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No Doubt at 30: the twists, turns and tragedy behind their debut

No Doubt at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards
(Image credit: Getty)

Given their legacy as one of the most beloved alternative acts to have come out of the 90s, the initial formation of No Doubt was a relatively unspectacular one. Formed in 1987 in Anaheim, the band were hatched by three colleagues working at the local Dairy Queen together: ska-obsessed sibling duo Eric and Gwen Stefani, and John Spence, a black punk rocker who adored Bad Brains. John would front the band, Eric would handle keys and, after some convincing from her big bro, Gwen would do backup vocals. 

"Eric was the really talented and overly hyper older brother who was always pounding on the piano, and I was the lazy girl watching The Brady Bunch," Gwen would later tell Interview Magazine. "I wasn’t doing anything, and he would say, “Come in here and sing with me!” 

Amassing a small army of local musicians packing guitars, bass, drums and brass instruments, No Doubt began playing local gigs, John's animated, HR-indebted performances quickly becoming a focal point. By the end of the year the band, playing a dizzying mixture of ska, punk and two-tone, were starting to turn heads, and a planned show at LA's famous Roxy Theatre in December of that year was being earmarked as a chance to win over a bunch of industry heavyweights and land a record deal.

Tragically, that lineup of the band would never make it to the show. Days before the Roxy gig was due to take place, Spence took his own life. For a time, at least, the very idea of No Doubt continuing seemed impossible.

“[John] was the inspiration for the whole band,” Eric told People magazine in May 1997. “I guess I didn’t really know him,” Gwen would note. “He was hurting so badly that he couldn’t talk to anyone about it.” 

After a few weeks, No Doubt decided to regroup - initially with local vocalist Alan Meade but, eventually, with Gwen herself fronting the band. More gigs followed in and around LA, the Californians' chaotic shows and cartoonish, ska-influenced racket setting them apart in a scene that was caught halfway between the dying last hurrahs of glam metal and the burgeoning grunge movement.  

In 1990, their big moment finally came - a deal with newly formed label Interscope and a roadmap to releasing their debut full-length album. By this point, the core of the band had been solidified, comprised of the Stefanis, guitarist Tom Dumont, bassist Tony Kanal and drummer Adrian Young. Their self-titled debut would land on March 17 1992 - a fun if messy collection of upbeat, ska, pop and funk-infused jams.

Despite the hype building around No Doubt, the album underperformed, not helped by an industry still largely uninterested in ska music and a lead single, `Trapped In A Box, that struggled to get radio play. The band even self-financed a spectacularly low-budget video for the track, shot at the 'Beacon Street House', the home where the Stefanis' father had grown up, and where various members of the band had ended up living.

"That video was completely no budget," Gwen later told Stereogum. "We invited a bunch of fans to come and be in the video...they were fans, but at the time we were playing for our peers, so they were all our age."

If not a total failure, it was fair to say that No Doubt's first stab at the big-time was far from a success, and a band that once looked poised for big things once again faced an uncertain future. Of course, we all know what happened next. The Cali crew would regroup, go DIY to record 1995 follow-up The Beacon Street Collection and shift over 100,000 copies. While Eric would leave the band by the time The Beacon Street Collection was released, embarking on a new career as an animator for The Simpsons, their momentum only got hotter. Soon, Tragic Kingdom would arrive and make them one of the biggest rock bands on the planet.

Merlin Alderslade
Merlin Alderslade

Merlin stepped into his role as Executive Editor of Louder in early 2022, following over ten years working at Metal Hammer. While there, he served as Online Editor and Deputy Editor, before being promoted to Editor in 2016. Before joining Metal Hammer, Merlin worked as Associate Editor at Terrorizer Magazine and has previously written for the likes of Classic Rock, Rock Sound, eFestivals and others. Across his career he has interviewed legends including Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Metallica, Iron Maiden (including getting a trip on Ed Force One courtesy of Bruce Dickinson), Guns N' Roses, KISS, Slipknot, System Of A Down and Meat Loaf. He is also probably responsible for 90% of all nu metal-related content making it onto the site.