If you've purchased X&Y, Coldplay's new album, by now you've probably stared quizzically at the cover, an amalgamation of colors and blocks that looks strangely like a game of Tetris gone awry, or perhaps a character from some old-school ColecoVision game like BurgerTime.
But the true meaning of the image has remained a mystery until now. Are Coldplay closet video-game junkies, paying homage to the eight-bit past? Really big fans of minimal, vaguely Cubist art? Just carrying on a long tradition of mystical, bong-addled Brit rock?
Actually, the answer is more complex than all that — waaaaay more complex.
The X&Y cover image is a graphical representation of the Baudot code, an early form of telegraph communication that relied on a series of ones and zeroes to convey messages (and thus, was probably the first truly "digital" means of communication). Developed by Frenchman Émile Baudot and patented in 1874, the code was the most widely used method of terrestrial and undersea telegraph communication for the following 70 years, until being replaced by Morse code in the mid-20th century.
The Baudot code assigns five "bits" for each letter of the alphabet, an arrangement of ones and zeroes ("11000" is A, "10011" is B, etc), as well as coding for numbers and symbols, like question marks or commas. To differentiate between numbers and letters, Baudot further broke the code down into "upshifted" and "downshifted" sections. Switching from numbers to letters — downshifting — would be identified by inserting "11011" into a message stream. To relay messages, operators tapped keys on a Baudot multiplex telegraph transmitter, with a "one" meaning a hit of the key and a "zero" meaning no hit. For example, "A" would be transmitted as two successive hits followed by three beats of silence.
Coldplay were kind enough to supply fans with a chart showing the entire Baudot alphabet in X&Y's liner notes (since multiplex telegraph transmitters are presumably in short supply these days), with vertical arrangements of colored blocks replacing the ones and zeroes. When the chart is applied to X&Y's cover image, it's revealed to spell out (duh) "X&Y." The image on the last page of the liner spells out "Make Trade Fair," the name of the international organization aimed at eliminating Third World debt through reformed trade laws, which Martin ardently supports (MTV News cracked the code using only a pen and paper, and like all good math tests, we showed our work, which you can view here).
The code seems like the perfect passive-aggressive way for Coldplay frontman Chris Martin to convey his "Make Trade Fair" message, now that his T-shirts and finger-tape have been all but decoded (see "Coldplay: The Quiet Revolution"). And when the band hits the road on August 2 in support of X&Y, much of their tour merch (including baby-doll tops and guys' T-shirts) will come emblazoned with the Baudot code (see "Coldplay Kick Off 36-City Twisted Logic Tour In August").
But while the Coldplay code has now been cracked, the answer remains: Why Baudot? Well, Coldplay have remained mute on the matter, but if the legendary Led Zeppelin could write a whole catalog of tunes that referenced J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," and Radiohead could promote Kid A with about a zillion demonic bear images, who's to say Chris Martin and his crew can't get mathematical on X&Y? It's just the latest move in a long, long history of headscratching rock-star anti-statements.
The logic behind such things, after all, is tougher to crack than any code out there.