Hate him if you like, but at least Chris Martin has the good grace to bash out a decent tune and keep us entertained with his antics, says Ed Power of independent.ie. Why does everybody hate Chris? Say what you like about his band's faintly antiseptic music, but the Coldplay frontman seems a decent enough sort (albeit with a whiff of the batty yoga instructor about him).
And yet, if asked which rock star we'd most like to smack on the nose, a sizable majority of us would walk right past Bono, Brandon Flowers and Johnny Borrell and plump for the softly spoken singer. What is it about Martin and his nice, middle-class Coldplay chums that stirs in us such violent thoughts?
"Are we hurt when critics use Coldplay to mean something derogatory?" the band's bassist Guy Berryman asked last year, clearly flummoxed by all the vitriol flowing in the group's direction. "Of course. I think the reason was that we became so successful so quickly. That's what made people want to have a go. In this game you've got to be thick skinned, because, if you do well, you'll have those who want to bring you down."
The daggers were certainly out when Coldplay unveiled the title of their latest LP, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends. Reeking of 70s progressive rock self-importance, it suggested a group that had made the very un-Noughties mistake of believing rock music was an art form to be taken seriously (also, didn't Ricky Martin have a song of the same name?) Not, to be fair, that they appeared too bothered by the derision. "I know it sounds pretentious, but I couldn't give a flying fuck," Martin said in 2008. "You can call it Viva la Vida; snappy and easy. You can call it Death and all his Friends. You can call it the Coldplay album. Or you can call it 'that piece of shit'."
Sometimes you suspect Martin, in his mild, passive-aggressive way, actually enjoys winding up the media and public. He walked out on two interviews last year, on one occasion because a journalist had touched, very briefly, on his marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow, which was rumoured to have hit the rocks (claims rubbished by friends and acquaintances). Rather than storming off, however, on each occasion he actually stepped back in once he'd calmed down -- too polite to throw a proper rock-star strop.
Even when he does stay put, of course, what comes out of Martin's mouth veers from the surreal to the bleedin' bonkers. "I'm always thinking about some regular 16-year-old called Dave, who's on his bus trip to school," Martin revealed in an American interview, when asked if he had a specific audience in mind when writing new album Viva la Vida. "Is he going to want to listen to this? Last time we got so worried about who thinks this and who thinks that. And this time, I've been really focused. On Dave. My 16-year-old imaginary friend. But not in a weird way."
Perhaps it's Coldplay's excessive modesty that pushes our anger buttons. For instance, Martin was quick to voice his objections last month when a US reporter asked how it felt to be one of the world's biggest rock stars. "I don't like those two words, 'rock star'," he shot back in that weirdly high-pitched conversational voice. "I don't wear the right pants for that. You've got to wear the right trousers if you want to be a rock star."
To many, this might suggest a person in deep, almost tragic, denial about their celebrity status -- to say nothing of someone who needs to get a handle on their trouser fetish. After all, not only are Coldplay one of the few young(ish) bands capable of shifting 30 million records and packing stadiums (arena rock nowadays being essentially the preserve of the middle-aged rock god), but Martin also lives the sort of private life that makes show-biz editors drool. He's hitched to a Hollywood A-lister, is prone to lashing out at the odd over-attentive paparazzi, and has christened his children Apple and Moses -- names only an globe-straddling celeb would dare saddle their kids with. How could he not think of himself as a rock star?
Despite all of this, it's obvious that he can't quite get his head around the fact that he's internationally famous. Lacking Bono's continent-sized ego or Brandon Flowers' preening self-regard, he gives the impression of being a tad adrift in the showbiz universe. Certainly he's never been one for bigging up Coldplay, telling anyone who will listen that the group are little more than plucky over-achievers whose hearts are in the right places. "I can't dance like Usher, I can't sing like Beyoncé, I can't write songs like Elton John," he said last month. "We do the best we can with what we've got."
Martin was born in Exeter, a sleepy city of 100,000, some 200km south west of London. His mother taught music and his father ran an accountancy business. As a child, he was attracted to the piano but it wasn't until he moved to the capital to attend prep school that music truly became a passion. "When you're born into a middle-class white family in the county of Devon, there are things that you feel like you're not allowed to do," he said. "Like be a pop star or grow your hair long."
He formed Coldplay at university in London, having met the band's future guitarist, Jonny Buckland, during Fresher's Week. It took a few years for them to find their direction -- initially they traded under the dreadful moniker Starfish, and were riven with rows. Things settled down once all four agreed to run the group democratically, taking a leaf from U2 and REM, who, throughout their careers, have shared all of their profits equally. Another proviso was that anyone caught doing hard drugs would be shown the door immediately.
Indeed, from the start Coldplay have resisted the hoary notion that successful musicians are obliged to live like out-of-control teenagers. While kindred stadium overlords The Kings of Leon leave a trail of smudged lipstick and empty bourbon bottles across the globe, Martin and company conduct themselves like a group of post-graduate students on a gap-year jolly. They only behave badly when egged on by prying journalists. Martin might not be above taking a swing at photographers who follow him to the loo. Then again, in his situation, who wouldn't?
"There's this glamorised ideal of arrested development in music," he told Spin magazine last year. "Particularly with Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and all the great fallen idols. There's this one side of you, and one side of musical culture, which tells you that you're not supposed to move on in your life at all. But if you look at the greatest artists like Dylan, that's not true. He added: "The whole rock-star myth, which is 40 years old and basically nonsense, has nothing to do with being a rock star. Everybody gets trashed and breaks things. By that standard, plumbers and heating engineers are just as rock 'n' roll as rock stars. You've got to follow your own beliefs. It's all about freedom."
"Freedom" extends to Coldplay's belief that rock stars shouldn't continue to haul their carcasses around the world when they've lost their hunger for entertaining the masses. Uniquely among musicians of their generation, they have hinted at stepping away from the spotlight at the height of their fame.
As recently as a few weeks ago, Martin expressed his belief that Coldplay won't be around forever. Indeed, to hear him tell it, they might not even be around for the next five years.
"I feel like you've got to write as many songs as you can between the ages of 28 and 33, because those are your last few years before you get a belly," Martin said. "I couldn't possibly write a hit record when I've got a beer belly, so we're just trying to write as many songs as possible before that D-Day, or B-Day it should be -- for Belly Day."
Photos of Coldplay at Wembley stadium, London, UK (18th September 2009):
Pictures by busybeeburns
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