No Doubt could do it all, and that was the problem.
It began playing ska under the influence of “2-Tone,” the British movement incorporating complementary tones of punk and Jamaican ska music.
But by 1991, when No Doubt landed a record deal after more than four years of striving, the music issuing from the Anaheim tract house that served as its headquarters could have been be described as 5-Tone or 6-Tone.
Punk, yes. Ska, definitely--but also reggae and other Caribbean rhythms. Bassist Tony Kanal and drummer Adrian Young loved to lay down funky grooves, and Tom Dumont clung to the heavy-metal guitar riffs he’d grown up playing.
Keyboard player Eric Stefani had a soft spot for old-time cabaret music and Dixieland; and the adjunct horn section blew in a strong gust of big-band brass. As the singer, Gwen Stefani’s job was to role-play in her thin, but theatrically adept voice.
One typically breezy song on “No Doubt,” the band’s 1992 debut, was about gorging on all sorts of gastronomic goodies. It might have been a metaphor for what was going on musically. The album had the pep and good spirits that defined the band, but no real focus.
It didn’t help that Gwen, as singer, was only an occasional lyricist. Eric was the main creative cog, and his younger sister had to adapt to sometimes whimsical notions--such as the fear of dentistry in “Ache"--that were his, not hers.
When “No Doubt” didn’t sell, the band embarked on a long, frustrating process of refining its sound--and having its work vetoed by its label, Interscope.
Worried that too much time was passing between releases, the band got permission for an unusual move: It would put out some of the rejected material on its own label and sell it only to its existing fan base in Southern California and a few other pockets of support West of the Rockies. “The Beacon Street Collection” had attractive elements, but again it wasn’t a grabber.
With “Tragic Kingdom,” released in October 1995, something clicked. Collectively, the band members had learned to write pop hooks abundant and memorable enough to make the stylistic overlapping seem natural, not stitched together.
The production emphasized tunefulness, with Beatles-inspired touches and thickened harmony vocals in which Gwen sang layered backup parts behind her own lead.
The magic of unshakable melody completed a package that had always included sharp musicianship and a leading lady with
star-caliber allure. The album also found a lyrical focus, as Gwen sang about various stages in the endgame of her long, unraveled romance with Kanal.
A fun-house video for “Just a Girl"--Gwen had the idea of setting it in adjoining men’s and women’s lavatories--sparked No Doubt’s rise, and the well-wrought, if conventional, heartache ballad “Don’t Speak” helped the band cross over from a modern-rock success to an across-the-boards pop phenomenon.
Most rock critics found “Tragic Kingdom” contrived and lightweight. No Doubt’s members shrugged and, without making excessive claims, calmly defended their work.
“When I see criticism of us, a lot seems to be the kind where people see a pretty blond girl and can’t think there’s anything of any depth there,” Dumont said. “I think that’s a bias. "[The album] is a snapshot of a suburban female in the ‘90s,” Dumont said. “There are a lot of honest, heartfelt things she’s singing about.”
After more than a half-decade of Nirvana-sparked anguish in rock, pundits perhaps were unprepared for the masses embracing a band founded on exuberant good times.
“No Doubt is never going to be about making a statement,” Gwen Stefani said. “It’s going to be about putting on a show where people have fun.”
Still, she argued, the lightheartedness of the No Doubt package shouldn’t disguise the genuine feeling in the songs.
“The words reflect my life exactly,” she said. “If somebody tells me my lyrics have no depth and meaning, they mean my life has no depth and meaning. I have to stick up for myself.”
THE OFFSPRING “Smash” Epitaph, 1994
Three easy steps to making the world’s biggest-selling indie-label rock album:
1. Get yourself a teacher.
Before making their first album in 1989, the Offspring hunted up Thom Wilson, producer of the their favorite early ‘80s home-grown punk albums.
“There were a lot of things we didn’t know,” bassist Greg Kriesel said. “He taught me I’m supposed to be playing with the kick drum, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, really?’ We wrote a lot of songs with [guitar] leads, and he’d say, ‘That takes away from the power of the song to have a lot of little noodling going on.”’ Making that point in the studio, Wilson called Offspring guitarist Kevin Wasserman “Noodles,” a nickname that stuck.
2. Grow some vegetables.
Wilson harped on the importance of “keeping the carrot in front of the donkey; the donkey being the listener, and the carrot being whatever you have at the moment to keep the donkey’s interest.”
The Offspring harvested some tasty morsels on the second album, “Ignition.” But with “Smash,” carrots sprouted everywhere, and the band used them to entice listeners through the entire hard-charging album.
Slamming, sardonic punk songs yielded occasionally to slower tempos, ska rhythm and a meld of funky syncopation and Middle Eastern surf-guitar music, as in the band’s career-making hit, “Come Out and Play.’
The Offspring issued determined cries against conformist pressures, snotty put-downs of mindless violence and jaundiced assessments of what authority had wrought. The occasional dopey cuss word was thrown in as a reminder that, after all, it was only a punk record.
“A lot of punk’s like that, contradictory,” Holland said. “You try to come off saying something important, and then you [expletive] it all up by being dumb. Punk bands traditionally write really bad lyrics, so if I write one that’s not too terrific, I don’t feel too bad. We’re in good company.”
3. Know when to tell your guru to stuff it.
Wilson lobbied to rework the bass line of “Self Esteem.” Holland and Kriesel wouldn’t budge. “He felt it was boring. He said it made him feel like going out and ordering a pizza,” Holland recalled.
The song, unchanged, became the follow-up hit to “Come Out and Play,” propelling “Smash” toward eventual worldwide sales of 11 million.
THE OFFSPRING “Ixnay on the Hombre” Columbia, 1997
Success can be a stumbling block or a stepladder. For the Offspring, making a sequel to “Smash” meant overcoming business distractions and internal mind games.
