NOW 71: Coldplay – Viva La Vida

Speaking to The Times about his play Mood Music, about songwriters in dispute over a hit, writer Joe Penhall noted about rock stars: ‘If you mitigate inappropriate behaviour from people with dysfunctional backgrounds, you end up with happy, well-adjusted, well-connected, wealthy, bland rock stars. You end up with Coldplay.’

The age of the rockstar, wrote David Hepworth in his 2017 book about the rock era Uncommon People, has finished. That doesn’t mean people will stop dressing up as Bowie or Jagger or Freddie Mercury. Indeed, the future of rock music is being predicted in musicals like We Will Rock You, All or Nothing and Bat Out of Hell, with songs strung together in some plot. A second Mamma Mia film comes out in summer 2018, and at long last we might see a Freddie Mercury biopic, which has been delayed for several years.

I hope to finish Max Martin: The Musical some time this year, before someone else does. Max is a three-timer on NOW 71 thanks to two songs by Katy Perry: Hot N Cold, where Katy sings at the very top of her range before coming back down to earth in the chorus, and include I Kissed a Girl, one of the decade’s most excellent pop songs.

I remember hearing it for the first time on Paul Gambaccini’s show America’s Greatest Hits on Radio 2, where Paul would play the US Hot 100 number one at the end of a show that also played r’n’b, rock and country hits past and present, along with assorted gems from his research into that week’s chart, sometimes kids music, gospel and novelty.

I sat open-mouthed as I heard a song about a girl kissing a girl (‘and I liked it!’) and I liked it. Yes it was fake pop; Katy Hudson was a Christian pop artist, the daughter of pastors, who threw the dice one last time with a song that could not fail. I Kissed A Girl was written by Katy with Max Martin, Dr Luke and Cathy Dennis, and produced by a very young Ben Levin aka Benny Blanco. Katy has since passed through her Imperial Phase, which included five number ones from her second album Teenage Dream, a feat only Michael Jackson has achieved.

As if to cement his second great era, Max – who together with Dr Luke forms the Messi and Ronaldo of pop in the last decade – writes another number one, this time with Shellback and Pink. So What is a monster song that fully captures the Pink brand (‘I wanna start a fight!!’) that deserved to match Katy Perry’s seven weeks at the top of the Hot 100, but had the misfortune of running into Whatever You Like and Live Your Life, both by T.I. and both not on NOW 71 (the latter is on NOW 72). T.I. was number one for 13 out of 19 weeks to the end of 2008 after I Kissed a Girl was deposed, yet people will more often sing the Katy Perry tune than either T.I. classic. Finally, Max could show off his love of rock music using Katy and Pink, yet more beneficiaries of the hitmaking machine Max Martin.

In the UK, which lapped up Pink and Katy Perry, Girls Aloud fans went wild for The Promise. I had been to Glasgow in 2007 and was so scared that I took minimal cash and no phone, just in case the stories about the city on a Saturday night were true. I took the bus back to Edinburgh and discovered it was full of Girls Aloud fans! They would lap up The Promise in 2008, a number one which was, says the inlay booklet, the band’s 19th top ten hit in a row. Track 17 on Disc 1 shows which girlband was around the corner: The Saturdays, containing two members of S Club Juniors (Frankie and Rochele), had their second hit Up featured on NOW 71.

Stargate were busy again on the brilliant Miss Independent by Ne-Yo (where she ‘looks like a boss, talks like a boss’) and on Tattoo by Jordin Sparks. Ne-Yo and Stargate would cement their status as hitmakers with Spotlight, a song with all the magical Ne-Yo ingredients – sweet intro, infectious loop, great chorus, silky delivery – which Jennifer Hudson could not fail to have a hit with. Jennifer had outshone Beyonce in the movie Dreamgirls, having first popped up on American Idol, and within a decade would be a judge on a TV talent show. Beyonce would have the last laugh.

The chaps who did Umbrella by Rihanna helped Gym Class Heroes make Cookie Jar, where producer The-Dream had a ‘featuring’ credit. Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins returned to help Pussycat Dolls have a huge hit with the addictive and sweet When I Grow Up, which was not aimed at rock-loving 20-year-old kids from Watford. Nor was Disturbia, the massive number one from Rihanna co-written by her former partner Chris Brown, who is infamous for hitting Rihanna and still having a career.

