COLDPLAY: Why are the British so bloody good at rock ‘n’ roll?
So rarely do we get to see such a top-level British rock band in Edmonton, and it’s always a delightful treat. That’s because we still bow to the Queen of England, touch her face on our money and feel deep down in our bosoms that British rock bands are superior to North American rock bands. Should there ever be some grand Intercontinental Rock Band Warz with both Simon Cowell and Howard Stern on the judging panel (followed by a fistfight to the death between the two), we’d know for sure, but for now, it’s a gut feeling. A big one.
Coldplay performs Tuesday in Rexall Place. You might say expectations are high.
There are few North American counterparts to Coldplay’s arena-anthem-ready brand of piano-rocking goodness. Semisonic? Too flash-in-the-pan. Ben Folds? Too obscure. Billy Joel? Never mind. Coldplay has the piano rock thing all locked up, backed up by battalions of like-minded Limey ivory tinklers led by General Sir Elton John and the deadly arsenal of Supertramp hits in reserve.
Coldplay’s frontman Chris Martin can be credited for single-handedly (double-handedly) bringing the humble piano back into rock ‘n’ roll front and centre, which in the ‘90s had been sorely missing keyboards of any kind. (Now there’s too many; be careful what you wish for.) Martin’s sensitive lyrics, haunting melodies and rugged good looks didn’t hurt Coldplay’s popularity any. Like Nickelback, they paid the price for their massive success, called “bedwetters music” by yobs from bands like Oasis – whose nearest American counterpart would have to be the Smashing Pumpkins; throw them both into the ocean – and are to this day often dismissed as “rock for girls.”
And the problem is?
Point being: Not too many bands like Coldplay over here.
It’s strange because the British sure seem to rip off – pay homage to – huge swaths of original American music. Americans can take credit for the invention of blues, jazz, hip hop and other forms of music invented by blacks and subsequently stolen by whites, but the British have dominated almost every type of rock that came out of it. Many great British bands got their start playing early American blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, you name it – and look at them now.
Mr. Obvious would also like to point out that the Brits dominate heavy metal. Metallica rules, as did Iron Butterfly, but AC/DC rules more. Iron Maiden more than that. And Ozzy and Black Sabbath even more. Don’t forget Judas Priest. And Led Zeppelin. And Motorhead. It’s a rout turned to 11. Don’t forget that Spinal Tap was fictitious British metal band played by AMERICAN actors.
Fleetwood Mac tapped into the arty, poppy side of rock, but so did the Police with equal impact – and besides, half of Fleetwood Mac is British. They got their start in London. Art rock might as well be a British invention even if it isn’t: Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Deep Purple, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, plus both the Moody Blues and Procol Harum, and later, Radiohead, Muse, the prog-rock redcoats just keep coming. Rush can’t defend our borders all by itself.
The battle of living male rock legends appears to be an American victory at last, with the Generals Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen leading the charge – only to be met by Field Marshals David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel and Rod Stewart. OK, maybe not Rod Stewart. Stack him against Bryan Adams – and Bryan moved to England a long time ago. Hey, this is like Stratomatic Baseball for rock bands! Like Elizabeth I, Adele by herself has done much to defend the Crown of England in the War of the Women of Pop, but the plucky lass cannot withstand a continuous assault of the big American guns Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Rihanna, with Madonna bringing up the rear every five years or with the cycle of album-movie-fragrance-branding as predictable as the 17-year cicada. Eat our crops and go away already. Folk music would be a lock for the yanks were it not for the Irish. Rap rules in North America, too, while the Brits are frightfully up-to-date on the electronica scene. Country – and therefore Lynyrd Skynyrd – could only have come from white America. But Mr. Obvious digresses. Rock ‘n’ roll is the issue here, and why the British seem to be so bloody good at it. An angrier underclass, maybe?
The question of the best punk rock band ever is a contentious issue. However we love our Iggy Pop and the Stooges and the Ramones and Green Day on Broadway, and argue all you want who invented the punk genre, more people associate the Sex Pistols with all things punk than any other band. Canny fashion was the deciding factor.
Name the biggest American rock band you can think of and chances are there’s a bigger and better British counterpart – with the possible exception of Bon Jovi vs. Def Leppard. We’ll call that a draw of banality. The International Rock Table of Comparisons would surely also include The Rolling Stones vs. Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix vs. Eric Clapton, The Who vs. The Eagles, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers vs. U2.
This is fun. Line ‘em up! On one side of the ocean, it’s Pearl Jam, Nirvana, the Doors, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, REM, Beach Boys, Green Day, Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, The Black Keys, Tom Waits and the White Stripes. On the other side, The Clash, Queen, Muse, Eric Clapton, The Kinks, The Smiths, Stone Roses, Bush, Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits, Yardbirds, Chemical Brothers, Blur. Don’t forget the Beatles. And don’t forget Elvis.
Well, it’s been fun typecasting rock bands with pernicious cultural comparisons to create an imaginary war, hasn’t it? The gut feeling remains: The British rock better than we do. The question now is why. Consider that their culture has been around 10 times longer than ours has, that the UK is riddled with violent history upon violent history, mystery piled on mythology, not to mention a surfeit of wealthy, deep-thinking art students turned musicians steeped in said lore plus Earl Grey tea and maybe LSD. And consider that the aforementioned oppressed underclass has had a lot of time to brood and come up with original ways to express themselves through music. They chose to do it in its most emotional, evocative form. That would be rock ‘n’ roll. Coldplay is just one weapon in the UK’s vast arsenal against the underdog North Americans, whose current pain is sure to produce some great music to come. For now, we wait and surrender to the British rock ‘n’ roll hegemony.
At least until Van Halen comes to town next month.