It had been a fairy-tale ascent for the “tinny little punk band from O.C.,” as guitarist Noodles had described the Offspring just as “Smash” took off. And it had been a wonderful ride for Epitaph, which had just 10 employees when the Offspring metamorphosed from punklings to golden geese. But trust between the band and its label boss, Brett Gurewitz, vanished along the way, and the Offspring jumped to a major label, Columbia, for its follow-up.
Another tug of war played out in songwriter Holland’s head. Should the band sail with the hit-oriented current of modern rock, or seek refuge in old punk ports by making a defiantly noncommercial record?
“You have thoughts like, ‘If we try to make good songs, we’re perceived as sellouts. If we make songs that aren’t commercial hits, we’re perceived as trying deliberately to get our credibility back,’ ” Holland said. “The hard part was to do the record as if nothing ever happened before.”
The answer, in “Ixnay,” was that the Offspring was a wide-ranging hard-rock band equally able to pledge punk allegiance or reach for the sweeping scale and melodic allure associated with arena-rock royalty.
The band’s first big recording budget (with producer Dave Jerden guiding the sessions after the Offspring and Thom Wilson decided it was time for a change) yielded a hefty, more elaborately arranged sound. Holland’s voice had grown stronger, more piercing, and the music written at his customary songwriter’s work bench--driving down the freeways at the wheel of his 1979 Toyota pickup truck--was catchier than ever.
There were enough goodies to match “Smash,” it seemed, but the marketplace had changed. No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom” was at No. 1 when “Ixnay” debuted at No. 9 on the charts in February 1997.
Punk no longer was the cool new thing for a mass audience that had grown more fickle than in previous rock eras, and was now looking for lighter, upbeat music. The Offspring sold some 3 million worldwide--quite a cooling off from “Smash,” but not too awful for stars who shunned glamour, satisfied to live normal lives in their customary O.C. haunts.
The latest Offspring release, “Americana,” arrived late in 1998 and debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard pop albums chart.
SUBLIME “Sublime” Gasoline Allley/MCA, 1996
Bradley Nowell was the most talented figure to come out of the Orange County-Long Beach alterna-rock scene, but also the most prone to self-sabotage.
In the end, Nowell self-destructed for good, dying at 28 of a heroin overdose two months before the release of “Sublime,” one of the strongest multiple-platinum pop albums of the 1990s.
Nowell’s end came alone in a San Francisco hotel room, but his self-undermining tendencies were played out in public the year before on two prominent alternative-rock festival stages.
Capping the “Board in O.C.” festival in May 1995, Nowell delivered a disjointed, if fascinating, set and pointedly refused to play “Date Rape,” the novelty hit that had propelled Sublime from a solid local draw to a national contender.
“You’re higher than I am if you think you’re gonna hear that [expletive],” he told audience members who shouted for the song.
The next month, playing an even bigger gig at the annual KROQ Weenie Roast at Irvine Meadows, Nowell led Sublime through a chaotic, listless performance. Ingratiating themselves to the masses didn’t seem to be on the trio’s agenda.
It didn’t have to be. In the end, ingratiating or not, Sublime was too good to ignore.
The three members grew up in the Belmont Shore neighborhood of Long Beach. Punk and reggae were Nowell’s formative influences. The band began in 1988, and by its 1992 album debut, “40oz to Freedom,” singer-guitarist Nowell, bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Floyd “Bud” Gaugh were weaving diverse stylistic strands--punk, blues, surf, folk, rap, ska, and, above all, slow, trenchant reggae rhythms--into a cohesive, organic whole.
Nowell’s voice, steeped in the reggae styles of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, held it together. It was soulful, uncontrived, palpably emotional. Or, as a grieving Gwen Stefani put it a few days after Nowell’s death, “His voice is like candy to your ears.” The singers had traded duets on No Doubt’s “Total Hate ’95" and Sublime’s “Saw Red.”
Nowell also was an excellent guitarist, able to cry like Hendrix or zoom like his punk heroes, and his bandmates complemented him with supple, whiplash drumming and deep, rumbling bass.
His ear for melody was unerring, whether writing his own hooks or lifting somebody else’s: The verse section of “What I Got,” the breakthrough hit from “Sublime,” echoes the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.”
Above all, Nowell dealt honestly with a welter of feelings. Songs such as “Santeria” could be threatening one moment, pleading the next. He captured a gritty street life populated by flawed, emotionally fraught characters whipped by their impulses or seeking balance.
Songs were his vehicle for grappling publicly with his addiction. Some tracks on “40oz” were lighthearted about overindulgence, but the Sublime catalog has many memorable, wrenching songs in which addicts discover too late the dearness of the freedom they’ve sacrificed.
Nowell’s death made them all the more poignant and haunting: “I know I’m weak, won’t somebody get me off of this reef,” he sings in “Badfish,” from “40oz.” Or in “Pool Shark,” from “Robbin’ the Hood,” Sublime’s uneven, experimental, second album: “I’d take it away, but I want more and more/One day I’m gonna lose the war.”
“We all tried to steer Brad the right way, but that [expletive] just takes a good person over,” said Michael “Miguel” Happoldt, the unofficial fourth member of Sublime, who produced the band’s first two albums and headed Skunk Records, the grass-roots label it founded. “I want people to remember him [not just as] a junkie musician, but for all the dimensions of the guy, because he was a true diamond.”
Happoldt spoke a few days after Nowell’s death in May 1996. “Sublime” soon came out to critical applause and mass-market acceptance. Brad Nowell didn’t seem to want to shine like a diamond in his biggest concert opportunities while living, but nothing could undermine the recordings that will long outlive him.