No Doubt - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
No Doubt’s ubiquitous juggernaut of a third album, Tragic Kingdom (1995 Trauma/Interscope), arguably marked the end of grunge mainstream dominance and the beginning of the even more lucrative post-grunge movement of the mid-90’s. By mixing the angst ridden outsider rock of grunge with elements of 80’s synth pop, ska, and a no-nonsense feminist attitude, No Doubt appealed equally to teenage girls and boys of almost every musical persuasion. Of course, much of that appeal stemmed from the flamboyant presence of lead singer Gwen Stefani, who embodied a more empowered female role model sorely lacking in mainstream rock throughout the 80’s and much of the 90’s up to that point. Equal parts coquettish ingénue and unflappable rock goddess, Stefani’s brazen defiance of mainstream rock stereotypes practically kick started a whole new genre of female fronted post-grunge outfits that littered the airwaves of the late 90’s. Yet categorizing No Doubt as a mere vehicle for Stephanie’s savvy sassiness would undermine the effect the band’s signature sound had on contemporary rock. Where grunge buried it’s influences under mountains of angry guitar distortion, No Doubt pushed their influences to the forefront of an infectious and streamlined sound, resulting in an easy to swallow yet eclectic genre hybrid with Stephanie standing at the center of each song’s gravity, keeping the proceedings cohesive. Whether they were kicking out high energy alternative rock, dancehall reggae, tearstained ballads, or hip hop inspired dance music, Stephanie remained the lone constant of the band’s ever evolving sound and she took advantage of the position by evolving her own style and attitude to fit the times. As trends and fashions changed year to year so did Stefani and it wasn’t long before she evolved from rock singer to trend setter with her band following suit. Prolonged periods of time between releases however, have tainted No Doubt’s popularity with the band currently closing in on a 7 year gap since their last album of original material. In that time an increasingly eclectic indie rock movement has gone mainstream leaving No Doubt’s relevance in certain doubt.
No Doubt was formed in Orange County, California by Gwen’s older brother Eric Stefani in 1986 as the group Apple Core. Heavily influenced by the ska pop of Madness, keyboardist Eric enlisted his fellow Diary Queen coworker John Spence on vocals and his teenage sister Gwen as a co-vocalist. Despite various rhythm section line ups and a change in name to No Doubt the band developed a diehard following in the Orange County area on the strength of ska pop party anthems and Spence’s flamboyant performances. After attending one of their live shows, bassist Tony Kanal joined the band and soon began dating Gwen, although the pair kept their romantic relationship a secret from the rest of the band for well over a year. On December 21, 1987, tragedy struck when Spence abruptly committed suicide at age 18 just days before the band was set to play a career making record industry showcase. Grief stricken, No Doubt broke up only to reform a few weeks later with new vocalist Alan Meade. Gwen took over as lead vocalist a short time later after Meade’s departure and the band picked up guitarist Tom Dumont, formerly of the heavy metal band The Rising, in early 1988. Dumont added an inspired hard rock edge to No Doubt’s ska pop anthems giving the band a highly original and increasingly popular sound. Drummer Adrian Young finalized the line up in 1989.
