these bands deserves to be lionised for never standing still – and which has become stuffy and predictable?

‘Music Of The Spheres’ is out today. Radiohead’s ‘Kid A Mnesia’ triple-LP comes out on 5 November

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