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Feb 14

NO DOUBT – “Don’t Speak”

Popular59 comments • 6,492 views

#761, 22nd February 1997

Speak As with “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”, “Don’t Speak” is a rarity: an American modern rock hit that managed to duck under Britpop’s Crimplene Curtain and chart here. In the US, it dominated airplay charts for months – no surprise No Doubt’s UK label sensed a hit in waiting. And like “Breakfast”, it’s one side of a break-up conversation – but where Deep Blue Something grasped at the thinnest of straws to keep something alive, Gwen Stefani knows it’s over, and seems just to want to dodge the final blow. There’s another parallel, too: “The Winner Takes It All”, also an intra-band break up record. That’s a magnificent song, but also pure theatre: a man’s fantasy of how his ex-wife might be feeling. “Don’t Speak” – written by the jilted member – goes to messier places.

No Doubt apparently tried a few arrangements for “Don’t Speak” – from the raw to the bouncy – before settling on this slightly skewed take on the power ballad, building its drama from the now-established quiet-loud dynamics of alt-rock. Bits of other ideas poke through – ominous movie theme chords on the “it’s all ending” middle eight ratchet up the tension; the Spanish guitar solo immediately dissipates it. It’s all filling in gaps in the song’s odd, potent structure – each twee sing-song verse gets cut off sooner and sooner before the chorus, the song shutting itself up repeatedly as the situation spirals downwards into pain.

The final verse – “I can see us dying / are we?” – is pure fake-out, jumping straight back into the chorus, but this time punching through it into the brutal coda that’s the best thing about “Don’t Speak”, Stefani keening the title and eventually fading into a grieving, desperate lullaby. In between, she turns the record on its head. “I know you’re good, I know you’re good, I know you’re real good”, she sings – angry for the first time in the song, snarling the word “good” with deserved contempt for every man who ever reasoned his way through a break-up, picking words not to spare his lover, but to sustain himself as the nice guy. She was never trying to silence him to keep him – that boat has sailed, and they both know it. She just wanted to still respect him afterwards.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Tom on 15 Feb 2014 #

    Happy Valentine’s Day! In the real world, Gwen and her ex stayed friends, and according to Wikipedia “Cool” was written about their being friends. Aww.

  2. 2
    To Mewing! (@tomewing) on 15 Feb 2014 #

    Sneaking a Popular entry on a classic break-up song just under the Valentine’s Day wire. http://t.co/vTAraZ1zJh

  3. 3
    Dave on 15 Feb 2014 #

    Never occurred to me until just now how much of Ashlee Simpson is contained within that “I know you’re real good…” (of course she’d do far more with it than Stefani ever could, with No Doubt or solo, but that’s not really relevant since normally I don’t think of the two of them together).

  4. 4
    lonepilgrim on 15 Feb 2014 #

    I like Gwen Stefani’s voice and she does a good job of barely reining in her sadness and frustration in the song. The band play with a similar balance of precision and passion that can be lacking in Rock and which may explain why it works so well as Pop. I’m not sure I’d want to listen to more by the group but I like some of Stefani’s solo stuff

  5. 5
    Doctor Casino on 15 Feb 2014 #

    In the abstract, I admire this song for all the reasons given above – and running it through my head I like it quite a lot. Unfortunately, as a heavy American radio listener in those days, it’s just not conceivable for me to rate this at all – it feels endless after about the 150th listen, and this thing was just constantly on. Changing the station offered no refuge. The 7 seems right, but I have to be true to my teenage self and say 3, and also “god dammit, why won’t they play Spiderwebs instead?”

  6. 6
    Mark M on 15 Feb 2014 #

    At the time, it made me think of raspy-ballad early Madonna – Crazy For You, Live To Tell. Seven is probably about right.

  7. 7
    Chelovek na lune on 15 Feb 2014 #

    I love the rawness that breaks through into this song – both in the sung emotion and in some parts of the music. The tune is kind of cute too, with several hooks to which to cling. A kind of refreshing (and more or less timeless) breeze at the top of the charts. Just a pity that both No Doubt and Stefani’s output was very inconsistent in quality, with both gems and embarrassments to the fore. But this is among the best of them. 7 or 8.

  8. 8
    Garry on 15 Feb 2014 #

    I loved it at the time. It was one of the few American mainstream rock songs I loved.

    I hated songs by Goo Goo Dolls and their ilk – even middle-era Foo Fighters – because I couldn’t work out why you would want to smooth down electric guitars to the point of lifelessness. No Doubt here were different, the guitar a little bit raucous but not what the track is built around.

