The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Linda Ronstadt – “You’re No Good”

HIT #1: February 15, 1975

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. In the ’70s, the baby boomers were growing up, getting married, having kids, and missing their younger days. Looking back on ’70s pop culture, there’s a ton of evidence of the time that boomers spent mourning their collective youth, flashing back fondly on ’50s and early ’60s rock ‘n’ roll. It’s there in Happy Days, in American Graffiti, in Grease. And it’s all over the pop charts. But all these things are not created equal, and nostalgia, in itself, does not necessarily mean a complete lack of new ideas. It just seems to work out that way more often than not.

Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” was the sixth #1 single of 1975, and it was the third #1 single that was a cover of a ’60s nugget. By the time Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” made it onto the pop charts, the song was 12 years old. And yet there’s still a stark difference between Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” and the Carpenters’ version of “Please Mr. Postman,” another song from that same era. The Carpenters, who topped the charts a few weeks before Ronstadt, took a past #1, a song that everyone knew, and played it for naked nostalgia, adding nothing of worth to it. Ronstadt did something different. She seized upon a minor hit, shook it up, twisted around, and made it sound like it belonged to her. That’s quite a trick.

“You’re No Good” came from the Brill Building pop era, the time when New York songwriting professionals were regularly cranking out smart and polished pieces of R&B. It came from Clint Ballard, Jr., the man who later wrote British invaders Wayne Fontana And The Mindbenders’ #1 hit “The Game Of Love.” Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister and Whitney Houston’s first cousin, recorded the original version, and the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller produced it. Dee Dee Warwick kept releasing singles through the ’60s and into the ’70s, but none of them ever made the top 40, and she never had anything like her sister’s success. A few of those songs went on to become much bigger hits in other singers’ hands, and “You’re No Good” was one of those. (Warwick died in 2008, and the 2018 documentary Whitney was built around allegations that Dee Dee had molested both Whitney Houston and her brother Gary when they were children.)

Dee Dee Warwick’s version of “You’re No Good,” which missed the Hot 100 entirely, was a classic piece of early-’60s songcraft, with a big stomping quasi-Latin beat and a brassily bluesy lead vocal. Later in 1963, Betty Everett made it to #51 with a slower, flirtier version of the song. And a year later, the Swinging Blue Jeans, the Merseybeat band, got to #3 in the UK and #97 in the US with their own gender-flipped “You’re No Good.” So the song had already passed through a few hands and sustained a few different interpretations when Linda Ronstadt recorded her version.

The same year that the Swinging Blue Jeans recorded their cover, Ronstadt arrived in Los Angeles. She’d come from Tucson, the daughter of a hardware store owner with deep Arizona roots, and she’d dropped out of college during her freshman year to make music. She started out singing for a folk-rock trio called the Stone Poneys, and they made it to #13 with their 1967 single “Different Drum,” written by Monkee Michael Nesmith. The Stone Poneys broke up in 1968, and Ronstadt went solo, singing a warm and inviting form of country-rock that was honestly more country than rock. She mostly sang new interpretations of old songs, and country radio took to her before pop radio did.

Even before she started scoring hits, Ronstadt was a big part of the laid-back Lauren Canyon scene of the ’70s. She and James Taylor sang backup on Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold,” and the Eagles, who will soon show up in this column, were her backing band for a while. Things fully fell into place for Ronstadt when she started recording with producer and manager Peter Asher, who’d already produced a bunch of records for James Taylor, including the #1 hit “You’ve Got A Friend.” Asher had been half of the UK duo Peter & Gordon, and they’d scored a #1 hit of their own with 1964’s Paul McCartney-written “A World Without Love.” When Peter & Gordon broke up in 1968, Asher became the A&R manager for the Beatles’ Apple label, which explains the James Taylor connection. He and Ronstadt clicked right away. Starting with the 1974 album Heart Like A Wheel, Asher became Ronstadt’s regular producer, working with her into the ’90s.