Rock stars, some of whom also hit their girlfriends (did you know John Lennon was particularly nasty?), are fascinating people, unable to function in any other manner in society. Before Mood Music Joe Penhall wrote the musical Sunny Afternoon, which took the story and songs of The Kinks and faithfully documented the invention of heavy metal. I still remember the chill I felt watching the opening riff of You Really Got Me being played onstage: imagine being in 1963 and playing those notes in a world of crooners and beat groups gently swinging.

Better than one rock star? Two, like Lennon-McCartney or Jagger-Richards. Better than that? Brothers. ‘The conflict I saw with the Kinks was so astonishingly heartfelt and obsessive,’ Penhall said. It is well known that the Kinks split because Ray and Dave Davies just didn’t get along; indeed, Penhall explains that Dave had to stay on a higher floor than Ray when the musical was being workshopped, since both of them wrote the songs (Ray the words, Dave the music) and would need to assess the musical as stakeholders in the story.

The Kinks, as much as The Who and The Beatles, deserve their place in rock history. So to a lesser degree do Kings of Leon, a group of three brothers and a cousin who exploded into popular consciousness with Youth and Young Manhood, which I bought on the strength of the reviews and the mighty single Molly’s Chambers (never on a NOW). After consistently charting with songs from their first few albums (The Bucket, Four Kicks, Red Morning Light, California Waiting), it was a three-chord marvel Sex on Fire that took off. A great review of their live show included the line about the band probably not wanting to play their ‘albatross’ but realising that the mortgage wouldn’t pay itself. Still performing and recording today, Kings of Leon will always be ‘The Sex On Fire band’.

‘I want to be the drummer from Coldplay!’ Nish Kumar began his 2017 comedy hour with. I sympathised. Everyone knows Chris Martin, but nobody knows the drummer from Coldplay (his name is Will Champion), or indeed the bassist and guitarist (Guy Berryman and Jonny Buckland, and I genuinely forgot Jonny’s name!). Coldplay split the songwriting credits, like U2 or Mumford & Sons, although strangely some U2 songs are credited to U2 and Bono, probably because Bono gets money from the words.

Rock in the twenty-first century is a huge business. I know of someone who does the legal side of many big acts, and the perk is of course concert tickets for friends and family which saves a hundred pounds a pop. Abroad, tickets cost a lot more to factor in how much it costs to get a rock entourage (makeup, lighting, sound, management, talent) to Asia or North America. Rock isn’t cheap, and it’s a good night out to rival no other popular entertainment except maybe football, both soccer and gridiron.

Summer 2018 sees stadium tours for the likes of Bon Jovi, The Rolling Stones, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift and Foo Fighters. For several recent years, the innovative Head Full of Dreams Tour took Coldplay around the world and earned roughly half a billion dollars for the four members, meaning ‘the drummer from Coldplay’ is a millionaire several times over. Do not begrudge him his success, even if Coldplay make what Creation Records founder Alan McGee calls ‘music for bedwetters’.

Well, bedwetters buy music too, and Coldplay have sold an astonishing amount of music since their debut in 2000. I liked Parachutes, especially Shiver and Spies, but the two big hits were Yellow and Trouble. A Rush of Blood to the Head emerged in 2002, and really broke the band to a global audience. In My Place, The Scientist, God Put a Smile Upon Your Face and Clocks (with the unmistakable piano part) went around the world, then came 2005’s X+Y and Fix You, as discussed in an earlier essay.

So much TV in the mid-2000s was soundtracked by Fix You that it almost became a joke. The song builds over two verses and choruses before exploding when the performer is told they are going to boot camp. That is the Coldplay sound, which they repeated for a decade afterwards on tracks like Paradise, A Sky Full of Stars (written with the late dance producer Avicii) and my favourite Coldplay song, Strawberry Swing, produced by Brian Eno.

The Eno-produced Viva La Vida album from 2008 gave Coldplay a Transatlantic number one hit, their first in either market, mainly because Apple plugged their iTunes download store using the song, which was never intended to be a single. The ad premiered during American Idol, the biggest show in the States at the time, and gave mass exposure to a band who were previously big enough to headline Glastonbury in the UK in 2002. By 2008, U2 excepted, they were possibly the biggest stadium band in the world, and they had the songs to fill them.

As you can hear in the podcast element of this project, Adeel Amini convinced me that I Kissed a Girl by Katy Perry was a better playlist choice. He is right.