    I think it was popular because it also tells a simple truth simply. This break-up hurts. There is no convoluted euphemisms, no fantasy situations which doesn’t exist in real life. It’s an achievable, realistic emotion (not that we want to wish this on anyone). Listeners could connect to what the songs said.

    Most my favourite songs about relationships/love/sex have such simple messages. Teenage Kicks to me is the lust of a emotional-developing teen. XTC’s Ten Feet Tall describes nothing but those giddy feelings in the early weeks of a relationship. These aren’t songs about unattainable situations. Don’t Speak is the same, though at the other end of the relationship.

  9. 9
    swanstep on 15 Feb 2014 #

    The headline for 1996 had kind of been ‘the Alternative Nation finds its Debbie Harry’. No one ridiculously good-looking (except perhaps for Buckley) had emerged from the whole post-Nirvana period, and then suddenly there was Gwen – lots of alt. skater grrl signifiers but also a stone cold babe, more glamorous than most movie stars. Ultra-dramatic ‘Don’t Speak’ with its vid showing Gwen at her prettiest in her blonde flip hairdo and blue polka dot dress and the band grumpily grappling with what this might mean for them was the apotheosis of this awakening. Anyhow, I think a lot of people were picking Gwen to leave the band at this point, and it was a pleasant surprise when she revealed herself to be like Debbie Harry in another way – committed to the music, to being in a band, generally loyal, etc..

    ‘Don’t Speak”s title didn’t quite work for me at the time because the phrase had been a central (give Diane Wiest another Oscar please) gag in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, e.g., here, but with repetition the song and its vid. wore me down. Universal in theme (as Garry, 8 emphasizes), DS was a richly deserved hit all over the world (and listening to it now through headphones there’s a boatload of stuff going on in it that I’d never noticed before, e.g., the muted horn to bring us back from the guitar solo – nice):
    8

  10. 10
    Billy Hicks on 15 Feb 2014 #

    For some reason I associate this song with a huge oh-baby-baby-bunny from two years later, indicating that this was still a big radio hit well into 1999.

    I never saw this as a rock song possibly because the guitar is so buried into the background, just another excellent pop track – 7 or maybe 8 if I’m particularly feeling it, the beginning and the “Hush hush darling” extended jam at the end my fave bits. And I’m not ashamed to admit that a bit later on, in the Love Angel Music Baby era, I had a slight teenage crush on Gwen Stefani – seems odd to think that this is her only appearance on Popular, although she came close with some #2s and top 5 appearances.

  11. 11
    mapman132 on 15 Feb 2014 #

    In US chart performance this was the “Killing Me Softly” of 1997: lots and lots of airplay, no commercially released single, therefore no Hot 100 appearance, but fueled a #1 album that sold a boatload of copies. Gwen would eventually have a Hot 100 #1 in her own right with “Hollaback Girl”.

    Oddly I don’t have much to say about the song itself. It got played so much, and still does to some extent, that it seems a bit cliche. But ignoring the overexposure and just judging on its own merits I’ll give it 6/10.

  12. 12
    DanH on 15 Feb 2014 #

    Yes….I was blissfully unaware of most music in early 1997 (self-contained Beatles bubble), but couldn’t escape this one. As Mapman said, due to Billboard rules, it couldn’t chart in the Hot 100, and the charts look downright wrong without it. Not surprised at all that it made it big in the U.K. Song itself is allright, I just wore out of it after all these years.

    @5: Oh man I don’t know if I ever heard “Spiderwebs” since 1996, but I do recall hearing that a lot that year.

  13. 13
    MikeMCSG on 15 Feb 2014 #

    A long overdue chance to be positive. With the partial exception of “Three Lions” which palled through over-exposure this was the first number one since “Sleeping Satellite” that I was really keen on. It was all the more surprising coming from a band who’d hitherto shown little promise; I think it was someone in Q compared them to The Selecter.

  14. 14
    Another Pete on 15 Feb 2014 #

    I remember the UK media making something out of the fact that though an American band, they had British connections like Garbage. Though compared to Shirley Manson the fact the bassist Tony Kanal was born and spent his early childhood in London and that Gwen Stefani was dating Gavin Rossdale of Bush they were seemingly clutching at straws at trying to squeeze them into the Britpop bracket.

  15. 15
    Izzy on 15 Feb 2014 #

    This is up with Baby D for best no.1 of the 90s. It’s perfect in every way – great tune, engaging story and backstory, neat production choices (check out the size of that snare!) and that gorgeous coda which still gives me shivers. A clear (10).

