Extra: The Temptations – Ball of Confusion
The Funk Brothers didn’t know that “Ball of Confusion” would turn out to be a protest song. Bass Player, Bob Babbit told Mojo Magazine in 2009, “There was no song, just some musical ideas, some chord patterns, and part of a bass line he played us. Norman (Whitfield) knew what he wanted though, that it was going to be funky. He’d been listening to a lot of Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone, that’s the sound he wanted to make the Motown sound.”
When Whitfield and his writing partner, Barrett Strong, started working on the lyrics, the enduring themes of racism, war, a controversial president and drugs became motifs that still resonate to this day. “Ball of Confusion” was the first overt protest song to come out of the Motown machine. And it happened fast. Babbit remembers that the backing tracks were cut quickly, topping out at over eleven minutes in length. (You can hear it all on the Undisputed Truth’s cover.) When Whitfield brought in Dennis Edwards, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, and Otis Williams, the music had been paired down to four minutes and ten seconds.
And the words that each performer wielded were weapons. The subtext was an indictment of the chaos and confusion that seemed to be permeating out world.
The first Earth Day reminded us of the fragility of the planet in March. The Vietnam War expanded as the US invaded Cambodia in April. 12,000 demonstrators showed up to protest the trial of Bobby Seale, Ericka Huggins and New Haven Nine on May 1st.
When the Kent State shootings took place on May 4th, the day after the recording session, Berry Gordy realized what he had and rushed “Ball of Confusion” to market in four days. It peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Charts and became an anthem for the ages.
The covers that emerged later from the Neville Brothers and Tina Turner retain the anger and power of the original. Even Anthrax’s rendition is in the same key and tempo with John Bush & Joey Belladonna channeling Dennis Edwards visceral style.
Those of us who are old enough to remember, can hear echoes of “Ball of Confusion” in today’s news headlines. To many, it feels that although fifty years have passed since it’s release, little has changed and the forces of hate politics are trying to turn back the clock.
Music reflects the psyche of the times. In 1970, tunes like “United We Stand“, “Fire and Rain“, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother“, “O-o-h Child“, “War” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” joined “Ball of Confusion” on the year-end Hot 100. They were metaphors for the emotions we were wrestling with, the uncertainty we felt about the future and our anger with the injustice that was in evidence everywhere.
Five decades later, not much has changed.