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How Coldplay Became The Biggest Band In The World
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In Depth

How Coldplay Became The Biggest Band In The World

From lovelorn foot soldiers to stadium-ready revolutionaries, Coldplay’s world-beating rise to glory has soundtracked a generation.


Nobody said it was easy, but Coldplay have undoubtedly become the most successful alt-rock group to emerge from the UK within the last 25 years. Landing in the public consciousness with the indie-inflected acoustic folk of Parachutes before embarking on a multi-coloured crusade to widen the sonic spectrum of stadium rock, Coldplay’s musical achievements have seen them go from pure-hearted Davids to ambitious Goliaths destined for immortality. Not since The Beatles have a band occupied a more respected position in the musical landscape.

Listen to the best of Coldplay here.

Traversing the many changes of 21st-century pop with frontman Chris Martin’s statuesque mix of towering melodies and heart-on-sleeve songcraft, each Coldplay album has inspired millions of listeners with era-defining anthems that have become rooted in the fabric of our everyday lives. Whether you’re partial to the oscillating piano tones of Clocks or the Elysian jaunt of Paradise, nobody can deny the enduring power of the best Coldplay songs. Always engaging and willing to experiment with new sonic trends, Martin’s songwriting has never lost sight of the heartfelt instincts of his muse.

Moving from minimalist ballads to expansive arena singalongs that take their production cues from commercial pop megahits, the band’s fiercely perfectionist streak continues to set a standard few rock groups can reach. Fusing U2-sized riffs with Radiohead-inspired atmospherics while never sacrificing their own unique sound, Coldplay’s unprecedented success has carved out a much-vaunted space in music history that proves remarkably enduring and hugely inspirational. Here’s how Coldplay became the biggest band in the world…

Life inside a bubble: Coldplay’s early days

Exeter-born songwriter Chris Martin first met his future bandmates at University College London in late 1996, bonding over music while playing pool at the student-union bar with guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion. With his frenzied mass of curly hair and teeth braces, Buckland was particularly struck not just by Martin’s talent, but also his good-natured attitude and single-minded ambition. “We were determined to do it from the start,” the guitarist said of the band’s foundation. “From the moment I met Chris, I really did think that we could go all the way.”

Scoring their first gigs in January 1998, at venues such as The Laurel Tree pub in Camden, London, the group eventually adopted the name Coldplay after spotting it on a list of potential band names drawn up by a friend. Having been impressed with the strength of their early songs, such as an embryonic version of Don’t Panic, one of Martin’s friends from boarding school, Phil Harvey, was invited to come on board as the group’s manager, helping them fund their first recording, the Safety EP. Today, Harvey is widely considered to be the “fifth member” of Coldplay. Charged with contacting music-industry figureheads, it didn’t take him long to capture the attention of record labels; remarkably, Coldplay had only played ten gigs when they inked their first record deal, with the London-based indie Fierce Panda.

Following in early 1999, the Brothers & Sisters single attracted major-label interest, helped in no small part by an appearance on Steve Lamacq’s BBC Radio 1 Evening Session, and the group being named as “One to watch” by NME. Enthused by Coldplay’s mix of melodic acoustic indie-folk and hypnotically lo-fi ambience, Parlophone Records, the label that had signed The Beatles, excitedly added the band to their roster in April 1999. “You realise you’ve been working towards getting signed,” Jonny Buckland reflected, but “that means nothing, now you’ve really got to write an album.”

All that we fought for: the breakthrough

After Coldplay released their second EP, The Blue Room, Chris Martin, in particular, was nervous about recording their debut album. Living up to the expectations set by his Parlophone labelmates Radiohead was in no doubt intimidating, but he needn’t have been concerned. Released in July 2000 and produced by Ken Nelson, Parachutes perfectly blended the folky melancholia of Jeff Buckley with the melodic nous of Travis, capitalising on the critical buzz Coldplay had built up during a relentless touring schedule. They had already reached No.35 with Shiver, which Chris Martin described as “a direct nod to Jeff Buckley”, and the soothing piano notes of Trouble offered tantalising signs of what was to come.

