ROCK : American ska? It's Madness
Sunday 23 February 1997
The literal answer to the opening question is that No Doubt sprang from California, just down the road from Disneyland, hence the title of their breakthrough album, Tragic Kingdom (MCA). In the US, this record had the honour of knocking Bush's off the No 1 spot. But before you start patting them on the back, bear in mind that Gwen Stefani, No Doubt's peroxide pin-up, is the girlfriend of Bush's Gavin Rossdale, and that she is more or less his mirror image. Rossdale is a Londoner pretending to be from the American West, while Stefani is ... well, you can work it out. She grew up listening to Madness and the Specials, and she hasn't grown out of them. Not only did No Doubt slip in the refrain of "Ghost Town" at the London Astoria on Tuesday, but one of their two additional brass players wore a suit and a pork-pie hat. Stefani is a Kooky Girl who wants to be a Nutty Boy.
On the other hand, her purloining of British pop is by no means as outright as her beau's is of American. The reggae rhythms are there, but No Doubt's drummer - bleached spikes, bare chest - tends to pound them out three times too fast, while the guitarist plays buffed heavy-metal solos on his Flying V, and the bassist adopts the compulsory hardcore bass pose: one foot well in front of the other like a sprinter's on the starting blocks. No Doubt sound like Madness might have done if "Baggy Trousers" referred to knee-length surf shorts.
So, what do you get when you cross Californian punk with Camden ska? Sadly, a chips-and-custard combination. It's all very wacky for a band of tattooed LA moshers to bash out a Bad Manners song as a joke encore, but it's tiresome to hear a similar style of music for a whole set. And then there is Stefani. In a navel- displaying sequinned vest, she looks like Drew Barrymore with Madonna's stylist and Cyndi Lauper's window-shattering voice. Or else, given how cartoonish she seems, Penelope Pitstop with Tank Girl's clothes and Olive Oyl's shoes. And she performs like a stage-school girl auditioning for Annie. She rarely lowers her strangled-cat vibrato, or varies her frowning, lip-quivering moue. Add that to the macho metal guitar and you get one fantastically irritating band.
Still, the stage-school pizzazz translates into an exceptional live show. It's easy to understand the crowd's ecstatic response to a non-stop stream of upbeat songs, stocked with call-and-response routines, speaker-stack scaling, choreographed pogoing and bouquet throwing. Grudgingly, I'd have to admit that No Doubt are a decent US pop group, at a time when such a thing is an endangered species. As long as other American popsters are mass- producing sappy swingbeat, No Doubt's colourful tunes and entertainment ethic have a lot to be said for them. So, we're selling the Spice Girls to the US, the US are selling No Doubt to us. It's probably a fair swap.
Donovan's solo show at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Wednesday was an unexpected joy. Uniquely for an original hippy, Mr Leitch is neither a catatonic treehouse dweller, nor a stockbroker who has long since donated his caftan to Oxfam. He is still Donovan. Whichever fairyland his tousled head was in during the Sixties, it's still there. And enough time has elapsed since his initial success to let him enjoy remembering it, without being embittered by its disappearance. Heartwarmingly, one of his new songs was inspired when he listened to an album made by his 18-year-old self, and thought, "God, this kid's good!"
For the audience, the discovery that the kid is still good was even more of a revelation. He started and finished with the crowd-pleasers - "Hurdy Gurdy Man", "Mellow Yellow", "Jennifer Juniper", "Season of the Witch" - and in between times he took off his shoes, folded himself into the Lotus Position, tickled his bright green acoustic guitar, and, as clouds of incense drifted by, sang some tracks from last year's comeback album, Sutras (American). His voice is disappointingly attenuated on the record, but on Wednesday it was rich and resonant, and in much better shape than Mr Dylan's.
A twinkle-eyed pixie in a Carnaby Street shirt, Donovan was a disarming host - there were moments when his happy babbling was redolent of David Helfgott in Shine - and even if you thought he was spouting New Age nonsense, he did so with such assurance and positivity that you wouldn't have wanted to disillusion him. "The Universe Am I" ("I hear the Cosmos call ... / In the silver sadness of the moon / I read a prophet rune") was an astral projection too far; otherwise, these hymns to the Goddess seemed like gentle, unpretentious offerings, or as unpretentious as you can be while setting ancient Buddhist texts to music. Kula Shaker should have been there taking notes.
I wonder if the Longpigs really are from Sheffield. Those stirring vocal harmonies have less to do with Pulp than they have with Big Country, or one of the other flag-waving Celtrock bands that used to find their way on to Scottish lager commercials. At the London Forum on Thursday, though, the Longpigs made an effective job of justifying a more desirable comparison: they are The New Radiohead (which makes their support band, Travis, The New New Radiohead). The crashing guitar noise was suitably dramatic, and Crispin Hunt - nostrils flaring, eyes that know no midpoint between popping wide open and scrunching agonisingly shut - flung his voice up and down the treble clef, howling every word.
In fact, the four-piece's debut, The Sun is Often Out (Mother), is stronger than Radiohead's was, and there is no reason why its anthems shouldn't one day fill the stadiums for which they were intended. However, the band will continue to increase in stature only if they stop their music getting too inflated. When their epic aspirations are tempered with pop immediacy, as they are on "She Said" and "On and On", the Longpigs are sublime. When Hunt allows himself to ramble meaninglessly between songs, or allows those songs to sprawl out of his control, that's when the 'Pigs become a bore.
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