20 reasons No Doubt’s ‘Tragic Kingdom’ is actually pretty goddamn great
Kevin Weatherly, director of programming at Los Angeles radio station KROQ, was introduced to No Doubt in the early ‘90s. Already in a period of transition following several line-up changes, Weatherly was not impressed by the band’s self-titled debut album. At the time he was quoted as saying that, “it would take an act of God to get this band played on the radio.” Only a few years later No Doubt would become one of the hottest commodities in the pop/rock Venn diagram, selling over 16 million copies of their breakthrough LP Tragic Kingdom – a record which merged sounds from the burgeoning LA ska scene with slick pop hooks and a bristling rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
This month marks 20 years since the release of Tragic Kingdom – a record which two decades on and way removed from an era in which ska was both cool and commercially viable, is considered by many to be, well, a little naff. But sometimes its worth revisiting a record to remember just why and how it struck a chord the first time around. Here’s 20 good reasons why Tragic Kingdom is worth unearthing or, better yet, discovering anew.
1. It was never just The Gwen Stefani Show
Given that she went on to become a bonafide megastar many people now see Gwen Stefani and No Doubt as one and the same – but did you know that she was not even the original lead singer? Stefani was actually the third in line to take the role, following the tragic suicide of original vocalist John Spence and the eventual departure of replacement Alan Meade. Up to that point Stefani was a backing vocalist, all of 17 years old when she first joined that band. And while she would go on to become an integral part No Doubt, the players surrounding her have always been hugely capable forces in their own right. This is especially evident listening to Tragic Kingdom, an album on which guitarist Tom Dumont definitely swaggers through Joe Strummer power chords and B-52’s surf-rock snarl with ease and bassist Tony Kanal imprints his bouncy, interminable style. And then there is Adrian Young.
2. Adrian Young is one of the most underrated drummers ever
While Gwen may have been positioned as the figurehead of the band, its heart and soul lies in perennial weirdo and tub-thumper Adrian Young. He rolls into most of these songs with all the subtlety of a swinging hammer and all of the precision of a metronome. Whatever the rest of the band is throwing at him, he powers on – tearing through ‘Excuse Me Mr’ without so much as breaking a sweat. While the title track throws in some rhythmic curve-balls that he more or less blows off as nothing. It’s almost mesmerising how much he puts into the drumming on this record – which, of course, begins with ‘Spiderwebs’.
3. ‘Spiderwebs’ is one of the best album openers of the late ‘90s
That snare roll! Those triumphant horns! That ‘80s metal guitar squeal throughout the verse riff! That all-encompassing, world-conquering chorus! What better song could sum up both the mission statement of the band’s next phase and introduce the album in one fell swoop?
4. Tragic Kingdom has three indisputable pop classics
You can argue over the varying qualities of the non-single tracks on offer here (AKA the other seven out of the 14 on offer – seriously, half the album was singles.) There are three core tracks, however, that have stood the test of time: ‘Don’t Speak’, ‘Just A Girl’, ‘Sunday Morning’. They remain touchstones of the evolution of pop music in the ’90s; as well as anthems to a particular jilted generation.
5. ‘Just a Girl’ was the post riot-grrrl anthem the mainstream needed
Many young girls growing up in the mid-to-late ‘90s weren’t exposed to seminal riot grrrl acts like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney and Heavens to Betsy. And just before the decade spiralled into Pepsi-endorsed Girl Power slogans, Gwen Stefani arrived like some kind of high-kicking Manga cartoon hero, spitting out lines like “this world is forcing me to hold your hand”. That she emerged from the dude-heavy Cali punk and ska scene made this all the more potent. Plus ‘Just A Girl’ would go on to soundtrack two of the ‘90s best proto-feminist films, Cluesless and Romy and Michelle’s Highschool Reunion.
6. ‘Don’t Speak’ still holds up as a great pop ballad song
From its layers of percussion to its swelling strings ‘Don’t Speak’ was the biggest sonic departure that No Doubt had ever made up to this point in their career. It would also end up being the biggest song of their career, spending a ridiculous 16 weeks (read: over a quarter of a year) at #1 in America. Its unmistakable opening minor-chord picking sets the scene for one of Stefani’s most vulnerable and tender vocal performances to date. The hurt she so famously sang of (the recent breakdown of her romantic relationship with bassist Tony Kanal ) made the performance of this song all the more affecting.
7. It’s a perfect (and literal) break-up record
For roughly eight years Tony Kanal and Gwen Stefani were in a romantic relationship, splitting just before they recorded Tragic Kingdom. And while they had always kept it out of the public eye the whole thing would be unfurled on their breakthrough record. In a manner fitting of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, each would write about the demise of their romance knowing full well the other would see it, read it and feel it. It’s coldly and explicitly laid out on tracks like ‘End It on This’ and ‘Happy Now?,’ as well as their first ever chart-topper ‘Tragic Kingdom’.
8. ‘Sunday Morning’ is a brilliant song
It doesn’t so much come in with the breeze as it hurtles toward you, a rumble of snare, high-end bass and upstroke guitars. No other song in the band’s oeuvre ever managed to compromise the band’s ska past with their pop-rock future the way that ‘Sunday Morning’ did. A track that never stands still, never hides its true emotion and showcases the exceptional talents of the core quartet.
9. Gwen’s brother was the band’s secret weapon
Remember wondering who the “other guy” on the cover of the album was? It’s actually Gwen’s older brother Eric, a founding member of the band who wrote many of No Doubt’s early songs. Although he had left the band a year before the record came out – eventually going on to work as an animator on The Simpsons – his fingerprints are all over Tragic Kingdom. Along with co-writes on three songs, Eric wrote ‘The Climb’ and the title track, all while adding in Jerry Dammers-esque organ, some key piano parts and, of course, that synth solo on ‘Just a Girl.’ Which you now probably have stuck in your head.
10. Horns were cool, okay?
You can take the band out of ska, but you can’t take the ska out of the band. Trumpeter Phil Jordan was the last horn-playing member of the band to leave the fold, but he makes his final appearance one that counts; leading the fray along with a slew of studio players (two of which would go on to tour with the band full-time) to make their presence felt in moments like ‘World Go ‘Round’ and the half-time intro to ‘Spiderwebs.’
11. They made six videos for the album – and they’re all most excellent
Back when music videos were a thing we watched No Doubt go through a food fight (‘Sunday Morning’), rocking a house party (‘Just a Girl’) and watching a glammed-up Gwen get all of the attention (‘Don’t Speak’). There are also a couple of lesser-known clips from the Tragic Kingdom era – check out the clip for ‘Excuse Me Mr’. which features Gwen in one of the most straightforward visual metaphors you could ask for: Getting tied to the train tracks, waiting for her hero, realising he’s never coming and then untying herself before the train approaches.
12. It remains the most diverse and genre-defiant album in the No Doubt canon
Flamenco solos! Cello! Sitar! There’s even some steel drums in there. That’s not even touching the elements of pop, rock, punk, ska, reggae and funk that worm their way into the album’s hour-long runtime. No Doubt had clearly made an executive decision to not be held down by any sort of genre rules, and it makes for a great snapshot of the mid-‘90s when genres blurred like no time before or after.
13. It wasn’t just slapped together over night
Writing and recording for Tragic Kingdom dates as far back as 1993, with the band being overlooked by ,Interscope, their label at the time, due to the failure of their self-titled album. Even after bringing in co-writers themselves, they still reportedly rejected over half of what the band had written.
14. It took over a year for anyone to give a shit
The band may have finally gotten the album finished and released in October of 1995, but it didn’t even end up in the top 100 albums chart until around five months later. The band also spent most of 1996 doing promotional campaigns like playing in-store at a Blockbuster Video, appearing on a high-school news program and even experimenting with this weird thing called the internet. Who’d have ever thought that a “virtual in-store” could be a thing?
15. They ended up getting three years of life out of it
No Doubt expected to be on the promotional trail of Tragic Kingdom for maybe two months. They ended up releasing the seventh and final single in February 1998 (nearly three years after the album came out), as well as wrapping up their world tour in support of the record a matter of months beforehand in Argentina. The album hit #1 in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and – yes, eventually – the US. It might have been a long road there and a long road to follow, but Tragic Kingdom encompassed nearly five years of the band’s timeline and cemented them as megastars.
16. This live video from their Tragic Kingdom VHS (VHS!)
Not sure those outfits have dated quite so well though…
17. Gwen Stefani was the voice we needed so badly
With Tragic Kingdom, Stefani was swiftly catapulted to role model status. She was brash, defiant and subversive of pop starlet norms. Equal parts tomboy and strikingly feminine, Stefani felt no need to compromise her image or change for anyone except herself. And tiny glimpses of future Superstar Gwen are all over this record.
18. It’s the sound of a band being reborn
No Doubt came incredibly close to breaking up many times in the near-decade leading up to the release of Tragic Kingdom. If it wasn’t Spence’s death, it was Eric Stefani losing creative control. If it wasn’t Eric’s departure, it was the blowout from Gwen and Tony’s split. If it wasn’t their split, it was the tension rising from the pressure put on the band by their label against the odds, the band made an album that wasn’t supposed to fit in – and never should have – and yet found themselves at the top of the food chain.
19. The impact of Tragic Kingdom is still being felt today
2013 saw the release of Paramore’s self-titled album; a similarly-stacked genre-hopper that essentially rebooted a band specifically known for one style and saw them branch out into previously-untouched territory. The fact that the band had indeed opened for No Doubt in the past – and the fact that Hayley Williams has spoken openly about how Stefani empowered her – is unquestionably a factor of the album’s creation and, perhaps to stretch even further, the album’s phenomenal success. Others, such as popstars Katy Perry and Selena Gomez, have sung the praises of Gwen as a role model; having grown up with her voice ringing in their ears. Naturally, Tragic Kingdom is where that began.
20. They might finally tour Australia again, one day
So it’s probably good to refamilairise yourself with the record just in case.