Over the years we have witnessed the evolution of many a band and many an artist, not only in their sound but also their style; originally one of the ska favourites of the 90s, No Doubt are certainly no exception to that metamorphosis. The world fell in love with their multi-platinum selling album Tragic Kingdom in 1995, but I’m not turning the clock that far back; today I’m going back to 2001 to look at their Grammy nominated fifth studio album Rock Steady, an album that surpassed the sales of its predecessor Return of Saturn, making it the group’s more commercially successful comeback era. Rock Steady would see the group endeavour deeper into the pop, reggae and dancehall genres, as well as retaining their ska influence; why was this album so iconically enjoyable?
Whilst Tragic Kingdom focused on the break up between lead singer Gwen Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal, Rock Steady delved into Stefani’s marriage with Bush’s lead singer Gavin Rossdale; once again ND get close and personal, it’s rare sometimes for fans to have a glimpse into the personal lives of their heroes. Lyrically the album doesn’t stray too far from the group’s already angst-ridden back catalogue, but there are some notable ups with the downs and highs with the lows; sonically we are looking at an entirely different piece of musical work, the amount of instruments played during the recording of a No Doubt album had lessened considerably for this record, in their place we have synths and keyboard effects which took the group into an unknown yet interesting territory. Visually the group have evolved also, Rock Steady saw the fashionista in Gwen emerge to the fullest and their music videos became even more exciting and fun; Sophie Muller worked on the vibrant video for Underneath It All, she also worked on their most recent video for Settle Down (among many others) and returned for Gwen’s latest solo video for Baby Don’t Lie.
Gwen Stefani’s excessive vibrato has been extinguished, in the albums prior we were accustomed to hearing incredible vocal acrobatics exploding from the singer’s mouth; in its place we have this sweet, luscious and polished quality to her pipes and it suited Rock Steady. The hella fine Hella Good is still a great stand out track today, when Stefani performed the track with her fellow judges on The Voice US this year (coincidentally, Pharrell’s group The Neptunes have a writing credit), the song still didn’t feel dated. Hey Baby saw the group explore more into the world of catchy hooks and collaborations, Bounty Killer’s contribution really brought the track’s reggae/dancehall influence home, it’s possibly the hardest No Doubt track to get out of your head. A little history lesson, Gwen’s relationship with Gavin used to be long-distance, so a lot of the anxiety experienced by her is expressed throughout Rock Steady; the track Making Out lyrically pans out Stefani’s eagerness to be with him.
A fun fact about this record was that the number one single Underneath It All was written in a mere ten minutes, and the line “you’re really lovely, underneath it all” was derived from one of Gwen’s diary entries written about…you guessed it, Gavin. I know what you must be thinking; “Why didn’t Gwen just go solo earlier so she could release her own songs about her relationships?”. Considering how her solo stuff and No Doubt’s music both appear to be on two completely different planets, I personally think she saved the best lyrics and concepts for her work with the band. Mistrust was painted successfully over the boppy Detective, and Don’t Let Me Down reminded us little by little that some of the rock band in No Doubt still remained. Guitaritst Tom Dumont commented that most of the group’s time in Jamaica was spent “swimming and getting sunburned and drinking and smoking and recording a little music”, perhaps some of this fun was captured within the reggae spiced Start The Fire.
Their most underrated and undersold single to date was Running, the track has its perks with some more of Gwen’s laid back and girlier tones; In My Head gave Stefani a chance to lay down the law in regards to her marriage with Rossdale, its instrumentation gave the sense of the inner torment she had been experiencing at the time. The world still speculates about Stefani’s “insecurities” in her marriage today, but the two have started a family since the release of Rock Steady, as have the other members, and the group’s most recent 2012 album Push and Shove seemed much more positive as a result. Platinum Blonde Life was described by the group as being influenced by The Cars, lead singer/guitarist Ric Ocasek is credited as a producer on the track as well as Don’t Let Me Down. Interestingly, music legend Prince worked on the track Waiting Room with the group, it was intended for the album Return of Saturn; the vocal harmonies entwined in the instrumental mess was genius. Title-track Rock Steady wrapped up the album perfectly, its laid back take on love closed the chapter before the group would release their singles collection and go on a hiatus, the line “a real love survives” stays with you.
Many a traditional ND fan would argue that Rock Steady simply doesn’t consist of the group’s best work, I’m talking about fans who have been around since their 1992 self-titled effort, but if you were to look back at this album on a more commercial level it contained their highest charting singles since Don’t Speak, and it also remains the group’s highest selling album since Tragic Kingdom. The group worked relentlessly with various producers and collaborators to make the overall sound they intended for the album come to life; names include The Neptunes, Ric Ocasek, Mark Stent, Nellee Hooper, William Orbit, Prince, Sly & Robbie, Steely & Cleevie and Philip Steir. The album had also set a benchmark for pop music of the early 2000’s, as the decades change so do the eras of music, No Doubt had the talent and inspiration to move on from their signature ska/punk influence to crack the mainstream code. Soon after, Gwen Stefani would become a revolutionary pop artist as a solo act, but that’s a different story for a future Record Rewind perhaps.
I remember being told that when I was little I would sing along to Don’t Speak, I also remember Ex-Girlfriend being the first No Doubt music video that struck me; but when I listen to No Doubt’s albums today, Rock Steady leaves the more significant impact as I think of it song by song and not just by its singles. The group have made a successful transition from ska/punk to mainstream, and some of the reggae influences that flourished in Rock Steady could be heard in Push and Shove, so the impact of the album’s sound has gone as deep as the structure of the group’s future work. No Doubt remained a trendsetting group with Rock Steady and weren’t afraid to drop most of theirinstruments to create something generically awesome; 13 years on and it still leaves a mark.