‘Art for art’s sake,’ sang 10cc in 1976, ‘Money for God’s sake.’ And promptly split in half shortly afterwards. It’s a conundrum every new young band has to grapple with sooner or later. You want creative freedom, of course you do. You want trillions of dollars, of course you do. You want to have your cake, you want to eat it, and you want to keep your lithe figure afterwards as well. And if you can also manage to marry a swan-necked Hollywood lovely and call your first baby Banana, well, so much the better.
For this and several other reasons Coldplay have become the template for ambitious young bands everywhere. Theirs is a career path to slaver over. Chris Martin’s keening vocal style (blatantly nicked from the late Jeff Buckley), one or two memorable tunes, lyrical angst by the bucketload, textures recovered from long-forgotten 1970s prog rock acts: it doesn’t seem much to go on but this combination has made them maybe the most popular mainstream rock act in the world today. The new album is due shortly and, to be honest, it doesn’t interest me greatly: stories that they have had trouble writing it, owing to an unfortunate shortage of new ideas, plus a distinctly underwhelming advance single, don’t really presage the work of staggering genius that everyone seems to be expecting.
The real problem, though, is that it’s three years since Coldplay released an album. In the same period David Bowie once recorded and released Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station To Station, Low and “Heroes”, and maybe a live album or two into the bargain. He never stopped moving, but while Coldplay have been standing still, a whole batch of new quasi-Coldplays has raced past them. Radio playlists now teem with sensitive piano-led mid-paced ballads with lashings of rock bombast. It would probably be kind to say that Coldplay have ‘influenced’ all these bands. It might be more accurate to say that Coldplay’s success has turned some of these bands into commercial propositions when they weren’t before. It would certainly be more fun to declare that everyone, music industry and bands alike, is jumping on the Coldplay bandwagon, eyeing the huge wads to be made. Such shamelessness is so rarely punished.
Take Athlete, an apparently young and once promising band whose first album, Vehicles And Animals, was nominated for a Mercury a couple of years back. That album was maybe a touch self-conscious in its west London grooviness: despite their ear for a tune and a wide repertoire of pop tricks, their singer had a glottal stop so irritating you wanted to do him permanent harm. Athlete were also so cool that they didn’t mention who was in the band anywhere on the CD sleeve. Presumably, if you were interested enough, you would look it up on the website, which obviously I could never be bothered to do. They don’t mention who’s in the band on the new album either, but Tourist (Parlophone) is a very different beastie. The nifty rhythms and wry lyrics have been ejected, and instead we have, well, Coldplay: anguish, pianos, big soaring choruses, rock sludge. Singer Too Hip To Have A Name has also, happily, dumped the glottal stop, and almost certainly increased his life expectancy as a result, but it’s not enough to quell my own feelings of overwhelming disappointment. It has to be one of the most blatant artistic retreats I have ever heard. Needless to say, the album has gone virtually straight to number one. Athlete have found their audience and lost their distinctiveness, although, frustratingly, hints of their potential can still be heard in one or two songs, particularly the first single, ‘Wires’. You never know, they may flout 30 years of rock history and start making good records after they have made their millions. Whoever they are.
Not that they will necessarily be able to enjoy all the fruits of their new success. Imagine going to a party and meeting the Oscar-winning actress of your dreams and saying, ‘Well actually I’m the lead singer of Athlete,’ and her saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, of course, they all say that,’ and wandering off to chat to the lead singer of Keane or someone. Sometimes such shamelessness is punished after all.