At the end of 2008 I was in Edinburgh, entering the honours year of my course while visiting the two independent cinemas on Lothian Road: Monday evenings and Wednesday matinees at the Cameo, then £2 Fridays for students at the Filmhouse. My love of European and South American cinema grew as I tried to see as many movies as possible, since I was no longer broadcasting, and I was still writing pieces for the student newspaper. I also thought it best to get a degree, which I now realise was a mistake. Kids, network the hell out of university.

Songs on NOW 71 include those by returning acts like The Ting Tings (Shut Up and Let Me Go, even better than That’s Not My Name), The Verve (Love is Noise, which quotes from the poem Jerusalem), James Morrison (You Make It Real), Will Young (Changes, tender and co-written with Eg White), Alphabeat (the sublime Boyfriend), Taio Cruz (She’s Like a Star), Platnum (now on her own with Love Shy (Thinking About You)), Keane (Spiralling, which pushes on their sound), Snow Patrol (Take Back the City, it seems Keane and Snow Patrol always come in pairs), Duffy (Stepping Stone), Kaiser Chiefs (the ace Never Miss a Beat, with uncredited vocals from Lily Allen), Razorlight (Wire to Wire, awful), The Script (The Man Who Can’t Be Moved, which has aged very wel) and Eric Prydz with Pjanoo.

The summer anthems of 2008 were Prydz’s Pjanoo, a song driven by a three-note riff, Guru Josh Project’s chillout track Infinity (a reworking of a 1990 house hit) and the harmonium-led Paddy’s Revenge, written by Steve Mac, not the Steve Mac who co-wrote Flying Without Wings by Westlife and Shape of You by Ed from Suffolk. I had no idea that the song sampled Penguin Café Orchestra, one of my favourite groups whom I saw in Edinburgh in 2011. Basshunter was still bothering people with Angel in the Night, while Sash enlisted Stunt as their reboot of Encore Une Fois, Raindrops, gave them another hit. Robyn added her vocal talents to Dream On by Christian Falk, yet another Swede.

A TV advert brought the soul song Here Come the Girls by Allen Toussaint back into popular purview. Sugababes became those girls and used the song on their hit Girls. Kid Rock discovered that Sweet Home Alabama had the same chord progression as Werewolves of London and sung a story called All Summer Long using the same chords, smorgaspop at its finest. Another reboot, Beggin’ (WITH NO G!!) by Madcon, took the old Four Seasons tune and reinvented it for a new generation. At the time Jersey Boys was playing to packed houses in London, having opened in March. I love My Eyes Adored You, which is a match for their early, funny stuff.

Did the world need Boyzone to return, or did their outgoings demand that they reformed? Take That had paved the way for the ‘manband’ (Backstreet Boys would also reform) and Love You Anyway is a bland pop song that put the band back in the charts. They joined the likes of Flobots, who had a big hit with Handlebars, and Biffy Clyro, the alternative rock act whose song Mountains moved them into the big leagues as their hardcore fanbase pushed them overground. Songwriter Simon Neil remains a very underrated Rockstar, one of Scotland’s finest. Mon the Biff.

The West London folk scene begat the likes of Noah and the Whale, whose song Five Years Time sounded like a big hit when I first heard it as an unsolicited CD sent to the Fresh Air music team and duly became a big hit with enough of a push and exposure on TV. It sounds like all Youtube self-created videos, with a ukulele strummed underneath a vocal about ‘sun, sun, sun’, sung by Laura Marling, a teenage daughter of a nobleman who began her career in 2008 with the album Alas I Cannot Swim. She isn’t on NOW 71 but Ida Maria (with the punky I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked) and Little Jackie (with the lost pop classic The World Should Revolve Around Me, which ought to have been bigger than a number 14 hit) are present and correct.

Every time I hear In This City by Iglu & Hartly, a track that sounds like 2008, I think of ‘Comedy’ Dave Vitty, Chris Moyles’s sidekick on Radio 1. Sing his name where the title should be the next time you hear the song. Moyles’s old pals McFly had released their fourth album Radioactive, featuring lead single Lies, which sounds ace and became (thanks inlay booklet) their 15th top ten hit.

Reliably relevant, Peter Kay got Gary Barlow to help him create The Winners Song for Geraldine, the star of Peter’s show which was a homage to the TV talent show craze of the 2000s: Britain’s Got Pop Factor and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Superstar Strictly on Ice. ‘I started with nothing; now I have something,’ sings Peter-as-Geraldine. There’s also a key change. Parody had eaten itself.


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