Welcome To The Tragic Kingdom: No Doubt’s Masterpiece Turns 25

PHOTO BY JEFF KRAVITZ/FILMMAGIC

The ska-pop greats’ sophomore record not only featured some of the most definitive songs of its era, but its visceral lyrics and innovative genre-bending would make a significant impact on the fabrics of pop and rock music at large

by Yasmine Shemesh

In the spring of 1995, uncertainty hung heavy in the Southern California air for No Doubt, a spirited band of misfits from the Anaheim suburbs. Their bouncy, brassy 1992 self-titled debut had been ignored and their label, Interscope Records, didn’t really know what to do with them other than pass them to producer Matthew Wilder, of “Break My Stride” fame, for guidance. Eric Stefani, who co-founded the band in 1986 with his sister, Gwen, and classmate, John Spence, was growing more disillusioned with it all every day. The main songwriter and visionary, he wasn’t much for relinquishing creative control. And for a group who found inspiration in the Jamaican ska, new wave and punk of British two-tone bands like the Selecter and Madness, the Wilder paring felt like, as Gwen told Rolling Stone in 1997, “such an invasion, at first.”

No Doubt took their frustration into their garage studio on Beacon Avenue and furiously recorded a sophomore effort over a weekend on their own watch. The Beacon Street Collection captured the raw energy that made the band so popular in Orange County’s ska and punk undergrounds and peers of like-minded groups such as Sublime—but, then, Eric left the band in late 1994. No Doubt self-released the album in March the following year. It was embraced more warmly than its predecessor and proved their worth to Interscope, who greenlit a studio follow-up. But without their former captain steering the ship, No Doubt was treading new water.

Stefani had already been writing songs of her own, trying make sense of the end of her eight-year relationship with the band’s bassist, Tony Kanal. Kanal and guitarist Tom Dumont picked up songwriting duties along the way, too. But it would be Stefani’s heartache and hopeful angst that would really set Tragic Kingdom on fire—and launch No Doubt into superstardom and Stefani as a pop culture luminary, first with the lead single, “Just A Girl.” With sunny, swirling opening guitar riffs and Stefani, in her signature vocal quaver, belting about feeling under the thumb of protective parents and the misogynies of society, “Just A Girl” became one of the most important feminist anthems of the decade. Tragic Kingdom, released on October 10, 1995, also earned the band a substantial number of awards including GRAMMY nominations in 1997 and 1998. Producing seven singles over three years, the album not only featured some of the most definitive songs of its era, but its visceral lyrics and innovative genre-bending would make a significant impact on the fabrics of pop and rock music at large. 25 years later, the album endures both as a confessional pop masterpiece and beloved classic that continues to resonate deeply. 

With Eric at the helm, quirkiness was a defining quality of No Doubt’s sound. Though a bit scattered, his zany compositions carved out a fearless approach the band would continue to carry after he left—which worked in their favor, since the departure made space for the artistic idiosyncrasies of the other members to shine. Dumont’s technical dexterity, for example—the result of a varied background of playing in heavy metal bands and studying classical guitar theory in college. Fan-turned-drummer Adrian Young, with his feverish yet nuanced pummel executed in the vein of Rush’s Neal Peart. Kanal, who had absorbed ’80s rock from his pre-Angeleno childhood in England, played in his high school jazz band, and found profound inspiration in Prince. And Gwen, a self-proclaimed “ska chick” who loved The Sound of Music, old Hollywood glamour and the Police. While the group retained the madcap spirit that had always made them so much fun to listen to, this version of No Doubt was more structured than ever—a cohesiveness partly in credit to Wilder, to be sure, but they found their sweet spot within each other. The band’s amalgamation of influences and individual strengths created a fresh sound that was so distinct and yet so hard to define, which is what made it—and continues to make it—so brilliant. And it set them apart from the heavy broodiness of contemporaries like NirvanaSoundgarden and Hole that then ruled the alternative mainstream.

The shift is heard immediately on “Spiderwebs,” Tragic Kingdom’s opener, which combines a new wave-tinged melody with bubbly reggae bass licks and a mosh-inducing chorus. It transitions perfectly into the rapid-fire punk of “Excuse Me Mr.,” a song about desperately vying for unrequited attention, the sonic blistering of which is similarly channeled in the angsty “Sixteen.” Then, there’s “Happy Now?,” a guitar-driven rock track detailing a certain painful breakup with acerbic lyrics like “Now you must adhere / To your new career of liberation / You’ve been cast all by yourself / You’re free at last.” Hints of horn blast throughout the album adding a brightness to songs such as “Sunday Morning”—one of the Tragic Kingdom’s best, with ska and pop elements, ascending drums and a deliciously bitter Stefani who sneers, “Now you’re the parasite.”

The consummate song about Kanal and Stefani’s relationship, of course, is “Don’t Speak.” Originally, Dumont told Complex, Eric wrote most of it. Only after working on it together as a band was it elevated to a rock ballad with Spanish guitar, with Gwen rewording the lyrics to reflect what was happening in her life. It took on even more meaning as No Doubt was blowing up and Stefani began receiving significantly more attention than her bandmates—the simmering tension of which is played up in the song’s music video. The song’s popularity—and, to a larger extent, the album’s—made it challenging to keep revisiting the breakup each time they did press, Kanal said. But, he added, “The fact that we got through all that stuff and we persevered through all that is a real testament to our friendship. I think it’s also a testament to how much the band means to us. We didn’t let it break us up as a band, and we just kept going and it made us stronger.”

Tragic Kingdom is widely considered a breakup album, and it is, but the heartbreak also extends to more than just Stefani and Kanal. The band faced so much tragedy in their formative years, starting with suicide of co-founder John Spence in 1987 when they were only a year old. Spence shared vocal duties with a then-bashful Stefani and was a charismatic frontman who did backflips on stage. Days before No Doubt were to perform at the Roxy Theatre, a gig they hoped would be their big break, he shot himself. The Roxy was announced as the devastated band’s final show. They reunited a month later because, Stefani told Interview, it’s what Spence would have wanted. The unreleased song, “Dear John,” pays tribute to their friend.

And then there was Eric’s exit. While it set No Doubt on their course, it rattled their confidence emphatically. It was traumatic, Dumont said. “We were just a group of friends who were really tight, and we had our band for years. Our band just got rocked with this intense, personal stuff.” And, Stefani admitted, it almost made them give up. “We were sitting there saying to ourselves, ‘O.K., we are 26. We’ve been doing this for eight years. Maybe we should finish up and get adult lives now.’ Then the record came out and people thought it was good, which was really weird, because we were always the dork band from Anaheim.” “The Climb,” a psychedelic slow burner that alludes to overcoming obstacles, is one of Eric’s two solo offerings to Tragic Kingdom—the other being the freaky title-track, which describes a dystopian Disneyland and Walt’s cryogenically frozen tears as dripping icicles—and has emerged as a fan-favorite over the years.

But while No Doubt’s early years may have been flooded with drama, plumbing the depths of it helped them find their voice. Collective agony cultivated the strength of their bond and dug into an honest narrative about navigating loss that is not only powerful, but universally relatable. We all experience pain. It’s an intrinsic part of the human experience. And we tend to relate to art that, even if ever so slightly, taps into our grief because it expresses it in a way that we perhaps exactly can’t. It hits a nerve. And that’s deeply comforting—which is arguably why Tragic Kingdom continues to endure in the powerful way that it does: yes, it’s poetic, gorgeously dynamic, and sounded fizzy and fresh against the band’s radio contemporaries. But it’s also a symbol of hope in the wake of tragedy.

Published October 2020 on Recording Academy / the GRAMMYs

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