No Doubt’s Self-Titled Debut Album Turns 20: Backtracking

Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.

We don’t need to convince you that No Doubt is still a big deal in the pop world. Only an act as beloved as this Southern California group could go more than a decade without releasing a new album and remain as popular as ever — just look to their 2009 tour, which sold out venues across North America on the strength of their catalog of hits, or the obsessive excitement surrounding their highly anticipated sixth studio album, which has been delayed for what feels like eons.

Though most people got tuned in to No Doubt with their massively successful album Tragic Kingdom, the band recorded two rarely-heard, hardly-known LPs before that — 1995’s The Beacon Street Collection, and their self-titled debut from 1992, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week. (No Doubt dropped on March 17, 1992). To mark the occasion, we’re taking a look back at the beginnings of the Orange County ska band that would soon tower over the popscape and inspire a new wave of female-fronted pop-rock bands.

No Doubt was formed in 1987 in sunny Orange County, a breeding ground for rising ska acts (among them Reel Big Fish and Sublime). At its humble beginnings, the group included an entirely different lineup from the one we’re all familiar with today: John Spence was on vocals, Eric Stefani on keyboards, and his little sister Gwen, a high-school student who grew up listening to Broadway musicals like The Sound Of Music, provided backup vocals. Here’s the band at their very first official gig at Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach, CA, on March 14, 1987 (and yes, that’s Gwen in the blonde bob and striped pants):

no doubt first show

It would all change, though, when Spence committed suicide in December 1987, briefly causing the band to split up. They soon reformed, with 18-year-old Gwen now handling lead vocals. With the added members of guitarist Tom Dumont, drummer Adrian Young and bassist Tony Kanal (who would secretly date Gwen and then see their relationship not-so-secretly played out on Tragic Kingdom), the group performed all around Orange County and Los Angeles, building up a small but loyal fan base from scratch. They recorded their debut album independently, and after a successful industry showcase, they signed with a young label named Interscope.

At Interscope’s insistence, they re-recorded their debut album, but it didn’t lead to much — No Doubt only sold 30,000 copies. One could attribute the album’s poor sales to the fact that the group’s glossy, upbeat pop may have seemed out of step with radio airwaves then teeming with grunge bands. Or one might mention the fact that Interscope barely promoted the LP and refused to finance their tour or release a single. The band was forced to pay their own way when they went on the road, and they funded the music video for “Trapped In A Box” themselves.

“Trapped In A Box”

Though the album bombed, there are quite a few standout tracks that proved the band’s hook-making prowess and exuded the sense of fun that would continue throughout their career: “Trapped In A Box”, which could have been a bigger hit with some better production and more promotion; the galloping, synth-happy number “Let’s Get Back”; the sweet and simple “Sad For Me”; and the raucous “Get On The Ball”. Watch Gwen & Co. perform the latter track to a venue full of crowd-surfing fans at their album release party in 1992:

No Doubt followed up their debut album with 1995’s The Beacon Street Collection, which was recorded in a studio they built themselves. Interscope, disillusioned with the band after the poor sales of their debut, had no involvement in the album. Their sophomore release went on to sell over 100,000 copies, which was enough to impress Interscope and influence them to finance what would become Tragic Kingdom, the band’s breakthrough hit and the one you no doubt (heh) still spin most.

It was with Tragic Kingdom and “Just A Girl” that Stefani would become both a pin-up girl and role model for women who dared to be both feminine and athletic; sensitive, but powerful. No Doubt’s success inspired and paved the way for dozens of other female-fronted rock acts to come, like Garbage, Evanescence, Gossip, Hey Monday, The Sounds and Paramore. (The latter two bands were hand-picked by No Doubt to open for them on their 2009 tour.)

No Doubt hasn’t been totally silent since releasing Rock Steady in 2001 — besides their comeback tour in 2009, Gwen released two critically praised Top 10 solo albums (2004’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and 2006’s The Sweet Escape), Tony Kanal co-wrote and produced tracks on Pink’s Funhouse, and Adrian and Tom have worked on their own side projects.

But no matter the quality of their individual musical creations, we can’t wait to finally hear what this quartet has been cooking up. Will their new tunes be every bit as delectable as the pop-perfect songs they’ve been delivering since their debut? At the risk of saying “no doubt” once again, we’ll just say, you bet.

Check out some of our other recent Backtracking features on Kylie Minogue’s Fever, Spice Girls’ Spice and Daft Punk’s Homework.