It is a law of the universe that every era has its cute British rock band and its brooding British rock band. The early '60s had the cuddly Beatles and the roguish Rolling Stones; the '70s and '80s had the romantic Police and the revolution-ary Clash; the '90s had jocular Oasis and snide Blur. Since Radiohead, the band infamously given to brooding, have emerged as the most prominent British rock export of the early '00s, the rise of a cute alternative has seemed almost inevitable.
Meet Coldplay-singer Chris Martin, 23; guitarist Jonny Buckland, 23; bassist Guy Berryman, 22; and drummer Will Champion, 22-four fresh-scrubbed British lads who teamed up three years ago at University College London. The band's first full-length album, Parachutes (Parlophone), made its debut last May at the top of the British charts, went on to sell more than 2 million copies, and is now pushing the U.S. top 50. It shared the warbling vocals and slow, stately beat of Radiohead's more conservative efforts, and comparisons between the two bands ran amuck in the music press-as did disdain from other musicians, who saw the newcomers as rip-offs. But in January, Coldplay won three nominations for Brit Awards (the British Grammys), including Best British Group and Best British Album. At the Feb. 26 awards ceremony, Radiohead, whose members are in their early 30s and whose most recent album, Kid A, has met with massive critical acclaim and popular success, were up for those two awards as well. So this week, we'll see if Coldplay have confirmed their claim as the cute Radiohead alternative, instead of just Radiohead Lite.
Martin, as well mannered and unassuming as fledgling rock stars come, downplays the significance of music awards. "Why isn't PJ Harvey on the list? It's kind of like getting selected for a team, and players that you think are better than you aren't getting on there," he says. And Martin doesn't seem to mind standing in Radiohead's shadow. "The first song we put out was a bit of a Radiohead copy," he confesses, referring to the track Bigger Stronger. "Also, we're on the same label, we're both middle class, we're both interested in writing passionate songs. I don't have any problem with comparisons."
But the differences between Coldplay and Radiohead go far beyond Coldplay's fresh-faced look. First, there's the music. Coldplay stick to conventionally structured songs with melodic piano and guitar arrangements; in their recent work, Radiohead have left standard song forms behind and nearly abandoned traditional pop melodiousness. Then there are the lyrics. Take the opening lines of Coldplay's hit single Yellow: "Look at the stars/ see how they shine for you." Now compare that with the Radiohead line: "I woke up sucking a lemon." And, finally, there's Coldplay's nonthreatening, accessible public persona. "I'm reading a book right now called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus," says Martin, without a trace of embarrassment. "I'm in my first long-term relationship, and I can't quite work it out." Radiohead's reading list tends more toward Martin Amis and Niall Griffiths.
The sweetness that comes out in Coldplay's songs is at the root of both their appeal and their limitations. The sugary pickup lines ("In a haze, a stormy haze/ I'll be around, I'll be loving you always") and delicate music might appeal to fans of old-fashioned pop balladry but not to many edgier listeners. Of course, Coldplay aren't particularly edgy. Berryman studied to be an engineer, like his father, before rock claimed him. Martin is reported to have a fondness for cricket and to drink rarely.
After playing the Big Day Out circuit in Australasia recently, Coldplay began their first North American tour-a step that is often a rite of passage for British bands with big ambitions. Coldplay's U.S. sales figures are nothing to write home about so far, and chances are, the band members are playing venues considerably smaller than the ones they're used to. But the experience may be just what Coldplay need to develop from British darlings to world-class rockers.The band's charm is undeniable; their hooks are hard to shake. Who says first records by bands smack out of school have to be lyrically complex or push the envelope musically? In this teen-pop age, a collection of good rock songs that actually sells is cause for joy. And joy, in the end, is what cute bands are supposed to deliver.