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Linda Ronstadt & Collaborators Look Back on 'Mad Love' at 40

Linda Ronstadt
Jim Shea/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Linda Ronstadt circa 1980.

For all the speculation about 1980's Mad Love -- released 40 years ago in late February 1980 -- being a new wave record, it was never the intention of Linda Ronstadt or her longtime producer Peter Asher to compete with the likes of Blondie, The Cars and the legion of acts on the vanguard of pop music at the top of the new decade.

"I don't think that's how we wanted it to sound like intentionally," Ronstadt explains from her home in San Francisco. "I was just trying to find 10 or so songs to do. Back then, I was doing about an album a year, so Mad Love fell into that cycle."

"Every Linda record is the same in that we were just looking for great songs that we really liked and Linda felt that she could really sing, and then framing them in the best way we could think of," adds Asher. "In Linda's case, it's always been the songs that lead a particular movement or style on one of her records, regardless if it's a Nelson Riddle album with songs from the 1930s or Mad Love with songs from the late '70s. It's all the same for us."

For Mad Love, it meant that the new wave stylings of the record came through pure osmosis thanks to Ronstadt being introduced to material by songwriters on the bleeding edge of the burgeoning sound in 1979.

For Steinberg, who would go on to co-write such timeless '80s hits as Madonna's "Like A Virgin," Whitney Houston's "So Emotional," Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" and "Eternal Flame" by The Bangles, it was a game changer when she selected "How Do I Make You" -- an uptempo rocker that also appears on the recently reissued debut LP from Steinberg's band Billy Thermal -- for Mad Love.

"My guitarist Craig Hull, his girlfriend at the time was Wendy Waldman," recalls Steinberg. "This was back when Wendy was singing background vocals for Linda Ronstadt. So without telling me, Wendy and Craig played my Billy Thermal demos to Linda, and Linda really took to 'How Do I Make You' and decided she wanted to record it. It was the first song I ever got on another artist's record. That tune launched my career. Then, shortly after Linda recorded it, Billy Thermal got signed to Richard Perry's Planet Records."

Guitarist Mark Goldenberg had just gotten off the road with Al Stewart on his Year of the Cat tour and was offered the chance to record with the opening act, who happened to be Wendy Waldman.

"It was pretty weird how she found me," says Goldenberg, who not only plays guitar on most of Mad Love but also saw Ronstadt choose three of his songs to sing in "Justine," "Cost of Love" and the opening title cut. "Wendy had asked me to join her band and record her album Strange Company with her. And during the making of that album, I started hanging out with her bass player Peter Bernstein and Steve Beers, her drummer. So once we wrapped Strange Company, the three of us started The Cretones, and we got a regular gig at a sandwich shop near USC on Friday nights. So Peter Bernstein, his girlfriend was Linda Ronstadt's dog walker named Marilyn, and she got a cassette of our tunes and gave it to Linda, and then she came to see us play at the Starwood in Hollywood. Then after that I get a phone call from someone in Peter Asher's office telling me that Linda Ronstadt would like to record some of my songs and asked if that was okay. So that's how it happened. If there were no dogs, there'd be no story (laughs)."

"I remember really liking his music, especially 'Mad Love,' which was occurring in my life at the time," Ronstadt laughs. "Then Wendy and my bass player Kenny Edwards -- who were once in a band together in the '60s called Bryndle -- were taking me to see The Cretones perform the songs I heard on the demo."

For Goldenberg, whose Knacks-esque guitar pop helped drive much of Mad Love's direction, seeing Ronstadt choose his song as the title track was an unexpected bonus.

"I was a very surprised and lucky guy," Goldenberg laughs. "It was certainly hard for me to get up to the microphone and sing those songs after her versions. The whole experience of working with her was amazing. We cut those songs in fairly rapid order. Previous incarnations of her studio band featured a lot of overdubbed guitar and it was very produced, and I think Peter and Linda wanted to do something a little more immediate and more direction with just good live playing. And the stuff that we recorded -- those vocals were live vocals. She didn't go back later to do any overdubs; she largely sang it while I played guitar next to her."

But perhaps the biggest elephant in the room with regards to the new wave presence that hung above Mad Love was that of one Elvis Costello, freshly basking in the adulation of music critics thanks to the success of his breakout 1979 album Armed Forces with the Attractions. Costello landed in Ronstadt's periphery thanks to guitarist Danny Kortchmar, whose scorching guitar solo on the sultry version of Little Anthony and the Imperials' "Hurt So Bad" the singer herself tells Billboard was "the best guitar solo he ever played on one of my records." ("Hurt So Bad" became one of two top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hits on Mad Love, along with "How Do I Make You.")

"I was at Tower Records when I saw the cassette for My Aim Is True with this skinny motherfucker on the cover and thought it looked interesting," explains Kortchmar, who also played guitar on albums by James Taylor, Harry Nilsson, Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne, whose hit "Somebody's Baby" was written by the guitarist nicknamed Kootch. "So I bought the tape, stuck it in my car. I wound up listening to it over and over again. At one point I wound up in Peter Asher's office telling him how amazing this guy was and how he should check him out. Two weeks later, he calls me back and says, 'Elvis is doing a concert at Hollywood High, and I bought tickets for all of us.' So we all went, including Linda, and I think that's when she realized what a great cat Elvis Costello was and how much he had to offer, so we wound up doing some of his tunes."

