As I post this on the third of September, I realize how much I miss hearing the ads and trailers for the latest Spike Lee Joint (BlacKkKlansman) because they featured one of my all-time favorite psychedelic-soul songs — from the summer of 1970, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” with The Temptations.
I say “with The Temptations” because much of the glorious goodness in this pulsating, four-minutes-and-four-seconds masterpiece comes from the instrumentation provided by The Funk Brothers, the house band for Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. studio.
These musicians were always top-notch, and this recording is no exception. It featured Bob Babbitt’s memorably mesmerizing bassline, Pistol Allen’s drums, Jack Ashford’s percussion, Earl Van Dyke on clavinet, and Johnny Griffith on organ. Guitarist Dennis Coffey says he used an Echoplex and Vox Tone Bender on “Ball of Confusion” to get the unique sounds that enhance the track’s tension and delirium. [Note: Check out Motown’s 2003 Temptation’s release “Psychedelic Soul” for extended versions of their songs with the band’s outstanding musicianship.]
Speaking of tension, The Temptations vocals are a tense reminder of the divisions facing America in its new decade. And the lyrical litany of problems are punctuated with Melvin Franklin’s bass vocal “… and the band played on.” I consider this to be the classic era for The Temptations: Franklin with Dennis Edwards, Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams, and Paul Williams.
I bought the 45 rpm record (kids, go ask a grownup if you need a translation) as soon as it came out at a Hesteds in Omaha, Nebr., while shopping with my grandma (she always let me buy a 45 — they cost 39-cents at the time). In retrospect, I probably made my grandparents worry as I played the song over and over on their “hi-fi.”
“Ball of Confusion” was released on the Gordy label in May of 1970 and reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The song hit #2 on the U.S. R&B charts, and went to #7 as a single in the U.K.
The song seems as relevant today as it did 48 years ago. “The Sound of Young America” is still alive!
Barry Gordy always worried about damaging the wider audience, the crossover appeal, for The Temptations. The band was a commercial success with their love songs and relationship ballads. Gordy had refused to allow The Temptations to release their version of “War” as a single, and insisted that the single be recorded by Edwin Starr.
I think Gordy purposefully chose the B-side (“It’s Summer”) to temper and counterbalance the single’s vibe. “It’s Summer” is a ballad about the onset of summer and all of its joys. The song, which originally appeared on Psychedelic Shack (kicking off Side 2), features Melvin Franklin’s spoken prose.
BTW: I finally saw BlacKkKlansman. We are fortunate to have a filmmaker like Spike Lee. BlacKkKlansman is smart in its dialogue, intensely visual, and so very compelling.
Again: “The Sound of Young America” is still alive!