  16. 16
    thefatgit on 15 Feb 2014 #

    The simple intro evokes “Breakfast In America”, and then Gwen comes in sounding almost like Madonna. That’s when I knew “Don’t Speak” was something special. There’s nothing here that doesn’t fit; the spikes of punky guitar, the horn into Spanish guitar, the bass and drums further down in the mix, unlike Blondie with Clem Burke and Nigel Harrison providing the punchy rhythms that Debbie Harry soared over. Gwen Stefani is given space for her voice to flourish. As the song builds, the emotion builds but stops short of turning into an alt-power ballad. It’s a balance that appeals to this pair of ears, which is why “Spiderwebs” doesn’t work as well for me, because Gwen is battling against all that punky sludge.

    I feel sorry for the US commenters here, because it seems this song has suffered from over-exposure. I got an inkling at the time (the video was on heavy repeat on MTV), but it didn’t matter. This was beautiful. Gwen was captivating. I wanted more, so I bought “Tragic Kingdom”, but stopped short of going in two-footed into Ska-Punk. “Just A Girl” is probably more indicative of what No Doubt were about as a band, but “Don’t Speak” is definitely a highlight from 1997. Easily a 9.

  17. 17
    Kat but logged out innit on 15 Feb 2014 #

    I couldn’t bear this for many reasons: a) Gwen’s nasal voice, b) the song was too slow c) it went on for ages d) they repeated the same TOTP performance with her foliage-covered mic stand for MONTHS even when it stopped being #1 e) the chords were too difficult for me to play on the guitar f) my metaller mates liked it and I couldn’t understand why and I desperately wanted to impress them, but was too stubborn to admit that they knew more about music than I did.

    But then I heard “Just A Girl” (thanks to said mates, of course) and it all made sense. And so did “Sixteen” and “Spiderwebs” and “Sunday Morning” and “Different People” and most of that album (“The Climb” is kind of awful vocally and musically but I LOVED it at the time). The lyrics on most of Tragic Kingdom feel pretty clunky now, but I have to admit that at the time You’re only sixteen with a lot to say / but they won’t give you the time of day felt like it was written for me.

    I never managed to click with “Don’t Speak” though! Something about the multi-track vocals just really grate on me. And it’s still too long.

  18. 18
    leveret on 15 Feb 2014 #

    For some reason, this has always sounded like a (distant?) cousin of Coming Around Again by Carly Simon to me, although having just played them back to back they’re not particularly alike! The gentle ska inflection works well here though – it’s difficult to introduce ska elements without sounding too jolly for a break-up song but this manages fine. (8)

  19. 19
    Baztech. on 15 Feb 2014 #

    Ahhhh Gwen, this song has some good points, maybe slightly too melodramatic for me, I’ll give it a 6.

    But it was at school that some of her hits laid an impression on me. “What You Waiting For?” has remained one of my favourite pop songs ever, it was just the catchiest thing ever – almost too much for a 16 year old boy to handle. Pure nostalgias effects of course.

    Never really had a crush on her though…

  20. 20
    flahr on 15 Feb 2014 #

    Rock on! I hadn’t actually noticed this was a break-up song before, even though it obviously is, so, er, whoops. Anyway, it would be a great [8] even without the guy in the Madness t-shirt and the whoppingly incongruous Spanish guitar break (as permanently inexplicable as the sax solo in “Walk Into The Sun” by The March Violets).

  21. 21
    Alfred on 15 Feb 2014 #

    The blanket U.S. airplay for “Don’t Speak,” Tracy Chapman’s “Gimme One Reason,” and the last couple of Jagged Little Pill singles felt like a rebuke. Boring the song into my medulla didn’t warm me to Stefani’s squeaky pipes. With the exception of a couple of solo hits, Stefani is one of the most inexplicable pop stars of the last twenty years.

  22. 22
    Ido Alon (@alonido) on 15 Feb 2014 #

    “I know you’re real real good”

    http://t.co/9hhoiVqOzZ

  23. 23
    Kinitawowi on 15 Feb 2014 #

    #13 and #14: the main trivia most British types know about No Doubt is that they started out as a Madness cover band – as I understand it, Don’t Speak is quite a way into their lifetime. Their Madness connections mean that they probably also act as the breakout of that curiously American concept of Third Wave Ska (see also the Mighty Mighty Bosstones et al).

