Mad Love: When Linda Ronstadt Rode The New Wave

Mad Love: When Linda Ronstadt Rode The New Wave

linda ronstadt mad love
Linda Ronstadt, 1980 (Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As we mentioned some months back, Linda Ronstadt is the subject of a highly anticipated new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. With the film about to hit Australian streaming services, ILYOS looks back at an ofttimes overlooked period of Ronstadt’s career, when she discovered the songs of Elvis Costello and briefly rode the new wave.

Linda Ronstadt was - is – an icon of 70s California. And as an artist, she's been long associated with West Coast Country rockers like the Eagles and JD Souther, and singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon; artists she was close to personally and whose songs she frequently recorded. Indeed the members of the Eagles originally came together as Linda’s backing band and became the Eagles with her encouragement. She’d even sung backing vocals on Gram Parson’s classic Return of the Grievous Angel album, together with her friend Emmylou Harris. 

While she later became known for unexpected career moves – albums with Frank Sinatra’s legendary arranger and bandleader Nelson Riddle, and collections of traditional Mexican material – Ronstadt first took a left turn in 1980, with the Mad Love album. The album featured backing from Los Angeles new wavers the Durocs, as well as material drawn from their still-recent debut album. Most importantly it featured three songs from Elvis Costello – an Angry Young Man from across the pond. Mad Love suggested that Ronstadt was willing to try something new, and even get her hair cut short! It was a somewhat controversial move, but it paid off: the album debuted at #5 on the Billboard album chart, a first for any female artist.


linda ronstadt
(Photo by Jim Shea/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

It wasn’t the first time that Ronstadt had covered Costello though. Her previous album, 1978’s #1 Living In The USA had contained a cover of “Alison”, from Costello’s 1977 debut album My Aim Is True. It had fit seamlessly alongside covers of Zevon, Souther and Little Feat. If Ronstadt’s fans were happy enough for her to cover that English guy with the Buddy Holly glasses and skinny crooked legs, Costello himself wasn’t. He was critical of the cover, and his vocal animosity assumedly ensured that his fanbase – which by now included most rock critics - wasn’t having a bar of it either. Which meant Mad Love was never going to get a fair go either. 

Which was a shame, and somewhat shameful. And in October of this year, nearly 40 years since the album was released, Costello - by now, of course, an elder in transatlantic singer-songwriting circles - admitted as much. He began an essay he wrote about Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice thusly: "In very different times, my reaction to having my songs recorded by other singers was downright suspicious, territorial and, at times even a little hostile. To say the least, I lacked grace.”

The reason why Ronstadt chose to record Costello’s material is in hindsight apparent. If it were merely a matter of bandwagon jumping, she clearly wouldn’t have chosen the subsequent paths that she did. Indeed Costello now attests to her “artistic curiosity and daring”. Put simply, the Costello songs she recorded were fine songs, and they suited her. Costello, as a writer, was clearly influenced by the country-rock scene from which Ronstadt had appeared. “Alison” was a laid-back and heartfelt country-rock ballad even when Costello first recorded it; Ronstadt’s cover on Living In The USA was reasonably faithful. And “Girls Talk”, a song which Costello had given to Dave Edmunds to record – Ronstadt’s cover was based on Edmunds’ version - was a great pop-rock song which Edmunds had given a pumped up Everly Brothers feel. Indeed Edmunds, as well as his frequent musical partner of the time, Nick Lowe (who was also Costello’s producer) both had a background in country. Edmunds had worked with Emmylou Harris’ guitarist Albert Lee, and Lowe, who had been a mainstay of prolific country-rock pub-rockers Brinsley Schwarz, was, in fact, Johnny Cash’s step son-in-law at the time! Indeed Costello himself was only a few years out of a London Pub Rock band called Flip City whose repertoire included the likes of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” and the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Third Rate Romance”. 1981, Costello would go pure country with Almost Blue.  

Four decades on, Linda Ronstadt’s album sounds fresh and vibrant. The Costello songs work a treat. The hit single from the album, “How Do I Make You?”, is a catchy slice of gutsy power pop with pub rock roots. Let’s have a listen to some highlights, including the Costello tunes, interspersed with Costello’s originals. 


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