After witnessing the unadulterated energy of a No Doubt live show, Interscope Records signed the band in 1990. The pop laden ska of the self titled debut full length, No Doubt (1992 Interscope) failed to compete with the dominant popularity of early 90’s grunge, selling a meager 30,000 copies. The band’s subsequent U.S. tour was impeded by a lack of publicity and financial support from Interscope with the band discovering No Doubt wasn’t even available in many of the cities they were playing. Undaunted, the band returned with a sophomore effort in 1993, which Interscope rejected. No Doubt scrapped the album and decided to self produce new material, which was recorded intermittently over the next two years. The Beacon Street Collection (1995 Sea Creatures Records) added a heavier grunge influence to their sound that proved far more successful with the album outselling No Doubt three times over. Encouraged by the success of The Beacon Street Collection, Interscope rushed No Doubt back into the studio to begin work on a new album with producer Matthew Wilder. The sessions would be fraught with tension, however, as Eric and Wilder butted heads over the album’s direction, resulting in Eric’s departure from the band before the album’s completion. The end of Gwen’s relationship with Kanal further complicated the sessions, although it provided Stefani with inspired lyrical fodder. Upon release in October of 1995, Tragic Kingdom (Interscope) wasn’t an immediate success but the feminist power pop anthem, “Just a Girl” did provide No Doubt with their first moderate taste of mainstream success and the band embarked on a worldwide tour. The alternative ska of “Spiderwebs” was an even bigger hit in early 1996 but it was the heartbreaking rock ballad, “Don’t Speak” based on Stefani’s breakup with Kanal that catapulted the band into international megastardom. “Don’t Speak” was arguably the biggest song of the year and its overwhelming popularity sent Tragic Kingdom platinum 8 times over with No Doubt picking up Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Best Rock Album. The band took advantage of their new found fame by touring relentlessly for over 27 months, building a rabid fanbase on the power of their high energy live shows. Tragic Kingdom was certified diamond in 1999, having sold over 16 million copies worldwide, and is still considered one of the top selling rock albums of the 90’s.
No Doubt spent the next two years writing and recording a follow up album with Alanis Morissette producer Glen Ballard, only releasing the live concert DVD, Live in the Tragic Kingdom (Interscope) in 1997. Stefani kept up appearances by making guest spots on albums by Prince and Fishbone while her relationship with Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale kept her in the tabloids. The break up with Kanal may have inspired Tragic Kingdom, but it was her budding romance with Rossdale that set the tone of Return to Saturn (2000 Interscope). Based more on early 80’s alternative pop than ska and reggae, Return to Saturn showcased the band’s progression into a more refined and mature sound. Despite the success of first single, “Ex-Girlfriend” and Stefani’s first attempt at songwriting, “Simple Kind of Life”, the album was a commercial disappointment compared to Tragic Kingdom and the band subsequently decided to take a dramatic change in direction.
While recording No Doubt’s fifth full length in Jamaica throughout 2001, Stefani also began to branch out as a solo artists making high profile guest appearances with R&B star Kelis on the Donna Summer cover “Love to Love You Baby” for the Zoolander soundtrack and collaborating with Moby for his megahit “South Side”. Stefani also made an appearance on Saturday Night Live performing with Eve on the hip hop flavored “Let Me Blow Ya Mind”. Rock Steady (2001 Interscope) replaced much of the band’s post grunge guitar pop sound with bass heavy electronica and hip hop beats while upping the ante on No Doubt’s dancehall influences. Rock Steady returned No Doubt to the top of the charts on the strength of hit singles like “Hey Baby” and “Underneath It All” featuring Lady Saw the universally proclaimed “First Lady of Dancehall”. The subsequent singles, “Hella Good” and “Running” also became mainstream rock radio hits with Rock Steady eventually going triple platinum. The following year No Doubt released their first greatest hits compilation, The Singles: 1992-2003 (2003 Interscope) featuring another hit single with a cover version of Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life”, earning the band a Grammy nomination for Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal.
At the conclusion of the bands widely successful Rock Steady Tour in late 2003, No Doubt went on an indefinite hiatus they have yet to return from.
The long awaited return of No Doubt is largely due to Stefani’s subsequent solo career, motherhood, and devotion to her fashion line L.A.M.B. With her full length solo debut Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (2003 Interscope) Stefani successfully crossed over from rock godess to solo diva, a persona she continued to mine on the less successful The Sweet Escape (Interscope) in 2006. Stefani and Rossdale married in 2002 and the couple is currently expecting their second child. In early 2008, drummer Adrian Young announced No Doubt had begun work on their sixth full length album with Stefani penning the majority of the material herself. The yet to be titled album is being produced by Mark “Spike” Stent and is currently slated for a spring 2009 release.