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Coldplay Look Back on 20th Anniversary of ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’: ‘The Stakes Were Even Higher’

The group recall the hothouse atmosphere that produced some of their most beloved, enduring anthems.

Coldplay were feeling the pressure. After scoring a global hit with the dreamy, soaring ballad “Yellow” from their 2000 debut Parachutes, the English quartet headed back into the studio in 2001 to work on their eagerly anticipated sophomore album. But, like so many bands in their position, they knew that the follow-up needed to show growth and take them to a new place.

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Or, in the words of returning producer Ken Nelson: “Everybody was feeling like it has to be better, or at least match [Parachutes].” No pressure. Luckily for former university chums guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman, drummer Will Champion and singer/pianist Chris Martin, the latter was on the verge of a major songwriting breakthrough that would not merely match their debut, but help launch the band into a stratosphere that has them headlining sold-out stadiums across the world two decades later.

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In fact, the album they came up with, 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, was such a creative triumph that to this day some of its most beloved tracks — “In My Place,” “The Scientist,” “Clocks,” “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face,” “Green Eyes” and the moving, Sept. 11-inspired “Politik”  — continue to be reliable staples of the band’s live show. 

The album, which peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in Sept. 2002 and has sold 17 million copies worldwide to date — Parachutes topped out at No. 51 — was mostly recorded in a tiny room in the legendary Liverpool studio Parr Street. The hothouse environment produced more than three dozen songs, with some of the most memorable arriving past the original planned release date. 

Billboard caught up with the group, as well as Nelson and the band’s Parlophone Records A&R rep (Miles Leonard) to find out what their frame of mind was at the time, what song helped kickstart the sessions and how changing up their recording style helped light the fire that continues to burn 20 years later. (Check out the anniversary 4K upgrade of “The Scientist” video below.)

Was there a moment early on when you knew that A Rush was going to be a departure from your debut?

Chris Martin: A couple of songs we had been playing on tour for Parachutes – “In My Place,” “Amsterdam” and “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face.” So we knew about half of it. And there were lots of other songs that didn’t end up making the cut. Then Sept. 11th happened, and the song “Politik” came through a few days after that – and I went to demo that and called the rest of the band in. And that’s when I felt like, “This album is going to be different from the first album, and I think it’s going to be okay.”

Is there a scene you vividly remember, when something clicked, or didn’t, that stayed with you? A feeling of “We’ve done something here.”

Will Champion: We recorded a lot of that album in a very small room in a not particularly fancy recording studio in Liverpool [Parr Street]. It wasn’t even the main recording studio in that complex, so I feel it really represented us capturing lots of ideas… sometimes you can get stuck in a cycle when you’re recording of spending weeks on end in big, fancy recording studios with nice lunches and so forth. That just felt like a very magical period of time. I’m not saying we haven’t had moments like that since then, but I think I will always be surprised that we managed to make that album being the age we were.

Guy Berryman: Coming back from a weekend when I went back to London and Chris stayed in Liverpool, we came back Monday morning and he said, “Come listen to this, I’ve just written a song.” And it was “The Scientist.” And I thought, “We’re going to be playing this for a long time.” It came out fully formed. You know how some songs take years as they’re shredded and pulled apart, overwrought and thrown out and then brought back. Some things just come fully formed – and it was just a perfect, perfect song. I think it even came out in one take and then we put our stuff on it — Jonny played his amazing riff — and it was done. What a relief! That was a real, “okay this is going somewhere.”

Given the success of Parachutes, was there the expected pressure on the guys to deliver something as big, if not bigger with their second album?

Miles Leonard: The thing with this band is that there was no doubt that they were prolific and creative and bursting with this energy to write and compose. It was really about giving them space. They wanted to push forward and not rewind the clock. The first album took off and had huge success that I don’t think any of us expected. With A Rush of Blood, you had a band with this huge amount of success, but who were not curtailed by the industry –  who were still young and, for all intents, still naive to the music industry. So we were in this wonderful place you rarely get with artists where they knew they had to push forward and were not afraid to experiment and push boundaries.

How had Coldplay changed since the first album’s release? Did the band have a different process at all?

Ken Nelson: Chris wanted to record everything separately. “In My Place” was played live before it was recorded and most of the songs written for the album were in Chris’ head and everyone was thinking about their parts as they went along. Songs like “The Scientist” and “Clocks” were written very late, when we were almost finished. Chris said we needed [another] song, and he played “Scientist” and everyone was blown away. 

“Clocks” was an afterthought. They’d done a demo and had it on a CD when we were mixing the album and feeling under a heck of a lot of pressure to get it out. Their manager at the time, Phil [Harvey], said, “I want you to record ‘Clocks’ – this is just astonishing.” We were in the frame of mind that we were finished, and “Clocks” was done quickly over three days. 