    I dunno, man. I have the same problem with this as I do Spiderwebs (another one of theirs I absolutely loved – for a short while) and, a few weeks ago, Beetlebum; that coda sounds interesting for a little while but when you’ve spent the last few years playing plastic instrument video games you can’t help wondering if and when it’s going to JUST END ALREADY. Then there’s the ubiquitous video, which retold the story of the relationship breakup as the band themselves imploding under the weight of Gwen Stefani’s promotion; autobiographical for sure, but somehow a neutering of the deeper story – retelling the personal split might have meant more than the professional one, although that might understandably have been too raw to screen.

    5, I think. The subsequent Just A Girl probably scores a couple more points for its appearance in my Fave Film Evar a couple of Popular months later.

  24. 24
    AMZ1981 on 15 Feb 2014 #

    I remember chart watchers breathed a collective sigh of relief when this song finally held down the top spot for a second week after the revolving door of one week wonders that started the year. When it notched up a third (and only a major release prevented it from becoming the first four weeker since the summer) we thought early 1997 was just a blip … at the time.

    Three very contrasting records would have got to number one if not for Don’t Speak. Week one was I Shot The Sherrif by Warren G (his last hit of significance) and week three was Kula Shaker’s cover of Hush. Between the two Sash hit the runner up spot for what would not be the last time …

  25. 25
    iconoclast on 15 Feb 2014 #

    There’s very little actually wrong with this record: it’s a proper song, produced with plenty of dynamic variation and a sense of development, the Spanish guitar solo is unexpected and effective, and the organ in the chorus is nice too. The thing is, it just leaves me resolutely unmoved; it’s easy to admire for the care taken over it, but I find it difficult to actually *like*. A high SIX.

  26. 26
    Billy Hicks on 15 Feb 2014 #

    24 – Just simply reading the word ‘Sash’ makes me break out into a grin. This is where it all begins for him, he’d go on to have five (five!!) #2 hits without ever reaching #1, plus all bar one of his other releases going top 10 – the most recent in 2008 although that’s a somewhat confusing credit that should technically read ‘Kindervater feat. Molly Smitten-Downes’ – the DJ and the vocalist – but by simply using a sample from a Sash song it got credited to Sash alone.

    All five of his #2s – including Encore Une Fois which lost out here – would have been deserving chart toppers, summer ’97’s ‘Ecuador’ perhaps my fave. Perhaps the cruellest miss was in 2000, in a year of almost entirely one-week #1s they choose a quiet week to release ‘Adelante’ only for the #1 from the previous week to hold on at the top.

  27. 27
    Elmtree on 16 Feb 2014 #

    Well, it doesn’t sound a lot like ska, and the double-tracked vocals get a bit syrupy, but there’s a lot of brilliant production and writing decisions here. It’s varied without seeming to shift moods too much, it builds in ways that don’t seem pointless, and like Tom said the fake-out verse means they can get straight back to the chorus without having to dream up some extra lyrics. No Doubt have always sounded to me like a band who deserved to have more great songs than they’ve actually created (maybe they didn’t have the determination to write great lyrics like Madness did?), but this time they nailed it. Eight, verging on nine.

  28. 28
    Kinitawowi on 16 Feb 2014 #

    #26: My Sash! favourite was always the stunning Mysterious Times, although Ecuador runs it a good second. The cruellest notion was his countryman André Tanneberger besting him in the charts (bunny bunny bunny) primarily by virtue of savvier timing…

    Also, I quite liked Kula Shaker’s take on Hush. A dangerous thing to admit in a Deep Purple worshipping house, but… come at me, bros.

  29. 29
    mapman132 on 16 Feb 2014 #

    Re: Sash! Never heard any of his records (until “Encore Un Fois” just now) but I was aware of his horribly bad luck in attempting to top the UK chart. Didn’t several of his #2’s ultimately outsell the records that blocked them from the top? Having a long-standing affinity for perpetual bridesmaids, I’ve decided I’m going to listen to each of the five at the appropriate point and figure out which I like best. Starting with “Encore Un Fois”: not bad, mildly interesting video, but not a standout for me either. Just good enough that I’m looking forward to hearing the others.

    BTW, the US equivalent of Sash! would be Creedence Clearwater Revival: five #2’s with no #1’s. Still, a very different chart (and chart climate), a less singles-oriented genre, and at least they achieved two #1 albums on the Billboard 200. Heck, they even got an entry on this forum.

  30. 30
    mapman132 on 16 Feb 2014 #

    #28 Embarrassed to admit that I thought “Hush” was only a Kula Shaker song for a long time. A good song in either version though.

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