Wednesday, May 9, 2012

No Doubt

Sound Familiar?
“Just a Girl,” “Don’t Speak,” “Simple Kind of Life”

Who Are They?
One of the most successful ska revival bands of the ‘90s (even if they did go pop in the ‘00s).

No Doubt started as a strictly ska band in 1986. Gwen Stefani’s older brother Eric came up with the idea after a conversation with his pal John Spence at a Dairy Queen in Anaheim. John took over lead vocals and Eric jammed on the keyboard with a handful of other musicians playing backup. Eric thought it was only appropriate to include his little sister Gwen on backing vocals (little did he know, she’d soon become the star of the whole show).

Current bassist Tony Kanal joined No Doubt shortly after attending one of the band’s earlier shows. Gwen had the hots for him and the two began dating secretly, as it was an unspoken rule that nobody was allowed to date Gwen. (Think of these two as the ska versions of Romeo and Juliet.)

But it wasn’t all trombone and secret romance in the beginning. In 1987, several days before the band was scheduled to play an important gig at The Roxy Theatre, singer John Spence committed suicide. No Doubt disbanded in his honor, but decided to regroup after several weeks with Alan Meade on vocals. Alan didn’t last long, so Gwen replaced him.

By 1989, No Doubt had a solid lineup with Gwen on vocals, Eric on keyboards, Tony on bass, Tom Dumont on guitar and Adrian Young on drums. The band eventually landed a record deal with Interscope Records in 1990 and released their self-titled debut album in 1992.

Unfortunately, that was the wrong time to release a ska record. The album’s upbeat sound was a little too happy-go-lucky for gloomy grunge fans, so No Doubt was a commercial failure.

Eric began to withdraw from the group after this little setback and left No Doubt during the recording process of the outtake album The Beacon Street Collection in 1994. (Fun fact: Eric went on to work as an animator for The Simpsons.)

One year after Eric’s departure, No Doubt released their commercial breakthrough Tragic Kingdom. The album, though quite poppy, focused on Gwen and Tony’s tumultuous relationship. The hugely successful ballad “Don’t Speak” was based on the couple’s messy breakup and earned No Doubt Grammy nods for Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group.

Moral of the story: everyone loves a good breakup song.

Where Are They Now?
Reunited after an eight-year hiatus.

After the mainstream success of Tragic Kingdom, the band released the 2000 follow-up Return of Saturn. The album was a little darker than its predecessor and instead of focusing on Gwen and Tony’s romance, it focused on Gwen’s new beau, Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale.

Though critics praised Return of Saturn for its more mature content, the album failed to achieve the same commercial success as Tragic Kingdom.

During the recording process of 2001’s Rock Steady, Gwen began to venture out on her own, making high-profile appearances on Moby’s “South Side” and Eve’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.” Instead of tearing the band apart, Gwen’s explorations lent No Doubt credibility and an opportunity to explore new genres.

The result of these musical adventures was the heavily Jamaican dancehall-influenced Rock Steady. Fueled by Grammy-winning singles “Hey Baby” and “Underneath It All,” Rock Steady enjoyed huge mainstream success. In 2003, the band released a greatest hits compilation (The Singles 1992-2003), which included a cover (and a very good one, at that) of Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life.”

A year later, No Doubt embarked on a hiatus, giving Gwen the chance to start a solo career. And what better way to make a name for yourself than to employ the help of a group of a cute little Asian girls? Armed with her Harajuku Girl Posse, Gwen released two solo albums, 2004’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and 2006’s The Sweet Escape. (Her solo success can also be measured by the guilty pleasure “Hollaback Girl.” Admit it, you can’t spell “bananas” without singing that song. And I bet you just started singing it. Am I right?)

While Gwen was off spelling out fruit (and having a child with Gavin Rossdale), Tony released his own solo project, Invincible Overlord, and collaborated with P!nk on her album Funhouse. Meanwhile, Adrian became the touring drummer for Bow Wow Wow in 2004 and played on the majority of Unwritten Law’s 2005 album Here’s to the Mourning.

The band began recording the follow-up to Rock Steady in 2008 without Gwen, but planned to complete it after Gwen’s solo tour. The process was slow, mostly due to Gwen’s second pregnancy, so No Doubt didn’t really have time to tour in 2008.

In 2009, the band announced a summer tour with Paramore, The Sounds, Panic! At the Disco and others.

The mysterious new album was originally slated for a 2010 release, then a 2011 release and finally a 2012 release.

But this is the year, folks. This is the year we get a new No Doubt album.

But Why No Doubt?
I repeat: a new album. The first No Doubt album in 11 years is due September 25, 2012. It’s kind of a big deal, guys.

What Does Sam Think?
I will admit that I have a lady-crush on Gwen Stefani. Just thought I’d throw that out there. But I’ll concentrate on the music, I promise.

So I haven’t really addressed ska in any of my entries thus far. Believe it or not, it wasn’t just a ‘90s thing. Ska originated in 1950s Jamaica, was revived in the ‘70s with English 2 Tone and eventually made it into the mainstream beginning in the late ‘80s.

Ska in the ‘90s was mostly a West Coast thing, particularly in Orange County. When you think of ‘90s ska (or ska punk, as it was sometimes called), you probably think of three bands: No Doubt, Reel Big Fish and Sublime.

No Doubt wasn’t the first American ska band to find commercial success (that title belongs to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones), but they were one of the only American ska bands to branch out.

Of course their sound got incredibly poppy, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Though Rock Steady isn’t nearly as good as Tragic Kingdom, it isn’t the worst record No Doubt could have made. The singles from Rock Steady are fantastic, especially “Underneath It All.” That track has some great reggae undertones that I’ve come to appreciate.

Of course Tragic Kingdom is an instant classic, but a lot of people overlook the first record. If No Doubt’s later releases weren’t ska enough for you, check out the self-titled debut. It’s almost cartoonish in its delivery, but that’s what makes it good. To me, ska is supposed to be a little over the top. I mean, you’ve got an entire horn section behind you, so why not pump up the volume?

In regards to Gwen’s solo career, I never had a problem with it. I bought her first album and loved it (though The Sweet Escape wasn’t exactly my cup of tea). “Hollaback Girl” was my jam and I’m not afraid to admit it.

But I’m so glad there’s a new No Doubt album on the horizon. Love you, Gwen, but I prefer you with the boys instead of the Harajuku Girls.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

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