What was the band’s frame of mind going into the sessions for the second album?

Nelson: Parachutes had done very well, and everybody’s feeling was we have to better or at least match it. I remember recording 35-40 songs… not all of them were completed, and some did not have the quality halfway through [recording] them. We had quality control in mind – and I’ve just listened to it again, and the quality of the songs is incredible, which I think is the overriding thing. They wanted to at least make an album as good as Parachutes, because a lot of bands fall short on their second album.

Martin: Each album we do we put everything into. And that one was no different. The stakes were even higher because when you’re on your second album, it can still end – you don’t really have room for something that’s awful at that point. I remember it as being a bit like putting this [2021-22] tour together: very stressful, but really rewarding. We were living in this studio.

What was the label’s expectation for the album?

Leonard: One thing I’ve never wanted to do is put expectations on a band. All I want to do is give an artist room to breathe and create the record they want to and not put number on it. We had a vision that it was going to be finished in time to headline Glastonbury [in June 2002], and [we would] release the album off of that. As a label that was a perfect opportunity, but through the recording process it didn’t quite go “to plan” — though it ended up going perfectly to plan — but not on the timeline we’d put upon the band to deliver. They headlined Glastonbury that year and the plan was to release the album a week after. We thought, “how brilliant!” 

But it wasn’t ready, it wasn’t in the place it needed to be — they had to go back in and perfect it. And the fact that “Clocks” came really late, really late, to the point where we were going to master and manufacture it and that song came up and it was such an important, undeniable track and fair play to [then-manager and “fifth member”] Phil Harvey brought it in and said, “we have to record it.” So we had to put the brakes on it for the sake of making it right and letting the band breathe. 

We decided we could do Glastonbury and release the album later, at a time when we worried about piracy on the internet and asked, “Can we play these new songs even though the album isn’t out until August?” So we said, “Why not? The only version will be live.” It was great promotion and not an issue. If you go to Glastonbury and open with “Politik” – that is such an important record and message, a state of intention about where they’re going. 

Nelson: It was a pressure-filled time. Towards the end we wanted to go home and I can remember it with trepidation: a fear of “have we done enough?” And being really stressed out, which is the only time in my life when I’ve ever really felt stressed. Everyone was feeling it because we were just working long hours.

The band sounds so tight – but it seems like the sessions were not the classic “band in a room jamming” vibe, right?

Nelson: Parachutes was very much recorded with Guy on bass, Will on drums, Chris on either guitar and piano and guide vocal and Jonny on guitar. Rush of Blood was done piecemeal, with Chris doing the guide guitar or piano and the others writing or adding their parts as they were recording them. Listening to it now, it sounds like they were a band playing together in a room, but only one track was done in that live way, “Green Eyes.” They maintained that feeling of this being a band playing [together] and I’m still quite proud of that. 

They were pretty much there most of the time as a band, with Will thinking about what he was going to play over Chris’ part or Jonny’s part, and Guy the same. It was an interesting way of working, a bit time-consuming because they were writing parts as they were recording. My ethos is to record everything in case you catch some magic. Chris was always thinking about how a part could be improved, and they might finish at 10 p.m. and go for a drink, and then Chris would go back into the studio and practice and the next day he would play his piano part absolutely brilliantly.

Leonard: It had a darker, heavier weight to it, but there are some stunning, beautiful moments. There’s a density, an energy coming from a band that recognized they need to push themselves. They didn’t want to repeat themselves and they all had this ambition, this absolute focus and laser vision of what they needed to do. There were very strong songs that were thrown out, because they were very self-critical and had an anxiety about having the right songs – to the point where they were over-critical, and we had songs that were strong that we had to encourage them to pull back in. 

It sounds like “The Scientist” helped spark the inspiration for much of the rest of the album. What was it about that one that got the band motivated?

Martin: I was listening to “Isn’t It a Pity?” by George Harrison all the time and the circular chord sequence on it. We were in the small at Parr Street, in studio 3 upstairs, which was tiny. There was this kind of honky-tonk piano and that song — about 10 of our songs over the years have just fallen through the sky — was one of them. Then Jonny, Guy and Will came in on Monday and they did all their parts. I knew that I really loved it when Jonny after the second chorus, he does this… I don’t know how he does it, but whatever he’s playing just melted me.

Leaving London for Parr Street seems to have been a key factor – what was the vibe like there? Can you describe the setting?

Nelson: It was recorded over 7-8 months, with probably three solid months of work. We mostly recorded in the Parr Street demo room where I did a lot of work in my formative years with local bands. There’s a very small control room and fairly small live room. I think certainly Chris felt quite at home up there.