Heart Like A Wheel, Ronstadt’s fifth solo album, turned out to be her breakthrough. Part of this was timing. Ronstadt, a ridiculously beautiful woman, was dating Jerry Brown, the young politician who’d been elected governor of California in 1974 — the same month, as it happened, that Heart Like A Wheel came out. (That’s the same Jerry Brown who just finished another term as governor this past January, and the same Jerry Brown who the Dead Kennedys imagined as a hippie fascist dictator on “California Uber Alles.”) A certain level of popular fascination came along with that. (Later on, after breaking up with Brown, Ronstadt also dated a pre-fame Jim Carrey and spent a few years engaged to George Lucas. We should all have dating histories as fascinating as that.) But Heart Like A Wheel was also where Ronstadt fully figured out her sound, a tough-to-pin-down combination of country and folk and rock and soul. Ronstadt didn’t sound like she was pulling off self-conscious stunts when she combined these sounds. Instead, she’d fully internalized all of them. From her, they sounded natural.

Ronstadt had been playing “You’re No Good” live for a while when she recorded it. Her bassist, the former Stone Poney Kenny Edwards, had suggested the song. She needed a rousing closer for her ballad-heavy set, especially when she was opening for Neil Young, and the song did the trick. She even played the song on a 1973 episode of The Midnight Special. It was a last-second choice for inclusion on Heart Like A Wheel, but it became the first track and the lead single.

Ronstadt and Asher tried recording the song a couple of times. The first time, Asher brought in a combination of country and R&B musicians, including the drummer Fred White, from Earth, Wind & Fire, a band that will appear in this column later. (Fun fact: Fred White’s brother Maurice, the frontman of Earth, Wind & Fire, played drums on Betty Everett’s 1963 version of “You’re No Good.”) But that first version didn’t work; Asher and Ronstadt later said that it was too fast, too R&B, and Ronstadt wasn’t as comfortable singing to it. So a few days later, Asher put together a different version, piecing it together in the studio, with the multi-instrumentalist and future solo artist Andrew Gold playing a bunch of different parts. (Andrew Gold’s highest-charting song is 1977’s “Lonely Boy,” which peaked at #7. It’s a 6.) That second version was slower and sweatier. It might’ve been a studio assembly, but it sounded like a live track. And its humid, assured groove fit Ronstadt’s voice nicely.

Ronstadt’s take on “You’re No Good” isn’t hugely different from any of the versions that had come out a decade earlier. The substance of the song is the same. It’s a snarl at a recent ex, an accusation: “I learned my lesson, it left a scar / Now I see how you really are.” But the narrator also admits that she’s not always been all good herself: “I broke a heart that’s gentle and true / Well, I broke a heart over someone like you.” That’s classic early-’60s songwriting economy, a whole character and situation sketched out in a couple of lines. And Ronstadt’s voice — huge, expressive, confidently twangy — sells that song and turns it into a quasi-country lament.

The arrangement is bluesy, built on predatory organ-purr and needling guitars. Ronstadt and her backup singers don’t do too much to update it. But they stretch it out, and there’s a great breakdown toward the end. The organs and guitars fade out and come back, returning with tense strings and muted stomp-claps and an icy little riff. Honestly, I wish more of the song sounded like the fadeout. But the whole thing works.

There’s nothing revolutionary about “You’re No Good.” It’s just a good song, delivered with a good vocal and a good arrangement. It sounds more like an actual mid-’70s jam than like some lost and hopeless mid-’70s attempt to evoke a bygone era. It’s not essential, but it’s pleasant, breezy fun. The song would turn out to be Ronstadt’s only #1 hit, though she’d come close a few more times. But that California country-rock wave was really only beginning. We’ll see a whole lot more of it in this space.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Van Halen, a band that will eventually appear in this column, included a beautifully goofy cover of “You’re No Good” on their 1979 album Van Halen II. Here it is: