No Doubt, formed in 1994, released their most successful international single, ‘Don’t Speak’, 20 years ago today on 15th April 1996.
Written by lead vocalist Gwen Stefani and her brother Eric Stefani, ‘Don’t Speak’ details the breakup of a seven year relationship between Stefani and No Doubt’s bassist Tony Kanal. Upon release, ‘Don’t Speak’ reached No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay for 16 weeks, and secured a place at No.1 in Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. At the 1998 Grammy Awards, ‘Don’t Speak’ was nominated for Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Band with Vocals.
The track is slightly different from the ska-pop genre No Doubt had established themselves in: it’s essentially a melodic love song, simple but sweet. The lyrics themselves aren’t exceptional, but the band’s guitarist Tom Dumont said, “the vibes were there, the chorus was almost exactly perfect.” It originally came to be more of an upbeat track, but after the break up of Stefani and Kanal, it turned sad. Verses were rewritten, bringing us the track that we now know. Stefani softly croons, “I really feel that I’m losing my best friend / I can’t believe that this could be the end,” over a gentle piano melody. Even when joined with the band’s full instrumentation, there’s something understated and melancholic about ‘Don’t Speak’. It’s a song of denial, with Stefani singing out the denial stage of the breakup: the bit where you would rather not hear that it is ending. As the song progresses, present is more of the angst we look for in Stefani, as she defiantly sings “don’t tell me ‘cos it hurts” and repeats its title.
Accompanying the track is a video that flits between No Doubt performing on stage and vignettes of the band, framed by its opening in a Garden of Eden style, almost technicolour, setting. The soft grainy focus of the video is perfectly 90s, and interlaced with darker shadowy sequences that mirror the melancholic tone of the track.
‘Don’t Speak’ featured on No Doubt’s third studio album Tragic Kingdom, and left a bad taste in the band’s fanbase. Kerrang! responded with “mere words cannot describe how abysmally gutless and sugar-smothered it is”, with overt disdain for the band’s melodic change to a crooning love song. Luckily the track had more success elsewhere, and is still secured as an important 90s breakup track today.