Debuting at No.1 in the UK, Parachutes sold 75,000 copies in its first week and was met with near-universal critical acclaim from the music press. The band’s real breakthrough with audiences, however, was Yellow, a starry-eyed ode to hope, with an iconic music video shot in Dorset’s Durdle Door. Peaking at No.4 in the UK, it became an instant modern-rock classic. “None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for Yellow,” Jonny Buckland has said.

By the end of 2000, Parachutes had sold nearly 900,000 copies in the UK and won Coldplay BRIT Awards for Best British Band and Best Album. The accolades didn’t stop there: US radio stations put Yellow on rotation, and Chris Martin was overjoyed to receive a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. Coldplay couldn’t have asked for a better start to their careers, but they refused to rest on their laurels, following Parachutes, in August 2002, with their streamlined and expansive second album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head.

More anthemic and yet attuned to a post-9/11 climate of disillusionment, the album reportedly emerged from over 1,000 hours’ worth of recordings, with songs ranging from the rageful opener, Politik, to the country-tinged Green Eyes and the sitar-like swirl of Daylight. “We poured every ounce of soul, emotion and love into it,” Martin admitted, upscaling Coldplay’s arena-sized ambitions with Top 10 hits such as A Rush Of Blood To The Head’s chiming lead single, In My Place, and the mesmerising piano ballad The Scientist. The record topped the charts at home and made a significant mark in the US, where it peaked at No.5.

Just two albums into their career, Coldplay had quickly gone from indie underdogs to global superstars, rivalling the likes of U2 and R.E.M. by headlining Glastonbury Festival in June 2002. With comparisons being made to Radiohead’s game-changing OK Computer, A Rush Of Blood To The Head instantly established Coldplay as one of the world’s finest groups, and the album is still regarded as one of the best British albums of the 2000s. Thanks to his relatable songwriting, Chris Martin was warmly welcomed into celebrity circles and, following his marriage to the Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow, Coldplay set their sights on fully conquering the US. “We try to do what we do, but just slightly bigger,” Martin said.

Released in June 2005, the band’s third album, X&Y, was an ethereal work of sprawling, synth-drenched majesty which found Martin draw a poetic analogy to human relationships: “X and Y is the mathematical formula used when you don’t know the answer,” he said. “But it’s also like black and white, or hope and despair, or optimism and pessimism. Everywhere you look there’s a tension of opposites.” Consolidating their success in the US, X&Y was Coldplay’s first album to peak at No.1 on the Billboard 200, largely owing to yet another classic single for the ages, the hymnal ballad Fix You.

When I ruled the world: global stardom

With X&Y selling 8.3 million copies by the end of 2005, Coldplay sought to push their music further. For their fourth album, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, they worked with legendary David Bowie and U2 producer Brian Eno, who helped the group diversify their style. Released in June 2008, the album featured Arcade Fire-esque baroque-pop touches and art-rock excursions, and sold 125,000 copies on release day. With an artwork that featured a French Romantic painting from 1830, by the artist Eugène Delecroix, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends was an unparalleled triumph that elevated Coldplay’s musical vision into more artful, rousing songs. Now taking to the stage to the tribal march of their first-ever UK and US No.1 single, Viva La Vida, the band sported colourful stage outfits inspired by Robespierre revolutionaries.

In the same forward-thinking spirit, Coldplay’s fifth album, Mylo Xyloto, expounded on this pioneering formula. “It’s time to take our music down different directions and really explore other avenues,” Chris Martin said at the time of the record’s release, in October 2011. Boasting a more electronic-infused and commercial production style, hit singles such as Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall and Paradise were masterful pop crossovers that transcended genre divides. Like graffiti artists gleefully spraying slogans on the Ming Great Wall, Coldplay even collaborated with R&B/pop maverick Rihanna on Princess Of China, further proving their determination to move well beyond indie pigeonholing.

