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Coldplay: A Retrospective

Shane Steinberg | Friday, September 5, 2008

A flier outside the Laurel Tree, a local Camden club, read “January 16th, 1998, Starfish + others live at the Laurel Tree”. A one-man tech crew could be seen through the crowd of rowdy teenagers on the decrepit stage setting up microphones for the night’s act. Around one hundred and fifteen people were stuffed into a room, all of them unable to maneuver their way through the commotion. Backstage, ready to lay their musical aspirations on the line for the first time was the band Starfish. Yes, Starfish. Not exactly the name of a band anyone in their right mind would expect to make it in the music industry.

But here we are, ten years, four studio albums, five EPs, and one name change later, and Coldplay is selling out the world’s largest arenas and topping charts in everywhere from Chile to Malaysia. Coldplay may have started out at the Laurel Tree by making the mistake of playing the same song twice in a row under a band name they had come up with an hour before taking the stage, but now, as lead singer Chris Martin said in a recent television appearance, “it doesn’t get any bigger than us.”

Of course Coldplay didn’t start out selling millions of albums and headlining shows at Madison Square Garden. No, their humble beginnings as four Brits trying to make it big with piano laden ballads started with a little-known song called “So Sad” and their first attention grabber, “Ode to Deodorant.” From there they released five EPs, the most popular of which, Brothers and Sisters, helped garner them a spot with a major record label in 1999.

The very next year, Coldplay released its first studio album, Parachutes, an incredibly well-crafted debut with a singular resounding message as well as a breakthrough hit, “Yellow,” which put Coldplay into the public consciousness. Having earned a Grammy award and been nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize, Coldplay returned in 2002 with what is arguably their best album, “A Rush of Blood to The Head.” Both genuinely moving and consistently majestic from the first note to the last, “A Rush of Blood to The Head” received overwhelming critical acclaim and served notice that Coldplay was not just another flash in the pan.

2005 saw what may very well be Coldplay’s only misstep in ten years. “X&Y” was Coldplay’s way of creating more mainstream music and while it was successful commercially, it lacked in many ways and for a while it seemed as though the band had traded itself in to please the masses.

Then, three years later, Coldplay finally released their fourth, much-awaited album, the oddly but aptly titled “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends.” This fourth effort saw the band aim for the stratosphere with bold experimentation that involved the incorporation of many new international sounds, new dimensions of Chris Martin’s voice, and evolved songwriting, all of which made the album an instant success.

Coldplay’s formula for success mixes a knack for piercing song writing, a flair for moodily dramatic craftsmanship, and an ability to maintain a high quality from wire to wire while striking gold numerous times on each album. Their music manages to be dark one song yet vivid the very next. It is a culmination of thoughts on love, ruminations on fears and doubts, and reflections on the journey of finding oneself, all of which the band has managed to stay true to since crossing the threshold to the mainstream.

In ten years, Coldplay has risen from the depths of tiny clubs in the heart of Camden to a headlining mega-band with an automatic success factor. They’ve been through it all. They’ve sold 35 million albums (and counting), won three Grammy awards, received positive (and negative) comparisons to Radiohead and U2, been accused of ripping of another band in the song “Viva la Vida”, and, most importantly, have provided the world with a brand of dreamy Britpop that truly transcends the shortcomings of today’s music industry.

With music as good as their’s, who knows, maybe they could have actually gotten away with the name Starfish.