“It must be hard for him when people write, ‘How could you leave Gwen, she’s so great": Gwen Stefani wrote a whole album about her bandmate dumping her, and it made No Doubt huge

No Doubt in 1996
(Image credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

There have only been a handful of rock break-up albums but rarer still are rock break-up albums documenting a relationship split between two members of the band making the album. Obviously Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours holds the title, a record where everyone in the group was splitting up with everyone else, but a close second is No Doubt’s huge 1996 breakthrough Tragic Kingdom.

Success was not a given for Gwen Stefani & co. at the time. Their self-titled 1992 debut had sold modestly and self-released 1995 second The Beacon Street Collection did a little better, well enough that Interscope (who’d put out the band’s first record and then dropped them) wanted back in for the third. Released later in 1995, Tragic Kingdom was a giant leap forward, giving No Doubt's previously grunge-y ska-tinged sound a sophisticated pop sheen, full of earworming hooks and playful, heartaching lyricism. After the departure from the band of her brother Eric, Gwen had taken control of the lyrics, and boy did she have a lot to write about.

Bassist Tony Kanal had ended his seven-year relationship with Stefani earlier that year and inadvertently given the singer the key to the material that would make No Doubt one of the world’s biggest bands. Stefani was heartbroken, and she got it all down on the page. “When we broke up, I still forced Tony to kiss me,” she told Spin in 1996. “I was in denial. I might have lost the title of girlfriend, but in my eyes we were still together. For a year, he didn’t have to come to my house when I demanded it. He didn’t have to do anything, but when he felt like it, I was there. It was horrible.”

By the point of that interview, Tragic Kingdom was a certified massive hit, propelled by the infectious break-up ballad Don’t Speak and other songs documenting the split including Happy Now? and End It Like This. It meant Kanal had to go out every night and play songs that his ex-girlfriend had written about him. “It’s fucking surreal,” the bassist said. “Think about being onstage playing these songs. I’m opening my personal life up to all these people. But I just can’t get attached. I’ve got to separate myself from the music and lyrics.”

Guitarist Tom Dumont said that he thought the experience was starting to get a little unsettling for the bassist. “At first, it didn’t seem to get to Tony,” he recalled. “He was like, ‘For some reason it doesn’t bother me that all these songs are about me.’ Maybe he liked it. But now I think it’s starting to bother him a little. Some guy wrote an article about us saying, ‘Why is Gwen so sad? What did Tony do to her to make her write all those lyrics?’”

Well, that’ll do it. Stefani did have some sympathy for him. “It must be hard for him to take when people write, ‘How could you leave Gwen, she’s so great’,” she said, possibly tongue-in-cheek. Certainly there must have been many out there with an opinion on the situation – Tragic Kingdom went on to sell over 16 million copies. That’s a lot of people enquiring as to why you dumped your girlfriend who everyone loves.

But maybe Kanal made his peace with it – after all, he was back out there last month as No Doubt returned to action to headline Coachella, Don’t Speak appearing as one of the big set closers.

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.