Following his divorce from Gwyneth Paltrow, 2014’s Ghost Stories found Chris Martin channelling his sorrow into understated, melancholic mood explorations that bore similarity to Parachutes, with songs such as album opener Always In My Head and the bubbling folktronica of Midnight verging on unsettling ambient minimalism. With dance music also providing an influence, Ghost Stories saw Coldplay work with heavy-hitting producers such as Timbaland and Swedish DJ Avicii, the latter of whom co-produced the album’s UK No.9 hit, A Sky Full Of Stars: a near-perfect blend of dejected longing with arms-aloft club euphoria.

Miracles at work: humanist philosophies

Eager to reassert their position as the world’s foremost stadium-rock band, but keen to stick with their new pop-oriented approach, Coldplay’s seventh album, A Head Full Of Dreams, was released in December 2015. A vivid and adventurous combination of colourful pop-rock and spiritual ruminations on the need for global unity, its release coincided with a record-breaking world tour that repositioned Coldplay as global troubadours. “It’s quite a hippie album,” Chris Martin said. “All of our records were a journey to get to this one.” Selling over 230,000 copies in its first week, A Head Full Of Dreams’ memorable lead single, Adventure Of A Lifetime, was produced by Norwegian pop duo Stargate and peaked at No.7 in the UK.

With their globalist outlook flowering, the band’s experimental eighth record, the double-album Everyday Life, seemed like Coldplay’s answer to The Clash’s Sandinista!, taking in Middle Eastern musical influences as well as Afrobeat, jazz fusion and gospel sounds. It was also their most political offering to date, with Guns decrying gun crime and Trouble In Town highlighting civil unrest. However, like most of their work, Coldplay’s message was one of hope and optimism; while performing the album at sunrise in the city of Amman, Jordan, the group made it clear that Everyday Life was their manifesto for global tolerance and intercultural understanding.

Released in October 2021, Coldplay’s ninth album, Music Of The Spheres, was a lot more ambitious than its pop sensibilities suggested. Containing a ten-minute foray into prog-rock with Colatura – which boasted a Pink Floyd-esque guitar solo by Jonny Buckland – the record occupied a canvas of intergalactic sci-fi soundscapes, folding pop melodies into a space-rock-inspired album concept. Again, Coldplay’s uplifting spiritual message had galaxy-sized ambitions, not only scoring the group their second US No.1, with their BTS collaboration My Universe, but also pondering a greater intelligence in the cosmos with the album’s Max Martin-produced lead single, Higher Power.

This joy is electric: Coldplay’s legacy

Throughout their career, Coldplay have proven themselves adept at giving their indie roots a refreshingly pop-inspired sheen, reaching commercial heights most bands can only dream of. Often underpinned by Chris Martin’s fragile falsetto and prodigious melodic capability, each Coldplay album has sent listeners hurtling down a DNA helix of wistful, emotive balladry and timeless tunes with lighters-aloft appeal. At the heart of the group’s success lies Chris Martin’s songwriting. “Songwriting is a mix of fiction and myth,” Martin has said. “Things are very romanticised. A song is like a film in that you can say anything you want. So there are parts that are based on truth and there are also parts that just sound good or feel good.”

From the bedsit-bound folk of Parachutes to the uplifting pop chants of Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, Coldplay deserve a great deal of credit for how they have combined Chris Martin’s cinematic songwriting with a musically inclusive stance that smuggles an authentic, humanist philosophy into stadiums across the globe. At the same time, Chris Martin’s songs speak to everyday concerns with undeniable relatability, while espousing a worldly-wise and meditative outlook that has enabled him to bring an art-rock-inspired duality to the group’s pop ambitions.

With an experimentalism that belies their success, Coldplay have always been willing to adapt their sounds to incorporate dance-pop as well as acoustic-led folk and the broach church of “world music”. For this reason, they transcend the trappings of most alt-rock groups, which may be why they have endured well into the streaming age. Most of all, however, their songs are always well-honed and impeccably realised. “Once we’d decided we had the chance of a lifetime,” Chris Martin said, “we worked harder than we ever have in our lives.” This unrelenting work ethic has never changed, and that’s why Coldplay remain one of the biggest bands in the world today.

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