Hot prospects

February 16, 2001



While the trend in American alternative rock has been toward the hyper-aggressive over the last few years, our Britpop counterparts across the ocean have gone to the opposite extreme, growing progressively wimpier with the twee warblings of artists like Travis and Badly Drawn Boy.

Roundly hailed as "the next Radiohead" and the band of the year after its 2000 debut, "Parachutes" (Parlophone/Nettwerk), Coldplay doesn't deviate from this trend. Bandleader Chris Martin is yet another sensitive middle-class university student with an acoustic guitar and an overweening devotion to Jeff Buckley. "Bedwetter's music," Alan McGee calls it, and as the man who practically invented Britpop with Creation Records bands such as Ride, My Bloody Valentine and Oasis, he has a right to snipe.

The fact is, it would be easy to hate Coldplay if it weren't for one key factor: Its music is impossible to dislike.

"To be honest, I feel a real backlash in Britain, and I feel like America's the only place that accepts us," Martin says by phone from Australia during a world tour that will bring the band to Chicago for the first time on Monday. "I think we've sold too many records, so we're no longer cool in Britain--if we ever were, to be honest. If you're a middle-class boy with a guitar, you've got it coming, no matter how good your songs are."

Ah, yes, good songs. Driven by Martin's plaintive tenor, those lovely strumming acoustic guitars and a tingling grand piano or two, tunes such as "Don't Panic," "Spies" and the band's signature hit, "Yellow," boast the sort of indelible hooks and timeless romantic appeal shown by great pop craftsman like Burt Bacharach, though one gets the impression that Martin would rather be compared to folks with a little more rock credibility. Rare is the interview in which he doesn't cite his favorite artists as Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the fabulous Flaming Lips.

"I'm totally a fan," Martin says of his Holy Trilogy. "I love anybody who does what they do with passion, you know what I mean? I just can't really bear hearing songs where the singer sounds like he's looking in the mirror or reading and having a cup of tea. When I'm starting to write a song, I'm just trying to write the best song ever. When it gets to the whole band, we've all got out parts and we're all ready to play and I'll try to just get the right mood across, the right emotion."

The emotion certainly comes through in the achingly pretty "Yellow." Over an odd but memorable chord progression driven home midway through by an insistent one-note piano part, Martin tears out his heart and lovingly places it on a platter to hand to the object of his affections. It's a song that was just made for Valentine's Day.

"Look at the stars/Look how they shine for you/Everything you do/They were all yellow," he sings. "I came along/I wrote a song for you/And all the things you do/And it was called `Yellow.' " (A neat trick, referencing the love song as you're singing the love song.)

"I remember sitting in the studio, and I was just about to do a recording take for a song called `Shiver,' " Martin says of writing the tune. "Ken [Nelson], our co-producer, was setting the tape up, and I just was fiddling around with these funny chords and started to sing like Neil Young, and that melody came out and it sounded wicked. Within a couple of weeks, we were all playing on it and it sounded really cool."

The eldest of five children reared in Devon, England, by a mom who was a teacher and a dad who was an accountant, Martin linked up with lead guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion when they were all attending University College in London. Released a little more than two years after the group came together, "Parachutes" was an instant hit in the United Kingdom, debuting at No. 1, largely on the strength of "Yellow."

The group also has been building a buzz in the States, thanks to the support of the alternative-rock powerhouse in Los Angeles, KROQ-FM, and ABC-TV's decision to use "Yellow" as the background music in its holiday-season network promotions. Martin didn't seem to understand quite what a boost this TV exposure had given the band.

"Is it an advert?" he asked. "I don't think we get paid for it or anything like that because we've always been extremely anti-advert. I don't really know what ABC is, to be honest. [It's like the BBC, I tell him, only not as classy.] Oh, if it's just trailing programs I don't mind that. But we'd never, ever advertise Coke or something like that, know what I mean? Especially traveling as we do in hotels, I just get sick of adverts. I hope it hasn't damaged the song too much."

This sensitive, middle-class university student with an acoustic guitar is nothing if not sincere, but we expect that from this type. Judging by the accomplishments of "Parachutes," we can also expect a lot more from Coldplay in the future.

Popmusic critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions," the world's only rock 'n' roll talk show, from 10 p.m. to midnight Tuesday on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at or visit