Music Features

A Question Of Sound #4: Confronting Those Coldplay-Shaped Demons

The date is 29 November. It’s a Saturday night and I’m clutching two tickets for Coldplay’s grand homecoming gig in my right hand. It’s a strange and not entirely comfortable sensation.

I’ve climbed the concrete steps to Sheffield’s Hallam FM Arena on just two occasions, and for good reason, too; its enormous stage generally plays host to revolving cast of nastiness – Cliff Richard is coming soon, along with a line-up of 80’s has-beens, High School Musical On Ice (I kid you not), and Girls Aloud. Actually, I wouldn’t mind seeing Girls Aloud, but there’s very little else to get excited about on the Coming Attractions list. As my pulse begins to race (the work of those steps, not a surge of adrenaline), I start questioning myself: what I’m hoping to get out of tonight? A snarky put-down masked as a live review? Probably. It would be fun to write, but would anyone derive any value from such an article? Is there anybody out there who hasn’t made their mind up about Coldplay yet? I doubt it.

I have a chequered history with Coldplay. Eight years ago, overcome by the euphoria of finishing my ‘A’ levels, I made a fateful decision that still haunts me to this day: I awarded Parachutes the coveted 10/10 rating. I have an array of excuses, youthful naivety and temporary insanity among them, but, if I’m brutally honest, I still consider Coldplay’s debut to be a reasonably worthy record (a 7 perhaps), and I can fully appreciate how it catapulted the band to international stardom. What Chris Martin and his relatively anonymous friends have commited to tape since has been, with a few notable exceptions, horribly dull, but in that respect the Coldplay story really isn’t much different to that of one of the band’s major influences, U2. The only difference is that U2 enjoyed a much more productive period of relevance; once it had expired, however, the fallout – faceless arena shows, political posturing, bland records accompanied by bold promises – was largely the same.

Given my longstanding indifference to Coldplay and the sheer volume of great, non-Coldplay related music that I own, it’s no surprise that, beyond the singles, I haven’t spent a great deal of time getting to know Viva La Vida. Just because I enjoy writing about music, it doesn’t mean I that I feel a need to listen to any particular release; the idea of a perceived importance based on commercial success rather irritates me, actually. In a similar fashion, I have also managed to successfully exclude The Killers, Kings of Leon and Snow Patrol from my life, rendering my personal world a rather happy little place. You should try it sometime.

But, just when I thought I knew where this feature was headed (because, let’s face it, I was practically writing it from my seat in row ZZZ), Coldplay arrived and – much to my surprise (oh, ok, my disgust, too) – didn’t completely bore me. And Chris Martin seemed... well, almost human. While a lot of the music did mesh into an inoffensive, pedestrian whole, there were actual standouts, too. Put simply, Coldplay managed to stay on the good side of middling long enough to force me to put my carefully sharpened knives away and actually listen to the music. And some of it wasn’t half bad.

I’ve always had a soft spot for The Scientist; tonight the band performed it from an elevated position in the second tier, right at the back in the arena; ok, so it was a lame stadium rock trick, but it couldn’t stifle a stripped-down, honest performance of one of the band’s signature tunes; bizarrely, the ending of the song incorporated a chorus from Take That’s Back For Good. Who was it that said Chris Martin was humourless automaton? Oh, that was me! Sorry, Chris, I partially retract that statement. In contrast, another apparent fan favourite, In My Place, sounded embarrassingly weak, providing a wholly inappropriate soundtrack to some comical rock star moves from Martin and guitarist Jonny Buckland; there’s a reason this track hasn’t been liscensed to the Guitar Hero franchise, after all.

As the evening progressed, I couldn’t help but feel that the real jewel in Coldplay’s live crown is not Chris Martin but – and stick with me on this – drummer Will Champion. Not only does Champion come across as the most likeable member of Coldplay, but his muscular drumming seemed to single-handedly carry many of the band’s songs, particularly the newer material. This was a surprise to me, as I’d barely noticed his contributions on record, and, when I saw the band at the much smaller Leadmill venue way back in 2000, I distinctly remember feeling that he and Berryman were limiting factors in the band’s live sound. Yet when the band relocated to an illuminated mini-stage to perform a techno version of Talk, which had Champion bashing away on electronic drum pads, the presence of his thunderous live kit was sorely missed. (I know this song started life as a Kraftwerk rip-off, but this laughable flirtation with synth-pop was truly nauseating and it smacked of a desperate attempt at injecting some variety into the set.)

When there’s little of substance going on in terms of guitar and bass, a strong rhythm track is essential, which explains Champion’s dominant role on the likes of Violet Hill and Speed of Sound. The more I thought about this, the more I realised that Coldplay’s stronger cuts are either acoustic/piano ballads or percussion-heavy rockers in which Messrs. Buckland and Berryman contribute little more than window dressing. Or, at most, a knocked off riff from Joe Satriani. Oh, sorry, that was just a coincidence. For all his posing during In My Place, there are precious few tracks – only Shiver spings to mind – on which Jonny Buckland is leading the way. For one of the world’s biggest rock bands, this strikes me as a sad state of affairs.

But I feel I must sign off on a positive note, because I did leave this show with the faintest hint of a smile on my face. The band members might look ridiculous in those military-inspired outfits (Adam Ant, anyone?) and the idea of four millionaires playing throwaway pop songs in front of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is bordering on the offensive, but, despite all of that, it’s still possible to enjoy an evening in the presence of Coldplay. Even if you’re wary of the band’s records, Chris Martin and his chums do know how to put on a show. It might be a clichèd, stadium-filling show, but isn’t that what we come to places like the Hallam FM Arena for?