. . .
When you look at the Temptations discography, it’s kinda weird, because while they were definitely trying to break away from the expectations of what a Motown act was — thanks to crazed genius producer Norman Whitfield — at the same time, they were doing albums where they were primarily backing up Diana Ross, which was basically the most Motown thing imaginable.
So right in the middle of the run of insanely great singles that started with “Cloud Nine” and concluded with “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” (or “Masterpiece,” if you want) they’re also backing Ross up on straightforward covers of things like “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “I Second That Emotion” and “The Weight,” some of which were massive, and some of which tanked.
All of which is to say that it’s kinda hard to pinpoint whether or the The Temptations had an imperial period, because not every single was going to hit the top ten, even though every year from 1964-1973 they had at least one song in the top ten, but it’s clear that, after “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today),” things got kinda hit or miss for them, singles-wise, which is why Greatest Hits came out in 1966, Greatest Hits II came out in 1970 and there wasn’t ever a Greatest Hits III.
People movin’ out, people movin’ in
Why? Because of the color of their skin
Run, run, run, but you sure can’t hide
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth
Vote for me and I’ll set you free
Rap on, brother, rap on
Well, the only person talkin’ ’bout “Love thy brother”
Is the preacher
And it seems nobody’s interested in learnin’
But the teacher
Anchored by a bass riff by Funk Brother James Jamerson that was as simple as it was it was gut-punch funky, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)” could have just gotten by on its groove and the sound of the Temptations trading off vocals, but no! Lyricist Barrett Strong decided to craft a topical song that tossed images and references at you so fast that once you figured out what one was about, the next one was already past. A key link between Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and R.E.M’s “It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” but you could dance to it.
Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, obligation to our nation
Ball of confusion
That’s what the world is today
Woo, hey, hey
As “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)” moved on, Whitfield piled the musical overload to match the lyrical overload, horns and harmonicas and keyboards and harmonies and traded-off vocals every which way, climaxing with Melvin Williams utterly devastating declaration of “and the band played on.”
Fear in the air, tension everywhere
Unemployment rising fast
The Beatles’ new record’s a gas
And the only safe place to live is on an Indian reservation
And the band played on
Eve of destruction, tax deduction
City inspectors, bill collectors
Mod clothes in demand, population out of hand
Suicide, too many bills
Hippies moving to the hills
People all over the world are shouting, “End the war”
And the band played on
Now whether or not the band played on because the band felt find about the end of the world or the band played on because one of the only ways to deal with your troubles is to dance all over them, because forgetting them for just those few moments is the only way you can go on is unclear. What is clear is that Williams utterly kills it, maybe the biggest hook on the song, even more than the harmonica-drenched stop-time before the second and third choruses, broken up by Dennis Edwards screaming “Great Googa Mooga / Can’t you hear me talking to you?”
The answer, of course, was, “fuck yeah, we can hear you talking to us,” as “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” became yet another utterly massive smash for the Temptations, peaking out at #3 on the U.S. pop charts and #2 on the R&B charts. It even fucked with the U.K charts, making it to #7, the first Temptations song to make it to the top ten since “Get Ready” a lifetime before.
“Ball of Confusion” was also a magnet for cover versions, with the first one being on the debut album on another Whitfield-produced group, The Undisputed Truth, who didn’t so much cover it as use a different mix of the entire original 11:46 backing track over which Whitfield stuck their vocals over. It’s both kinda weird and kinda cool.
It’s also been covered by artists as disparate as Love and Rockets, Tina Turner, Red Rockers and Anthrax, and remains not just one of the utter highlights of The Temptations career, but an absolute pop culture staple. Because it’s not like the world has gotten less confusing in half-century since.
“Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)”
“Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)” Live 1970
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