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No Doubt

Third wave ska-punk revivalists with an added wow factor – bleached-blonde bombshell GWEN STEFANI (Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow and MADONNA all rolled into one!) – NO DOUBT were head and shoulders above fellow Californian competition: SUBLIME, SUGAR RAY, SMASH MOUTH et al. If one was to define three songs that celebrated and characterised the band as a commercial prospect, then breakthrough single `Just A Girl’, UK chart-topper `Don’t Speak’ and their collaboration with BOUNTY KILLER, `Hey Baby’, would fit the bill.
Formed in Anaheim, Orange County, California, in 1986, inspired by MADNESS, their earliest “garage” line-up consisted of John Spence (lead vocals), Eric Stefani (keyboards), his kid sister Gwen (then as backing vocalist), Jerry McMahon (guitar), Chris Leal (bass), Chris Webb (drums), Alan Meade and his brother Tony (trumpet and sax); Paul Caseley (trombone) and Eric Carpenter (sax) would join some time in 1987, as did fresh bassist Tony Kanal (Gwen’s secret beau).
Then came the tragic news that Spence (an 18 year-old so full of stage exuberance), had committed suicide on December 21, 1987; also significant in the fact that it happened only days before they were due to play to A&R men at the local Roxy Theatre. Still reeling from the shock, the ska ensemble decided to call off pending gigs, although in the intervening months, guitarist Tom Dumont (from metal act Rising) had expressed an interest to join, superseding McMahon. By this stage, Alan Meade was tested as lead singer, but as he bailed (along with Tony), aspiring co-singer Gwen stepped up to the plate. The final piece of the jigsaw was when Adrian Young replaced Webb, just in time for support gigs to FISHBONE, The UNTOUCHABLES and the RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS; Caseley departed to team up with the US Navy band shortly afterwards.
Having seemingly gone to ground for a while, NO DOUBT were actually going down a storm at venues, including The Whisky, Fender’s Grand Ballroom and The Roxy, where stage-diving antics had sparked off interest in the band’s star attraction, Gwen. Almost immediately, Tony Ferguson took their name to fledgling imprint Interscope Records (then part of Time Warner/Atlantic), where they signed on the dotted line. At a time when the smell of teen spirit and the grunge scene had swept the nation (and the globe), the upbeat, brassy and pop-fuelled eponymous set, NO DOUBT (1992) {*4} – Gwen sounding rather Geddy (or Maddy!) – was forgotten in an instant. Swing-fest lounge-ska with polished production by Dito Godwin, even tracks such as `Trapped In A Box’ (a radio-play single) and `Get On The Ball’ were miles away from their impressive live shows.
Probably wondering if they’d signed The BODYSNATCHERS rather than a promising MADNESS/SPECIALS tune-up, executives at Interscope washed their hands of NO DOUBT for the foreseeable future, leaving the door open for Gwen and Co to self-finance their sophomore set, THE BEACON STREET COLLECTION (1995) {*6}. Truer to their ska-pop ideals than its directionless predecessor (though the brassy `Stricken’ sounded a tad DEXYS), `Open The Gate’, `Blue In The Face’ and `By The Way’ held the key into the back-door of success; ironically, the major label re-issued the record in ’97 as demand grew.
Allowed back into the inner circle when producer MATTHEW WILDER – he of `Break My Stride’ fame – came to their rescue, NO DOUBT were buzzing again with the October 1995 release of third set, TRAGIC KINGDOM {*8}. A slow starter by all accounts until it eventually topped the charts (UK Top 3 a year on), the record was an 80s-esque amalgam of soft-metallic ska-pop/rock, fusing elements of The POLICE and MADNESS (a la `Just A Girl’), hand in hand with tasty MADONNA-lookalike Gwen’s cutesy-pie vocal pouting. An album depicting the break-up of Gwen and Tony Kanal (who’d continued with the band) – Eric had departed for a job in The Simpsons TV series – it boasted other MTV-friendly/UK hit singles, `Don’t Speak’, `Spiderwebs’ and `Sunday Morning’. Interestingly enough, heavy-metal mag Kerrang! also inconceivably took gorgeous Gwen to their leather-clad hearts (lending new weight to accusations of cock-rock inclinations).
Having milked “TK” dry of hits, the 4-piece NO DOUBT eventually returned in 1999 with the `New’ single (from the movie, Go); its UK Top 30 placing suggesting they hadn’t been forgotten just yet.
A year on, NO DOUBT released their long-awaited fourth long player, RETURN OF SATURN (2000) {*7}; lead track – and Brit hit – `Ex-Girlfriend’ setting the tone of the record as gorgeous Gwen played to her just-turned-30-something blues. Their defiant attempts at sparking a new wave revival remained undimmed and with 80s mania looming on the horizon like a particularly flint-eyed vulture, they might just’ve pulled it off with tracks like `Simple Kind Of Life’ (another Brit hit) and the aforementioned `New’ title. While structured with an underlying rock foundation, the aforementioned Top 3 album was an attempt to update the American teenage sound so beloved of Stefani and Co. While its over-cooked crafted textures and emo-fied restlessness on its lyrics conceivably appealed to an older audience, it was unclear exactly what market this record was aimed.
Its relatively short-lived residence in the UK charts prompted a link-up with all manner of name producers in an attempt to revitalise their approach. Thus the likes of SLY & ROBBIE, Nellee Hooper, RIC OCASEK, Steely & Clevie and, even, PRINCE, were recruited to shape the reggae influenced, dance-floor pop of ROCK STEADY (2001) {*7}. Released in conjunction with the latter Top 10 set, `Hey Baby’ (featuring Jamaican reggae star BOUNTY KILLER), gave the group a much-needed transatlantic smash, while `Hella Good’ and `Underneath It All’ (with X-rated ragga artist LADY SAW) continued their run on the charts.
THE SINGLES 1992-2003 (2003) {*8}, meanwhile, deftly summed up the group’s legacy over 15 surprisingly consistent and fluid tracks, from first single `Trapped In A Box’, to the alluring 80s throwback hit cover of TALK TALK’s `It’s My Life’, and all the exuberant, craftily contemporary hits in between.
On an indefinite hiatus from NO DOUBT, and finally married to BUSH’s Gavin Rossdale (on September 14, 2002), celebrity GWEN STEFANI launched her solo career in 2004, teaming up with LINDA PERRY and a polished plethora of other collaborators. `Love.Angel.Music.Baby’ projected glamourous Gwen into the dance-pop/rock/R&B territory as she reeled of hit after hit from `What Are You Waiting For?’ and `Rich Girl’ to `Hollaback Girl’ and `Cool’; in the meantime, she played a bit-part role as icon Jean Harlow in the movie, The Aviator. STEFANI was to return in 2006 with sophomore set, `The Sweet Escape’, before motherhood set in after first child, Kingston, was born (her second son, Zuma Nesta Rock, was born in 2008).
Now happy to resume the band which made her big, NO DOUBT re-formed for reunion gigs in 2009; incidentally, Kanal had collaborated with P!NK. Three years on, the long wait for another album was over when the mature and mellower PUSH AND SHOVE (2012) {*6} bounced into the charts. Writing again with Dumont and ex, Kanal, it was clear as day the group were pandering to pop through modest hit, `Settle Down’, and others such as `Looking Hot’, `One More Summer’ and `Easy’ – not exactly ska, but still street-smart and identifiably NO DOUBT.
STEFANI would once again, after third boy (Apollo Bowie Flynn; born 2014), command a bigger audience for her enterprising solo works; she divorced Gavin a year later.
© MC Strong 1998-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Mar2016

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