Linda Ronstadt started the 1980s trying to figure out new wave. Kinda.
As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, Linda Ronstadt was, hands down, the queen of American pop/rock.
She was on a string of six consecutive platinum albums (then a record for a woman), three of which had hit #1 on Billboard’s album chart. (The other three made the top six.) In the last five years of the decade, Ronstadt appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone five times: three times solo, once with Peter Asher and James Taylor, and once with Steve Martin and Gilda Radner. And over the same span, she had 11 singles make the top 40, with six of those going top 10, including the 1975 #1 “You’re No Good.”
Interviewer: “Do you care for punk music at all?”
Ronstadt: “Well, I like the new wave stuff … .”
Peter Herbst, “Linda Ronstadt: The Rolling Stone Interview,” RS 276, Oct. 19, 1978
Let’s be clear: Ronstadt’s 1980 album Mad Love is not a new wave album. But it is the album on which she dabbled in the genre, and tried to reckon with it. Not only did she cover a trio of Elvis Costello songs on the album (she’d already taken on “Alison” for 1978’s Living in the USA), Ronstadt sang a further three from L.A. power-pop band the Cretones: the album’s title track, “Cost of Love,” and “Justine.” All three of those were written by the band’s lead singer and guitarist, Mark Goldenberg, who also ended up playing electric guitar on eight of Mad Love’s ten tracks. (Fun fact: Goldenberg would go on to pen “Automatic” for the Pointer Sisters.)
Interestingly, one of the new wave-iest tracks on the album isn’t from either Costello or Goldenberg, but from a then-fresh songwriter, Billy Steinberg, who would eventually be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011, and whose credits include the likes of “Like A Virgin,” “True Colors,” “Eternal Flame,” “Alone,” and “So Emotional,” to name just five Hot 100 chart-toppers — none of them remotely new wave. But “How Do I Make You” is a fast, guitar-driven number, which Ronstadt rips her way through (and to which Goldenberg adds a quick ‘n dirty guitar solo). Originally written for Steinberg’s band Billy Thermal, in their hands “How Do I Make You” sounds more like The Knack; Ronstadt (and producer Peter Asher and engineer/mixer Val Garay — and that may be the key) punches it up and cranks up the attitude, taking it almost in a Blondie direction.
I cite Garay specifically because, at the tail end of 1980 and into the start of early ‘81, he’d produce a single that perfectly synthesized new wave and L.A. studio rock. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: Kim Carnes’ smash “Bette Davis Eyes,” Billboard’s #1 single of 1981, and 1982’s Grammy winner for Record of the Year. Carnes’ country-tinged rock on much of the rest of parent album Mistaken Identity definitely owes a debt to Ronstadt — and on her previous album, 1980’s Romance Dance (released mere months after Mad Love), Carnes even covered a Smokey Robinson song, “More Love,” just as Ronstadt had done with 1978’s “Ooh Baby Baby.” (Both Miracles covers made the pop top 10, too.)
All that said, that’s not all there is to Mad Love. The album’s biggest single hit, a cover of the 1965 Little Anthony & the Imperials song “Hurt So Bad,” made it to #8 on the Hot 100, and features a gorgeous, aching performance from Ronstadt, highlighted by a stinging Danny Kortchmar guitar solo. She also covers the Hollies’ 1966 single “I Can’t Let Go” (#2 UK/#44 US) to great effect — I love the way the backing vocals are arranged. These, along with a version of Neil Young’s “Look Out for My Love,” serve to balance (some would suggest bet-hedging) the new wave energy of much of the rest of the album. I find the mixed-up nature of the record — and the fact that it went against the quasi-formula of her last couple of albums — gives it a real energy, a live-wire-ness missing from the likes of Living in the USA and Simple Dreams.
Mad Love is actually my favorite Ronstadt album, and I’d bet if you go back and spin it again (or for the first time), you may be surprised how much you like it, too. She’d never rock like this again.