Happy birthday to Linda Ronstadt’s New Wave album Mad Love, released 40 years ago, in March 1980. It’s the weirdest oddity in her catalog, with three Elvis Costello covers. Mad Love is forgotten by time, written out of her official history. Not even Linda has a kind word for this album. In the acclaimed 2019 documentary, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice — which treats every one of her career moves as a stroke of brilliance — Mad Love doesn’t get mentioned much. But for some of us, it’s one of her career highlights — her answer to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, as the princess of Seventies-L.A. mellow pivoted to leather jackets and skinny ties.
“It would be silly for me to dye my hair pink and start pogoing,” Linda told Rolling Stone at the time. But she was leaving her Seventies image behind. “If everybody’s eating granola this year, then everybody’s going to be eating syntho-food next year.” She was tired of playing America’s hippie sweetheart, all bare feet and Cub Scout shirts. She wanted to dance to the beat of a different drum. Most of all, she wanted to sing a bunch of Elvis Costello songs. Many people were horrified. Elvis was one of them. “They are like sheer torture,” he declared when he heard Mad Love. “Dreadful. A total waste of vinyl.”
Mad Love was not a commercial success, to say the least, ending her reign on the pop charts. Costello, in a 1989 Musician interview, took the blame. “There’s the curse of Costello to consider when you look at Linda. One moment she was the biggest-selling female singer in America. The next thing she’s in opera. Record four of my songs — that’s enough to finish anybody’s career!” Elvis even wondered if he was responsible for Ronstadt quitting rock & roll. “Now she’s singing Mexican songs; she knows I can’t write in Spanish.”
Many big-name rock stars were desperate for New Wave cred in 1980: from the J. Geils Band, who had everyone’s favorite record that spring with Love Stinks, to Billy Joel, who scored a Number One hit (“It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me”) by complaining about Devo fans. Even the most mainstream dinosaurs wanted to jump on the bandwagon. But Linda really took it to extremes. “Weird Al” Yankovic summed it up in “It’s Still Billy Joel to Me”: “Now everybody thinks the New Wave is super/Just ask Linda Ronstadt or even Alice Cooper/It’s a big hit, isn’t it, even if it’s a piece of junk/It’s still Billy Joel to me.”
Note: Billy Joel’s New Wave rip was darn catchy. But Alice Cooper’s was bloody brilliant, with the Gary Numan knockoff “Clones (We’re All”) from his underrated Flush the Fashion.
Up until Mad Love, Linda and producer Peter Asher had the trustiest formula in the biz, churning out slick oldies remakes. Your typical Linda hit was a song that somebody else had made a hit 15 or 20 years earlier. These days, her artistic reputation rests on her interpretations of writers like Lowell George or J.D. Souther or Anna McGarrigle, but those were deep cuts buried on her albums. Her actual hits were oldies from Smokey Robinson, Martha and the Vandellas, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Holland/Dozier/Holland, or Doris Troy. (Strange but true: Not one of these people is mentioned in The Sound of My Voice.)
Linda’s remakes were often nice, but antiseptic, and even she got bored. Mad Love burned her bridges to the L.A. mellow mafia — no songs by Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, Eric Kaz, any of those dudes. No Eagles were involved. Instead, she sang three tunes by L.A. power-pop unknowns the Cretones, the homeless man’s Knack; three by Costello; a Knack rip by Billy Steinberg, who’d go on to co-write Eighties classics like “Eternal Flame” and “Like a Virgin” but at this point just aspired to top “My Sharona.” She did Neil Young’s great “Look Out for My Love,” from Comes a Time (out-Trans-ing him two years before Trans), and to hedge her commercial bets, the shoddier-than-usual oldies cover “Hurt So Bad.” She also did a bang-up job on Edie Sands’ 1965 NYC girl-group classic “I Can’t Let Go.”
Costello’s response was famously bitchy, but Linda seemed to enjoy boasting about how much he hated her. After she sang “Alison,” she told Playboy, “He said he’d never heard it but that he’d be glad to get the money. So I sent him a message. ‘Send me some more songs, just keep thinking about the money.’ And he sent me the song ‘Talking in the Dark,’ which has not been released here, and I love it. I also recorded ‘Party Girl’ and ‘Girls Talk.’”
But sadly, neither Elvis nor Linda squeezed much loot out of Mad Love. “How Do I Make You,” the faux-Blondie lead single, stalled at Number 10. It was one thing to sing Costello’s songs, but another to copy his haircut. The album became a dollar-bin staple; in the Eighties, they wouldn’t let you walk out of a record store without making you take a copy of Mad Love with you. Linda fled to the theater, spending the summer of 1980 starring in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
But New Wave kids were more open to it than her old fans were, especially since she brought more spark and wit to these Costello tunes than he did. “I like to take his songs and switch the gender around, because his gender assignments are very flexible,” she told Rolling Stone. “Talking in the Dark” is one of her best, full of neurotic lust. Her “Girls Talk” wasn’t as great as Dave Edmunds’ version, but what is? Yet “Party Girl” is the prize — she changes it to a first-person lament, claiming the sad story as her own. As in her version of Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” she skewers the male vanity at the heart of the song.
“I really loved ‘Party Girl’ in particular,” she said to Goldmine. “I’m sure to this day people have an impression of me as someone who’s sort of frivolous — ‘They say I’m nothing but a party girl.’ That song really struck me. I loved singing that song. I used to sing that song until I’d be practically hallucinating.”
Ronstadt took no offense to Elvis’ complaints. “I was very mainstream, so again, it’s that party-girl thing. People think I was frivolous, so maybe Elvis thought I was frivolous.… Hey, I would have agreed with him.” To his credit, Costello admitted he’d been a dick. “I was so snotty about Linda Ronstadt’s covers,” he said in 1989. “I was just being punky and horrible.” After seeing the documentary last fall, Costello announced he’d wept “uncontrollable tears” and praised her “artistic curiosity and daring.” He also called her “Party Girl” “a memento of my ungenerous youth.”
Mad Love was Ronstadt’s last stand as a rock star. For Get Closer in 1982, she tried reheating her 1970s sound, but it flopped. More disastrous was her decision to go to South Africa and play Sun City in May 1983, the first top-rank American rock star to do so. Fans were devastated, especially the ones who took her seriously as an artist. (In the documentary, there’s a bizarre scene where she insists, “As far as I was concerned, it was just a gig.”) She spent the rest of the Eighties trying her hand at lounge standards (What’s New), Mexican ballads (Canciones de Mi Padre), and country (Trio). Mad Love was really the one time she looked into a possible future for herself as an Eighties hitmaker and realized it wasn’t going to happen. In her memoir, Simple Dreams, the only time she mentions it is to call it “my first digital album” — you have to admit, that’s exquisite shade.
Mad Love remains a square peg in her career. Like the heroine of “Party Girl,” it’s scorned, forgotten, taken for granted as a frivolous fling. Yet it has its own devoted cult. And 40 years later, it still sounds like Linda Ronstadt at her best and boldest.