"I remember that Hollywood High show well," recalls Ronstadt's longtime drummer Russ Kunkel. "This was a defining moment for us as players going into this concert. We had all this success with everything that happened with Linda and James Taylor prior to that. But the winds were changing and this new wave thing was happening, so we went and saw this show and we were exposed to some really interesting new stuff. And I think that was the moment when we all felt like, 'OK, we gotta take a little pivot here and move in this direction.' I think the Mad Love album was exactly what came out of that."

Sadly, however, Costello at the time was not as enthused as Steinberg and Goldenberg about having a commercial artist like Linda Ronstadt covering his songs, which began when she tackled "Alison" on 1978's Living In The USA. For Mad Love, she doubled down on her appreciation for Elvis and took on three of his tunes in "Party Girl," "Talking In The Dark" and "Girls Talk," which was a single the previous year for Dave Edmunds and would also appear on Costello's Get Happy!!, which was released around the same time as Love. In recent years however, his viewpoint has evolved considerably, culminating in a mea culpa he posted on his website shortly after a screening of the acclaimed Linda Ronstadt documentary The Sound of My Voice.

"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," admits Costello in the post. "To say the least, I lacked grace. Five years ago, shortly before an encore performance of 'Alison,' I told the audience at the Hollywood Bowl, that it was Linda Ronstadt's rendition of that song -- which was featured on her big hit album Living In The USA -- that kept petrol in our tour bus at a time when we were sharing double bill with everyone from Talking Heads to Eddie Money for a $1.99¢ ticket. Linda Ronstadt and I have never met, so the stage seemed the next best place for such an acknowledgement."

"I understood exactly where he was coming from and why it had bothered him," Ronstadt tells Billboard. "If you do something and then you see someone else doing it, you think like they are taking away part of your identity. It's a sensitive reaction; I've done it myself. And I took it for what it was back then. But I love Elvis. He writes like an old-fashioned songwriter. His songs are so beautifully tragic and they have a lot of meaning behind them. He's a gentleman, and he's got a great heart."

"I was actually talking to Elvis about this recently," adds Asher. "Because he actually re-apologized for some of the weird things he said at the time on his site, and he was concerned if it would've bothered Linda and me, but it didn't. When he was critical of our versions of his songs, it was part of his persona at the time. But in the end it came down to 'Party Girl,' 'Girls Talk' and 'Talking In The Dark' all being great songs and she and I together came up with the best possible way to do them justice."

One final, and perhaps most crucial, element in the neon residue that impacts the perception of Mad Love is the keyboard work of Little Feat's Bill Payne, who had entered these album sessions hot off the heels of his work on Robert Palmer's underrated 1978 LP Double Fun, just one of several Palmer albums that featured members of Little Feat in their creation. And no doubt Payne brought a little bit of that wizard dust with him for these tunes as well, though the influences on his performance throughout Mad Love were not as directly inspired by the likes of Steve Nieve and Benmont Tench as much as the film music he was hearing at the time.

"I wasn't really listening for that kind of stuff at the time," Payne explains of his connection to new wave music back then. "But you couldn't avoid it, especially as a keyboard player. The European synthesizer music I was hearing in movies at the time by artists like Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre played a bigger role inspirationally than new wave. I would hear sounds and then try to replicate them. But then again, I had been playing around on synthesizers myself for a long time before that in Little Feat. I've always been very conscious about how what I'm doing will fit into the sound of the project and what was surrounding me."

Ultimately, what it came down to was the same thing that characterized every Linda Ronstadt album on the market: the shots called by the singer herself. And for Mad Love, it was simply an instance of pop music's next evolution naturally imbuing the tunes that tickled her ear.

"The thing that Linda always had was this uncanny ability to pick songs from the great songwriters, whether it was Lowell George, JD Souther, Jimmy Webb or Elvis Costello," proclaims Kunkel. "Her strength was her ability to choose great songs. And even though Mad Love gets its tag as being her foray into new wave, she really only kept true to her roots. Because when you consider the songs by The Hollies, Neil Young and Little Anthony and the Imperials songs on here as well, it was simply a collection of songs from great songwriters."

And as a final word, be forewarned of what you might hear from Kootch if you dare mention Debbie Harry in the same sentence as Linda Ronstadt: "Linda is so monumentally important in terms of American music and the progress thereof throughout her entire career. As a musician, I have to tell you there's no f--king way in the world that Debbie Harry had the power and emotion and intensity Linda had. There's no comparison. Debbie Harry is a pop star and that's great; she's good at that. Ronstadt is one of the greatest singers who ever f--king lived, man. She will kill you in a minute. Debbie Harry has nothing on Linda Ronstadt. There's no one like her."