The piano on “Scientist” was in that room – this old, rickety honky tonk piano, with clicks and bumps and noises, which made him feel at home. It was a good piano, but very old and you could repair it, but would it improve it? That’s all part of the character which Chris loved and I appreciated. They were all on top of each other and it was very warm in there — there was air conditioning, but it wasn’t working. In a lot of ways it was quite an uncomfortable environment, and there wasn’t much room, but those are some of the happiest memories I have. 

I remember one of the A&R people coming down and the band leaving the room when we were playing some tracks, but Chris was there. I did a quick monitor mix of a song and played it and Chris whispered into my ear, “This is f–king amazing!” I turned around and [the A&R rep was] in tears. It was a very, very special moment.

Leonard: I’d go up maybe every three weeks to hear what they were up to, but when you have Ken Nelson and Chris you don’t need to be there every day. Parr Street is a magical studio where Echo and the Bunnymen used to record all their albums and they were a huge influence on the band, so to be in this historic studio was important tot them.

Nelson: Before “Clocks” came in I thought we had the album done but then in a way it ended up binding the whole album together. We were all feeling the pressure — the label wanted the album out — and then it got delayed. One of the reasons we went to Liverpool, away from prying eyes and ears, was we just wanted the five of us making decisions for ourselves.

What song do you remember hearing that instantly blew you away?

Leonard: Two moments: “Politik” because it was around 9/11 and the whole world was in this very odd space about what had happened and that song came out around that time. I remember hearing it for first time and feeling the impact and energy of it. It resonated so much. I hadn’t heard something as heavy and impactful as that at that point from the band and to hear them play something like that was really, really special, the antithesis of what people had marginalized them as a bit of a softer [band]… and to put something as challenging as that as the album opener was a statement of intent. Then Phil Harvey came in and said they had one more song that might work, “Clocks,” and that opening piano line was so anthemic. 

Dance and electronic music were huge at time and it had a piano line almost referencing what was happening in electronic music – but also in its own place. The fact that we were able to pull back and say, “This album is clearly not ready if they have a song like that,” which came out of nowhere? We should have been so happy with the album as it was, but we were unaware of something else being there. When something like that comes out of nowhere it just suddenly finishes the circle and you realize that’s what we need to complete this record.

What do you think when you go back and listen to that album now and would you do anything differently? 

Champion: I’m particularly proud of that album. It surprises me sometimes when I hear songs from that record, because I hear a lot of ideas on there which I feel should have come from a group of people older than we were at the time. We were still pretty young when we made that record and… I think sometimes the stars align in a certain way and things happen that you just can’t explain. I will always have a very special and particular relationship with that record.

Nelson: Not really. I’m a firm believer that if something is finished get it out into the shops and that’s it. I was listening to it this morning, quite loud, and you get an energy from it which I remember from being in the studio. I remember listening to songs like “Amsterdam,” which we had recorded, but Will needed [to finish] a drum part. He was having a new boiler installed at his house that morning and he said he’d be in by 1 p.m. But he was late and felt really bad, so when he got there we had a quick cup of tea and recorded the drums on the end and he did it in one take. I’ve never seen anyone so pleased because he was quite nervous because he was late and he just blasted it out in one take. That was quite a special moment for me.

Leonard: I think with Rush we started to understand the personalities of the band. With the first record they were so new and with Rush they started to understand each other’s roles and who brings what to table and pull together as a unit. It was the first time you could see that those four people were the only ones that could make the right choices, but they were never afraid to ask for advice. Most bands who reach that level of success don’t do that or they get surrounded by an iron curtain where nobody can speak to them. Rush really defined what each one of them brought and why they have this brilliant sound and the density and energy on that record. 

They were still four very young lads who didn’t know they were on the verge of being the biggest band in the world. They were so focused and prolific. Chris just could not stop writing. He would stay up late and write, still push himself, which is a testament to how great that album was.

Why do you think so many of the tracks have such long legs? 

Nelson: Because they’re great songs! The fans demand those songs. I’ve been to quite a few of their gigs and they’ve made great records since, but I think those first two albums connected with people. Chris is such a great songwriter and they sound like such a band. “The Scientist,” “Clocks” and “Yellow” are massively magic songs and fans demand to hear them. My thing is an album has to sound at least as good as the band sound live… it has to have a certain roughness. 

Leonard: A Rush of Blood was a milestone album. All bands have that  album that is a turning point, the one that affects people most. If you ask fans they’ll say that it has something that resonates, it has emotion and complexity. Because it is so diverse in sound, when you go to a live show they have so many songs to draw from, and these have those moments where it’s pared down to piano and acoustic guitar. Despite big production, sometimes just paring something down to guitar or keyboard and vocal can have the biggest impact – and this album had those songs. 

What do you hear when you listen to 20 years ago? What strikes you from that album?

Martin: Well, I haven’t listened to it in a while [laughs]. But we do play a lot of songs from it still [smiles].