No Doubt came from the same Orange County, California scene that spawned the Offspring, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sugar Ray. But singer John Spence had ska on the brain from hearing bands like Madness and the (English) Beat on the radio. He recruited Eric Stefani on keyboards and his little sister Gwen on vocals. Bassist Tony Kanal joined after seeing the band open for the Untouchables in Long Beach. A year after forming the band, John Spence committed suicide days before a showcase gig for music industry bigwigs but, after a few days of indecision, the band decided to carry on. In the spring of 1988, guitarist Tom Dumont joined. No Doubt then built a following all over Southern California, playing everything down to backyard pizza-and-beer parties. Drummer Adrian Young joined in 1989.
Six months after signing with Interscope, the band recorded No Doubt. Eric Stefani wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, and the ambitious arrangements rely heavily on keyboards and horns. While the melodies for “Let’s Get Back” and “Get on the Ball” are commonplace, “Move On” and “A Little Something Refreshing” zip along, a little too ska for radio and a little too complex for humming along.
The Beacon Street Collection is a ska-strong 10-song collection of the group’s studio leftovers (billed as B-sides from Tragic Kingdom), which was sold at shows and later reissued by Interscope.
Tragic Kingdom was recorded in 30 months, using 11 different studios, after which Eric Stefani left to pursue a career in animation. Producer Matthew Wilder put guitarist Tom Dumont front and center while bringing up the bass and giving the drums a lot more snap, effectively turning the band from pure ska to hard rock with a ska slant. He also turned Gwen loose, unleashing her huge voice to become the band’s most discernible trademark. Three back-to-back hits — “Spiderwebs,” “Just a Girl” and the power ballad “Don’t Speak” — put the band on the radio. They could have easily added “Sixteen,” which begins with a raw explosion and settles into a rolling reggae groove, and “You Can Do It,” California soul for the end of the century.
Even with that album’s massive success, No Doubt replaced producer Wilder with Glen Ballard, who worked with the band for nearly two years on Return of Saturn. The first single, “Ex-Girlfriend,” is still ska-flavored, but the album is top-heavy with ballads like the shimmering “Simple Kind of Life” and “Dark Blue.” Despite weaker songwriting and the burden of needless gimmickry (half the songs start with sound effects), the album does contain some real gems, like “Magic’s in the Makeup.”
Rock Steady took 13 studios, nine producers and eleven months to finish, and sounds like the work of a varied cast. The Ric Ocasek-produced “Don’t Let Me Down” echoes the Cars, while “Waiting Room,” produced by Prince, sounds like the band might have skipped the session for it. “Hey Baby” and “Underneath It All” bring reggae back to the forefront. There is even a (probably unwitting) nod to the Left Banke in the baroque ballad “Running.” “Platinum Blonde Life” is a rock rave-up featuring Dumont’s double-tracked guitar. Stefani’s wild vocal antics at times resemble a petite, blonde Howlin’ Wolf channeling Yma Sumac.
The Singles 1992–2003 includes a new hit cover of Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life.”